Para Rowing Innovator Mark McAndrew is the 2016 Isabel Bohn Recipient
By Beth Kohl • September 8, 2016
RIO de JANEIRO, Brazil – Mark McAndrew stood at the recovery ramp looking out at the athletes practicing on the Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas Paralympic rowing racecourse in Rio de Janeiro.
Racing is one day away, and as an innovator of para rowing equipment and a Concept2 representative, McAndrew is deeply involved in making sure that every athlete that needs his help gets it, like U.S. arms and shoulders single sculler Blake Haxton (Columbus, Ohio). Haxton got to Rio and needed a different set of oars.
“I basically built them for him here,” McAndrew said.
That might have been a huge project for someone unfamiliar with the individual needs of Paralympic rowers. But not for McAndrew, who has been working in the sport for two decades as an innovator, motivator and all around mover and shaker and whose contributions to adaptive rowing have earned him the 2016 USRowing Isabel Bohn Award.
Introduced in 2011, the award is given to honor a member of the rowing community in the United States who has demonstrated achievement in adaptive rowing. McAndrew will be honored at the 2016 Golden Oars Awards Dinner, Thursday, Nov. 17, 2016 at the New York Athletic Club in New York City.
“I was quite honored and quite surprised,” McAndrew said of receiving the award. “I guess you don’t think about things like that. It’s part of my work, and I guess I just don’t focus on that part of it.”
And that is understandable, given the amount of work he does to promote the sport and service its athletes.
“There is no one more deserving of this award,” said Tom Darling, USRowing Director of Para Rowing. “Mark is critical to the whole adaptive rowing scene in the U.S. He’s designed adaptive seats. He makes designs for the boats – he’s always thinking about equipment and what we could use. He is totally deserving of this award.”
McAndrew got his introduction to Para rowing nearly 20 years ago while he was running an outrigger canoe race on Lake Champlain in Vermont. An adaptive coach who wanted to enter a team contacted him.
“She wanted to bring two adaptive boats, and as the race director having more entries is always a good thing,” he said. “So I said sure, bring them. Then I asked, ‘What’s an adaptive team?’ And so, that was my first experience.
“We had to get wheelchairs. We had to get special material to put down on the beach. We had to lift people into the boats and set the boats up. It was my first experience ever with adaptive. They came back for the next seven years to race. Then, as adaptive calls came into Concept2, they were funneled to me, and that’s how it got started for me.”
McAndrew’s involvement and passion deepened, and he was soon leading efforts to introduce rowing on indoor machines to military veterans across the country. He ran camps and worked with more than 200 veterans a year.
As war in the Middle East went on, the need for help for recovering veterans grew, which was followed by government funding. McAndrew made a push to have a Para rowing category added to the C.R.A.S.H. – B Sprints World Indoor Rowing Championships in Boston.
After a year of planning and help from the event organizers, para rowing events were added to the schedule, and it has expanded ever since, drawing competitors from around the world and letting the world see what Para rowing athletes are capable of.
“As an able-bodied athlete, if you see an adaptive event, it’s hard not to be captured by it,” he said. “And everybody was. That was global leader. Within a decade, we had lots of global athletes trying to get into C.R.A.S.H. – Bs. And we still do. Poland comes almost every year, Brazil comes, the U.K., Slovakia, Australia. And so those folks are eager to come race ergs in Boston.”
As the athletes get prepared to race in Rio, McAndrew is busying taking care of equipment and hoping to continue to bring innovation and change to the sport. He believes there is a need to continue exploring ways to make disability classifications clearer and to improve the equipment being raced.
“I have ambivalent feelings about it,” he said. “It’s great to see the progress that’s been made, but once you become intimate with it, you realize the deficits. The technology is there, but it’s not been applied to benefit the athletes.
“The challenges are monumental because almost every athlete has their own needs, and so the innovators are challenged.”
Information on the Golden Oars Awards Dinner, ticket information and sponsorship opportunities may be found at http://www.501auctions.com/GoldenOars2016.