Finding resilience: Para rowers upend notions of ability

Community Rowing Inc. is a large public-access boathouse located in Brighton, Massachusetts. It also has an excellent, competitive para rowing program. CRI hosts the Paralympics National Training Camp.

Pearl Outlaw, who lost her vision in childhood, row at CRI.

Why This

Was Written

Resilience is built on courage, perseverance, and patience. Para rowers’ success is dependent on many other factors.

Leading up to that, her coach at Ithaca College pushed her to use all her abilities, moving her from the stern, where she could employ her strength but faced no one, to the bow where she could learn to hear the boat.

” Soon I was able to hear everything, including the clicking of the oarlocks, blades striking the water, wheels on the seats, sound of the boat’s squaring and feathering, as well as the click of the oarlock. The feeling that everyone is moving in front of me, how it feels under your feet, the weight of the boat and the way the boat picks up, all of this can be felt if you practice. If you practice, you can just feel how everyone is moving.”

“There are always those who look at you like your disability is the entire definition of what you are capable of,” she continues. People stop to listen .”

when you say, “I’m on Para National Team” or “I do competitive rowing.”


“Cut the cake, then power 10s to Boston Latin, then we’ll do 3x3s!”

This is the pre-dawn reveille of the Charles River: coded commands shouted at scullers through megaphones by coaches steering miniature sleigh-like motorboats, or peppered with expletives from the microphones of coxswains deep in sweep boats.

Boston is proud of its famous rowers. These masters of balance and strength skim the river from spring thaw until the hectic boat traffic of fall that precedes the Head of the Charles, when nearly 2,000 boats race a notoriously winding 3-mile course.

Why This

Was Written

Resilience is built on courage, perseverance, and patience. Para rowers’ success is dependent on many other factors.

Few people are aware of the fact that para rowers may use a prosthesis or wheelchair to help them move on the ground. Para rowers are less burdened by society’s assumptions regarding disabilities, and have to deal with fewer daily challenges. Para rowers can concentrate on their resilience and compete in a highly competitive sport which requires explosive power as well endurance. Their performance on the water is a result of a similar mix of strength and determination – which has been tested over years by facing challenges and persevering. This keeps them all striving for personal bests.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

Para rower Pearl Outlaw (left) holds onto Johanna Beyer as they head down the ramp to the dock for training on the river on Sept. 28, 2021, in Brighton, Massachusetts. Ms. Beyer row for the Austrian para-team. In addition to rowing for CRI, Ms. Outlaw plans to pursue a Master’s Degree in Sports Psychology online at Ithaca College.

Community Rowing Inc. in Brighton, a neighborhood in Boston, is the largest public-access boathouse in the country and has a highly resourced, competitive para rowing program. For those who want to be on the national team, the training includes both a development and a High Performance Group (HPG). CRI hosts the Paralympics National Training Camp.

Nationals, and Worlds are two major competitions that elite rowers must face in order to qualify for the Olympics. It’s similar for elite rowers aiming for the Paralympics, but besides their ability level, these rowers must also prove they belong in one of several classifications of disability. A rower’s typical sequence of “arms and body, legs” is a way to move into position for a stroke.

James Bond uses Q. CRI employs Tom West who is both an engineer and a coach. He can modify foot plates and seat shapes, as well as oar grips. Additionally, he makes rowing boats and ergometers more efficient for athletes. His inventions and modifications allow rowers to develop their natural strengths despite physical limitations.

Many coaches say, “If rowing hurts, you know you’re doing it right!” But Mr. West points out that “a lot of para athletes are used to being in pain from the equipment not working for them.”

Then he grins, adding, “I want them to be in the right kind of pain.”

Mr. West works closely with Para HPG Coach Beth Noll, who is also a neuroscientist. He’s boats. She says, “I’m bodies.”

