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Physically challenged rowers compete for spot on national team

Athletes row despite disabilities

Pam LeBlanc
pleblanc@statesman.com
Pat Font, who lost his leg in a car accident, is determined to qualify for the Games.

They surge down Lady Bird Lake, a synchronized mass of rippling muscle and fierce expressions against slate blue water.

Reminders of the challenges they face — prosthetic legs and an attentive guide dog — stay on shore.

Out here, oars dipping and bodies pushing, they're athletes with a common goal: to make the U.S. National Team and row at the 2012 Paralympic Games in London.

Disabilities don't matter any more than the rain that's driving down, soaking them from head to toe.

For three days, rowers from around the country have convened at the Texas Rowing Center for a development camp co-sponsored by the U.S. Olympic Committee-Paralympic Division and United States Rowing. It's a chance for coaches who will make team selections in June to see who's out there.

Austin, with its mild climate and scenic river, is one of three centers in the United States for Paralympic rowing.

Diane McDiarmid , a former academic at the University of Kansas with a background in social work, started the adaptive program at Texas Rowing Center a year ago after noticing she never saw people with physical disabilities on the water. A rower herself, who once headed a program for homeless people with all types of mental and physical disabilities, she approached Matt Knifton, owner of the Texas Rowing Center, with a plan.

Today, the center's Row For All program teaches injured military veterans, students from the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired and Texas School for the Deaf, and others with physical challenges how to row. The participants don't have to pay to be in the program, which is funded through grants and donations.

"It provides people with the opportunity to find direction, work on their health and wellness. It really changes a person's identity from a disabled person to an athlete," McDiarmid says.

Knifton agrees.

"We're a parks and recreation concession, and one of our missions is to serve everybody in the community," he says. "Our goal is to be the most inclusive boat facility in the country."

In the adapted rowing program, it doesn't matter if you're missing an arm or leg or if you've got a head injury. Equipment is modified, goals are set, skills are learned.

This day, with National Paralympic coaches Karen Lewis and Pat Brown looking on, everyone wants to row their best.

Natalie McCarthy, 22, came all the way from Seattle for the camp. It's the third time she's tried for the team. As she powers down the river with eight other hopefuls, her guide dog Gazette waits patiently at the dock.

McCarthy lost her sight 12 years ago, during surgery to remove a brain tumor. She learned to row five years ago. "I had to learn in a very different way — through verbal direction as opposed to watching experienced rowers," she says. Early on, that was a disadvantage. Today, she says, it makes no difference.

What does matter is focusing on form and visualizing every second of a race.

A Spanish interpreter for a Washington law firm, McCarthy knows she must perfect her stroke in order to make the team. That means using her outside arm more when she pulls, keeping the oar's blade buried in the water longer and comfortably rowing 1,000 meters in 3 minutes and 45 seconds.

She's optimistic but not cocky.

Just getting invited to camp was an accomplishment. Each athlete had to figure out how to row, despite physical limitations. Each had to qualify based on how well they rowed on an ergometer, or erg, a land-based rowing machine.

"Rowing is all about balance, so being an amputee presents a challenge," McDiarmid says.

Kara Roth, 50, of Spring Branch, says it's simple. If you're missing a leg like she is, you have to make up for it through sheer strength. Roth severely injured her right leg in a horseback riding accident as a teenager. Six years ago, doctors attempted knee replacement surgery. It failed, and two years ago she had the limb amputated.

Today she works as a recreational assistant at the Center for Intrepid, a rehabilitation facility at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. She started rowing last year, and comes to Austin twice a month for training.

"It builds core strength I need for walking with a prosthetic," she says. She's hopeful of making the national team, too. "I'm on the older side, but I figure if there's a window of opportunity it's now, so here I am in the rain. Seize the opportunity!"

Pat Font, 28, of New Jersey, lost his leg below the knee in a car accident in 2005. The former high school athlete saw a flier about adaptive rowing at his doctor's office and signed up for a lesson. His biggest challenge? Limited range of motion in both legs.

"I thought, 'This is a chance for me to get back into competitive sports,' " he says.

He paid his way to Austin for the development camp, which was free for invited athletes, his hopes high for making the national team. "If I don't make the team, I'm going to work my hardest attempting to," he says.

The team, when chosen, will train in California and compete at the World Championships in New Zealand before focusing on the Paralympic Games in London in three years.

It won't be easy to get there.

The rain keeps coming. The rowers keep sweeping, water streaming down their backs and faces.

pleblanc@statesman.com; 445-3994