by Samantha Walsh
I would like to thank Fit is a Feminist Issue and specifically Samantha (who shares my name) for the opportunity to write a guest blog post. Over the past two years I have been looking for, and thus experimenting with, new sports and new challenges. The impetus for finding new fitness activities was a neck injury that changed the way I have to participate in sport and activity.
A little bit about me
To begin a little info about myself: I am 33, I am doctoral candidate in Sociology at the University of Toronto. I have held positions in both non-for-profit as well as post secondary institutions. I identify as a feminist and have an interest in social justice work. I also have a condition called cerebral palsy which effects my coordination and ability to walk. I use a wheelchair to get around. Much of my research and written work focuses on the social position of disability as it relates to class position and intersections of identity. This blog post will venture in a new direct as a personal reflection on shifting your paradigm and identity. I hurt my neck two years ago, and had to give up many of the activities I really liked, for a time. I have been cleared to go back to most of them but, still really struggle to get back to the level of fitness I once had. It was the pursuit of new activities that brought me to rowing; and rowing which shifted the way I think about my own situation.
Row Row Row your Boat But, Wait There’s More
I took a “Learn to Row” from the Argonauts Rowing club in Toronto last year (2015). A “learn to row “is a beginner program where you literally learn to row; I was introduced to some of the rowing lexicon. I was taught how to row with the most efficient form. During this time I had the opportunity to row a single. I was also taught about the different adaptations that can be made to a boat to support a disabled rower. For example: A fixed seat so the rower is using their torso and arms, if they do not have coordination of their legs. In competitive adapted rowing it is my understanding that rowers are classified based on their ability and then their times are compared.
It was also at this time, I learned the beloved childhood song “Row row row your boat”, is delightfully inaccurate, as it should likely include the phrase “Legs, back, arms” or “Oh my hamstrings”. Rowing was a full body workout and unexpectedly profoundly challenging. I had befriended some varsity rowers during my undergraduate studies and had always thought the sport was neat. I had wanted to try but, really struggled to find a rowing club that would accommodate the fact I have cerebral palsy and cannot walk. I had shelved the interest until a neck injury, mentioned above, made it difficult for me to participate in my usual fitness activities. I was looking for something: that was a full body workout; that was social; not a team sport; could be done recreationally and able to be adapted.
Finding a New Sport Not So Easy When You Have a Disability
I started googling…An ongoing challenge I find as a disabled person whom is interested in their own fitness and recreation but, not interested in competition or team sports, is that I really struggle to find opportunities that provide: a challenging and comprehensive workout with a social component. I find it is difficult for me to simply enroll in a sport ’n social league or other recreational things because, they often assume the participant will be able-bodied. The able body is almost compulsory for joining any sort of recreational sport. For example: I have able bodied friends who are learning how to curl. This seems like a great winter sport. It’s a fun game with the tradition of a beer after. I know there is Wheelchair Curling. I have seen it on TV. However, I cannot find a league near me which supports wheelchair curling, so I do not curl.
I find often when I do find mainstream activities that welcome me and are reflexive to adaptation it is through a friend, a fitness instructor or coach who is excited to have different bodies in their class. I still find that the most common refrain for finding adapted sport is to rely on a team based program such as wheelchair basketball or a rehabilitation initiative. Moreover, adaptive sports equipment is often double or triple what an “able bodied” athlete would pay. For example: Running shoes versus the cost of a Racing Wheelchair. I long to be able to join beer leagues, workplace softball teams and drop in yoga classes. I am at a point in my life where my leisure time is limited. I am not interested in the lonely pursuits of excellene or segregated sports (these of course have their place). This is why, I was impressed to see the Argonauts advertised an adapted learn to row on their website. I was able to join for a fee and with very little self disclosure of my disability. While rowing is a sport which typically favors those of higher socio-economic status it was a pleasant surprise to find out that the club had an open-door policy in regards to ability. However, I do recognize that it is my own privilege of being employed and having a disposable income that made my adventure in rowing possible.
