Against the Current
Imagine stepping off a dock onto a racing shell that’s 62 feet long, impossibly narrow and dancing like a bobber in the current.
Imagine settling into a seat on this most unstable of platforms, knowing that at any moment one ill-timed weight shift could send you headlong into the water.
Imagine listening to a cadence and rowing in unison with teammates, stroke after stroke propelling your boat forward toward the finish line.
Now imagine accomplishing each of those tasks while also dealing with a physical or visual disability.
Six local people did just that in June when they represented Richmond-based nonprofit Sportable for the first time in the Virginia Boat Club’s Sprints Regatta at Robious Landing Park.
“We all have the attitude that we’re athletes,” said Taylor Jones, 25, a Clover Hill High alumnus who competed in the eight-person boat alongside two other visually impaired men, Antoine Craig and Jim Whistant, and amputees Joe Sullivan, Geep Schurman and Keith Chantree.
“You can’t categorize us by our disability. You categorize us as athletes and that’s it.”
Sports have always been a huge part of Jones’ life. He excelled as a setter for Clover Hill’s powerhouse volleyball program, earned All- Metro honors as a senior and went on to play in college at George Mason University.
Last Christmas morning, Jones was critically injured in a single-car accident in Brandermill. He was rushed to VCU Medical Center, where he spent several weeks in intensive care with brain trauma and several broken bones in his face.
The accident left him visually impaired, but as he continued his recovery and went through rehabilitation, Jones was determined to find a sport that could accommodate his new reality.
“The physical nature of rowing is kind of daunting. I think that’s what drew me to it,” he said with a smile.
Sportable, founded in 2005 to “transform the lives of people with physical or visual disabilities through sport,” launched its adaptive rowing program four years later with just two participants.
This spring, 18 people participated in the on-water rowing portion of the program.
“Although many people may not think of rowing as a sport that someone with physical disabilities can do, our athletes, with great support from the Virginia Boat Club, have shown that supposed limitations can be overcome,” said Mark Willis, a member of Sportable’s board of directors.
Willis coached the eight-person rowing team through its preparations for the Sprints Regatta and also served as its coxswain.
While Jones got a late start in the program because he was still in the hospital, most of the team members began training on indoor rowing machines at Rocketts Landing, the residential development and marina in Richmond, in February.
“The first day we had to do 1,000 meters, and I felt like I was going to die,” said Joe Sullivan, a Chesterfield resident who lost the lower half of his left leg to cancer as an infant. “Then we got on the water and I really liked it.”
Like Jones, Sullivan’s primary athletic passion is volleyball. He traveled the world with the U.S. Paralympic volleyball team, won a gold medal at the 1998 Paralympics, then transitioned into coaching and led Douglas Freeman’s girls volleyball team to a state title in 2005. He currently coaches the girls team at James River.
Schurman and Chantree credited Sullivan, co-owner of a Richmond-based orthotics and prosthetics company, for equipping them with prosthetic legs that are sturdy but light enough to allow them to maintain active lifestyles.
All three men’s prosthetics were put to the test when their Sportable team was cleared to train on water for the first time in May.
“Rowing is the easy part,” Sullivan said. “It’s getting the boat into the water that’s the real workout.”
Aided by Sportable volunteers, the amputees had to carry their 62-foot composite shell from Rocketts Landing and descend several rocky steps in order to launch it in the James River for their weekly workouts.
Other volunteers helped Jones, Craig and Whistant navigate their way to the water’s edge.
Putting the shell in the water was just the first step. With so many novice rowers, even boarding the craft without capsizing was an adventure for the first few weeks.
“I hadn’t done any sports since high school, so I really wasn’t sure what to expect,” Chantree said.
Once they mastered balancing the shell, team members had to learn how to row in unison. It’s a difficult technique to master under optimal conditions, never mind when half of the six rowers can’t see their oars hit the water.
“I don’t see how they kept the cadence,” Schurman said.
“Lots of listening,” replied Jones, grinning from ear-to-ear.
Aside from the obvious physical challenges, the Sportable team was at a disadvantage during the regatta because it only had six rowers, while the other two groups each had eight.
Instead of rowing, volunteers Ali Thomas and Jamie Massey sat in the rear two seats and kept their oars in the water as outriggers to help keep the shell balanced.
“We’re not ready to have all eight rowing at this point,” Sullivan acknowledged.
As a result, the Sportable boat placed third out of three teams in its race. On this day, however, success was measured not in ticks of the clock but in the amount of effort it took six disabled athletes to reach the finish line.
“You just want to feel normal,” Schurman said, explaining why he felt compelled to take on such a challenge. The Sportable team, however, is anything but.