Military Vets Connect on Waters of Mission Bay
By Dan Brauchli • April 9, 2019
San Diego, Calif. – Celebrating the fifth anniversary of the “Freedom Race” at the San Diego Crew Classic, over forty military veterans raced on Mission Bay this past weekend. In what was a highlight for competitors and spectators alike, the “Freedom Race” was run in different fashion this year. With an increase in popularity and number of programs sending their athletes, three flights of races were run down the course. From mixed fours with coxswains to inclusion doubles, veterans from across the country had the opportunity to race in the boats they practice in year round, rather than in mixed lineup eights like in years past.
Freedom Rows is a program offered by USRowing to promote opportunities for rowing to disabled military veterans and members of the armed forces. The program aims to increase the number of disabled veterans participating and competing in adaptive and para-rowing categories while providing expert training and technical assistance to VA adaptive sports program managers, community rowing coaches, instructors and VA recreational therapists. Additionally, it aims to provide outreach coordination, Paralympic classification of athletes, FISA-certified training of classifiers, adaptive rowing program development, adaptive rowing equipment, evaluation and other activities related to the implementation and operation of the program.
From recreational rowing at VA sports facilities and local clubs to competing in the Paralympics, the sport of rowing continues to provide a powerful bridge between military veterans and their communities, helping to reintegrate athletes to their communities and civilian lives.
Among the participants in the 2019 Freedom Race was Anthony “Tony” Davis, a retired Naval Officer and rescue swimmer for the United States Navy. With five years of service and over 150 hours of combat flight time, Davis was fighting at war for the United States for over 18 months. While stateside in 2005, a life-altering car crash forever changed his life, leaving him in the hospital with the news that he was paralyzed from the waist down and might never walk again.
Come 2009, through his own perseverance, hard work and dedication, Davis was working out on an ergometer and later progressed to on-the-water rowing at a Paralympic camp in Fort Lewis, Washington. There, he was introduced to swimming and sit-down volleyball as well.
“When I got back out on that water, it felt like I was flying again,” Davis told USRowing. “It was the closest thing I’d ever experienced to being back up there in a helicopter. Rowing was the thing that helped me get my mental state back, helped me physically get more control of my body and get things back on track. I know that it saved my life and I believe it can do the same for others.”
Continuing his training, Davis made the 2011 U.S. National Team and raced to a ninth place finish at the 2011 World Rowing Championships. After a hiatus from rowing for a few years, he returned to rowing in 2016 and continues to look to Freedom Rows as a way to reconnect with his military family.
“Freedom Rows is a huge deal,” said Davis. “Being a disabled war veteran, I know we’re having a problem right now with others coming back from war and struggling mentally. Whether it’s rowing on the erg or on the water, bringing these people together is completely life altering. You get two veterans together and, to me, that’s calming for us. While at war, you create this family, but when you get home, they’re gone, spread throughout the country. You don’t get to see your friends. So, to be able to find a group that gives me another way to connect with this ‘family,’ it’s hard to put to words how much that means.”