You Are Only New Once…Or In The case of Rowing You Are New For Almost Two Years….
As mentioned above, I took a “learn to row” in 2015 and then returned for a second year of rowing in an adaptive program in 2016. I was really focused on rowing as a way to get a full body work out. I chose to row a single with a sliding seat that was comparable to an able bodied rower. The single had pontoons on it as almost a training wheel system while, I learned to balance. At the end of the 2015 season, I met another rower, Bill (who was an single leg amputee) at an end of season party. He offered to row a double with me. In 2016, I practiced rowing both a double and a single. While I had really enjoyed rowing a single; I liked the coaching I was receiving and really appreciated the solitude that rowing a single occasionally brought (other times it was a lot of trying not to row into things). Rowing a double was a bit of a game changer for me.
The Little Voice in the Back of your head, Or If You Row the Person Speaking To the Back of Your Head
I had been very happy rowing a single. The coaching style of the rowing club was one of positive feedback and constant things to build on. I felt like there was an assumed mutual respect. I was not in a subordinate position but, rather someone happy to learn from another person whom was happy to teach. This coaching style was in part why I looked forward to rowing, it was a happy add on to the beautiful scenery and comprehensive workout. Rowing a single though had not yielded me very many social opportunities. I did not know very many of the other rowers and often only spoke with my only my coach on the dock. Additionally, early on I had told the club I was not interested in racing or competitive rowing. That I would be rowing just to get back into shape. Pleasantly, everyone seemed to respect this. To be fair though a novice rower does not usually compete.
The first night I rowed a double with Bill he made a point to introduce me to everyone he knew on the dock. Each person we encountered he would have a little story for. He would always introduce me with a little quip about losing a bet and having to row with him; or some interesting fact about me. I met a lot of different people very quickly. In the boat Bill sat behind me doing a lot of the balancing and steering. He gave me feedback on my rowing. He told me I was fast. He said I was always improving. Bill would go out in any kind of weather. Every time, I said the weather was bad, he would say something about the perfect day never comes. Often, I went with him on whatever adventure course he was set for. He introduced me to more people. He talked to the coordinator and coaches about my progress. He told me I should race. An interesting nuance or at least how I understood it. The idea of racing was not to seize elite status but, to race for myself. Race as a challenge; a way to get more involved in the club; a way to meet more people. Everyone around me was receptive to this idea. I started to work on race starts, and being able to row racing distances.
The regatta Bill and I enter was a recreational one hosted by our club. The water was awful that day. It was windy and choppy. At one point a coach remarked we would likely not be in the water but, it was a regatta. But, remember, if you wait for the perfect day you will never go rowing. We rowed. It was too choppy to do a race start. The only goal was to make it to the end and not flip the boat. Just keep rowing! We made it to the finish line. There was apparently an issue, our time was lost. I am pretty sure we lost. I was not really focusing on other boats just my boat and moving to the finish line. When we got off the water there was a reception with social to follow. I rowed a race, I met some new people and I left feeling better than I had in a long time.
Changing the Tide: Rowing as a metaphor for life
As someone who studies the workings of societies and social dynamics it is hard for me to believe that an individual’s success is not the collective sum of their social position and the resources they have access too. I understand concepts of “positive thinking” or that individuals have total control over their destiny to be deeply flawed mired with classism and an erasure of systemic oppression. While I maintain these assertions to be true; acknowledging that even the opportunity to both try, and then continue rowing is made possible through a complex network of my own privilege and resources. I am forever, grateful that the opportunity to row and to race with Bill has reminded me: not to limit myself through my own expectations. Not to wait for the perfect day to try something and despite the choppy water and the ups and downs to keep rowing best you can; even if you are scared, even if you have to stop for a time. Rowing reminded me of my own resilience and ability to change courses even when the water is rough. I am forever grateful to the great coaching staff and my doubles partner.