Their athletes have the opportunity to receive personalized attention from a variety of coaches, physical therapists and sports psychologists for a mind-body approach to training.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

Para rower Jen Fitz-Roy chats with Coach Tom West before a training session on the river on Sept. 28, 2021, in Brighton, Massachusetts. Para athletes often require a more special set-up. Mr. West outfits boats as well.

A new challenge

Jennifer Fitz-Roy is one of CRI’s elite-level athletes in the HPG. After a series of operations, she now rows using her trunk and arms only. To balance her legs, she transfers from a chair to the boat and wears footplates made by Mr. West.

Ms. Fitz Roy grew up in the trees of New Jersey’s small towns. She was supported by her grandparents and parents, who drove her for three hours to Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Hospital. Jennifer, a teenager, felt out of place because she was in a wheelchair and that her family had to fight for the school’s compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Eventually the school installed an elevator that enabled her to go between floors without having to wait for a mandated escort, exit the building, and wheel up a steep hill. She was also lifted up by it. She says .

Ms. “All [my parents’] actions have demonstrated to me my worth and that I deserve equal access.” Fitz-Roy lost her father before she was able to graduate high school. Fitz-Roy went on to Boston College and braved speaking at conferences and traveling. She also explored adaptive sports. She says, “This was very out of my comfort area and required a lot creative adaptation.” “But you know, I got addicted to that feeling.”

Finding balance

When Ms. Fitz-Roy found CRI, she realized rowing was a sport she could participate in regularly, not just on weekends. In winter she joined the program, and used an ergometer as her training platform. Shortly after she joined the program, she was awarded the first place in her category at the largest indoor rowing event in America. It felt amazing.

Rowing in the water was a challenge. Although she was very strong, it proved difficult to find her balance. She was a novice athlete and mentally unprepared for such a level of discomfort and difficulty. So she quit.

Around this time, Ms. FitzRoy had a surgery that left her in constant pain and made her dependent on prescription painkillers. Her mom then died while she was home visiting her mother.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

Para rower Jen Fitz-Roy sits in the boathouse after training on Sept. 28, 2021, in Brighton, Massachusetts. Fitz-Roy was named the Para and Military Program Manager at CRI in fall.

Ms. Fitz Roy began to fall. Her addiction to confronting the unknown gave way to a need to escape from the pain and despair.

It took a few years, but Ms. Fitz-Roy came up for air – and managed the daunting double-challenge of finding wheelchair-accessible treatment programs and detoxing.

” I was talking with a counselor and thought back to the last time that I felt connected, empowered and happy. That’s how I came back to CRI,” she explains.

Ms. Fitz-Roy quickly got back on her feet and was quickly able to row so well, she was asked to join the HPG. Fitz-Roy started with helpive pontoons and imposter syndrome. There are not many stepping stones competitions that can prepare para rowers to handle the stresses of national team trials. Yet in 2019, even though she knew she was unlikely to win, Ms. Fitz-Roy needed the experience. Her loss was more than one minute.

” These are the ones you make,” Ellen Mizner (USRowing’s paralympic high-performance director), says. While para rowers are able to deal with disability, she points out they must still be tough as athletes. You have to view a large loss as information. You don’t know how far you’re from the standard if you sit on your couch. You can start to know what you are capable of doing.

Ms. Fitz Roy made some changes and rowed in more regattas. She was also invited to training camps.

The pandemic disrupted her progress and caused stress. Athletes in training were often forced to wait and see if major events are cancelled or changed.

After being isolated, she lost her grandmother and had to cancel her plans for training abroad. Ms. FitzRoy also faced another mental crisis. Although she fell severely, it was temporary. Her rowing family provided strong support to her recovery.

“Rowing saved my life,” said Ms. Noll (HPG coach). She wanted this so badly that she made the necessary changes to be able to row .”


Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

Beth Noll, lead coach for the Para High Performance Group at CRI, gives pointers to her para rowers on Sept. 28, 2021, in Brighton, Massachusetts.

