3-on-3: Paralympic Edition!

In 3-on-3, our experts answer three questions and offer unique insights, which have helped them and others along the way. This month, we talked to Patrick Kington (2016 Paralympic arms and shoulders men’s single sculls coach), Jacqui Kapinowski (2016 U.S. Paralympic arms and shoulders women’s single sculler) and Tom Darling (USRowing Director of Para Rowing) about misconceptions in Para rowing and who to watch Sept. 9-11 at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

1) What is the most common misconception about adaptive rowing?

Patrick Kington: “I think the biggest misconception I encounter is that adaptive rowing is significantly different from able-bodied rowing. Fundamentally, the same physics govern the movement and speed of the boat in all forms of rowing. For this reason, the same principles regarding the rigging of the boat and the technical aspects of the stroke can be applied as in able-bodied rowing. The similarities carry over into training as well.

The basic physiology governing how an athlete can build strength and develop an aerobic engine still holds. These factors combine to create the same conditions in adaptive rowing that make any kind of rowing an exciting competition and worthwhile pursuit. The strongest, fittest, most technically sound athlete will win the race, and it’s not until race day that we truly discover which athlete that is.”

Jacqui Kapinowski: “The athletes are actually using smaller muscle groups to row, especially the arms and shoulders rowers. The athlete is constricted with two straps, one strap that goes under and around your chest and the other right above your knees (except for amputees). Arms and shoulders rowers use their lats, shoulders and by extending arms, whereas mainstream rowing is using a larger muscle group including the lower extremities. The physics of mainstream rowing and adaptive rowing are the same though.”

Tom Darling: “The most common misconceptions about adaptive rowing is that it’s dangerous, that the athletes need a lot of help, and they need specialized equipment. Arms and shoulders (AS) and trunk and arms (TA) athletes are strapped to their fixed seats, but after a few lessons are no more apt to flip than athletes with fully functioning torso or legs. If they do flip on the water, the ability to release the strapping and free them from the boat is an important maneuver that should be practiced no more than with an athlete without an impairment.

When I first started working in adaptive rowing, we thought a lift would be necessary. We eventually asked the athletes, and most said that the only thing they might need is a two-foot-high box to transfer them from the chair to the dock. Most adaptive athletes don’t even need that. The only problem area we have not solved for the individual adaptive athlete is carrying the boat from the boathouse to the dock without assistance. As the boats get lighter and easier to carry, I believe that will change.

With regard to the equipment, the only differences are the need for fixed seats, shorter length oars for better leverage, and pontoons for better stability when learning to be an adaptive rower. Technology in boat design is changing rapidly and the participation in adaptive sports is as well. Adaptive rowers are strong, fit individuals who are no more prone to danger, or in need of assistance, than any other athlete.”

2) Adaptive rowing requires specialized equipment, constantly being modified depending on how the athlete is classified. What tool is always in your pocket, and what advice do you have to keep your equipment in shape? 

Darling: “Every coach and adaptive athlete should have a bag of rigging tools that includes pitch meters, electricians tape, ratchet set, a set Allen wrenches and an adjustable wrench. The one tool I make sure I have is extra strapping to support the torso and hold down the legs when working with AS and TA rowers. These athletes are so strong, that the straps are under a lot of pressure and may need to be reinforced from time to time. Fixed seat design is an area that will help make rowing more comfortable for the AS and TA rower in the future.”

Kapinowski: “My husband carries the bag with all the tools needed. Before going out on water, he makes sure that everything is tightened. I don’t know if tape or tie wraps are really considered tools, but those two things are always on the launch. (The tool I always carry is my lip-gloss!) As far as taking care of your equipment, we just wash the boat after every practice. Approximately every six weeks, we happen to row in salt water, and on those occasions we use Salt Away to prevent rust and corrosion.

Kington: “The actual answer is that an adaptive coach needs all of the tools they can carry, but if I had to choose one, I suppose my answer would be duct tape. Each adaptive athlete has different levels of mobility and impairment. This means that mass-produced equipment will usually require a fair amount of modification in order to optimize it for each athlete. As our team has learned over the previous few years, this can cause equipment issues to arise at inopportune times, but a large roll of duct tape can be a lifesaver when dealing with last-minute equipment emergencies.”

3) What will rowing fans have to look forward to at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro this week?

Darling: “Great racing! Last year at the World Championships, there were over 20 entries in the AS men’s competition, 15 in the AS women’s, 12 in the TA mixed double sculls, and 17 in the legs, trunk, and arms four with coxswain (LTA4+). Our AS rowers, Blake Haxton and Jacqui Kapinowski, are training hard and getting faster every day. Blake broke a rib in his heat at last year’s world championships and still managed a fifth-place finish in the final. Jacqui finished eighth last year, which qualified the boat for Rio this year, and she has been working hard and getting faster as well. Our LTA 4+ has won a silver medal the last two years. They are anxious to make up that narrow deficit and get to the top of the Paralympic podium. There will be some amazing athletes from the other countries as well; from wounded vets, to pro athletes, and many amazing stories of survival, sacrifice, and determination. The Paralympic Games should not be missed.”

Kington: “American viewers will want to pay special attention to the legs, trunk, and arms mixed four. The 2015 World Rowing Championships saw the United States and Great Britain well out in front of the field, with Great Britain beating out the USA by 0.3 seconds. The American boat has been very young in recent years, and they’ll be looking to show they’ve improved enough to take the gold this year. Another exciting race will take place in the arms and shoulders men’s single sculls. This field contains several athletes, including American Blake Haxton, that have international results demonstrating they are in medal contention. The large number of athletes gunning for medals in this event should provide some of the tightest finishing margins of the regatta and plenty of excitement.”

Kapinowski: “Everyone watching will surely look forward to all the elite athletes from around the world competing at the 2016 Paralympic Games. Viewers will definitely be watching the LTA4+ row to the podium. I will be aiming to race in the A final to compete for a medal, and Blake Haxton will be in medal contention too. Team USA has strong boats going into the 2016 Paralympic Games. That, right there, is something to look forward to.”

For complete event details, go to the event page on World Rowing.

Written by Jules Zane

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