In 2021, Ms. Fitz-Roy rowed in the same race she had lost two years earlier, facing the same competitor. She was ahead until the last 150 meters, the spectators holding their breath watching the boats race bow-ball to bow-ball. By a mere second-and-a half, she lost. According to Ms. Noll, this race is the “single greatest para race in America, ever.”

This fall Ms. FitzRoy was appointed the para- and military program manager for CRI.

Learning to listen

Pearl Outlaw is a fellow rower in the HPG whose identity and resilience as an athlete came earlier, but whose identity as a person with a disability developed over many years. When she was told at 9 years old that she was going to go progressively blind, for her it just meant her doctor’s appointments got filled with super boring conversations.

Ms. Outlaw was born in Virginia. Outlaw grew up in Virginia. She pretended that she did not have any problems.

As her vision began to deteriorate throughout middle school and high school, many experiences such as losing her way inside a cave, not being able to navigate school dances or running difficult-to-discern trail in cross-country relays alerted her.

“After falling down stairs three or four times at school, she had to learn how to use a cane. It was like I had a sandwich board on my face that stated, “Look at myself, I am blind A teacher suggested learning how to row in a boathouse. Ms. Ms. Outlaw found herself intrigued and began to get up early in the morning to study. She managed to get on a high school team, but not her own, where she was able to practice. She eventually joined the Ithaca College crew team. Their warm welcome made it easy for her to adjust to a new place with people she could trust.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

Decals for the U.S. Paralympic team and the CRI training center are displayed on para rower Jen Fitz-Roy’s boat on Sept. 28, 2021, in Brighton, Massachusetts.

At Ithaca Ms. Ms. Outlaw used a headlamp in order to see her opponent, while ridges were placed around the dock’s edges. Although she was already an experienced rower, her coach encouraged her to push her limits. She moved from the stern where she could use her strength, but she faced no one to the bow, where she learned to hear the boat.

” Soon I was able to hear everything. The click of the oarlocks, blades striking the water, wheels on the seats, sound of the blades coming out and feathering. The overall rhythm was what I could hear. You can feel how the boat is moving under your feet, the weight of it, the way it picks up, and the sensation of everyone feeling in front of you. If you practice, you can just feel how everyone is moving.”

She began rowing at CRI in the summer, invited by Ms. Mizner, from USRowing, to join the development program for the Para National Team. Ms. Ms. Outlaw was also able to experience the unique bonding with para-rowers of elite level that summer.

New skills, abilities, and accolades

By her junior year, Ms. Outlaw’s vision began to decline so quickly that it was difficult to maintain school and learn to use assistive technologies. The Carroll Center for the Blind, Newton, Massachusetts was her temporary home while she attended college.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

Para rower Pearl Outlaw greets her guide dog, Cinder, after early morning training with a new partner, Brooke Moss (right), on Sept. 28, 2021, in Brighton, Massachusetts. While Ms. Trains of outlaws.

There was Ms. Ms. Outlaw was a specialist in non-visual learning. She went to counseling and learned basic tech and living skills. Woodworking was one of her favourite classes. (“I got to use a power saw!” she exclaims.)

Ms. Outlaw lives now in Massachusetts and is currently rowing at CRI. She also pursues a Master’s Degree in Sports Psychology online from Ithaca College. Her rowing achievements have also been recognized. She carries her boat’s stern to practice with just one hand and rides on the back of a HPG member. Cinder, her guide dog, is a passenger in coach’s boat .

Ms. Outlaw drew on both her athletic resilience and her years of trusting others during the 2019 World Championships. Her partner lost his slide in the boat mid-race. He couldn’t explain the sudden wobbling of their boat because they had been rowing hard. He was calm and she remained composed as they resettled. They won the bronze medal.

Since learning how to live with sight loss, Ms. Outlaw elaborates. Outlaw explains. People stop to take you seriously when you say, “I am on the Para National Team” or “I do competitive rowing.”

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