Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Starting out - rowing

NB - please note that, owing to new rules currently being pushed through, some of this information is now a bit out of date. I'll update it when I know what the new rules are, but it's still mostly correct.

My aim in this entry is to describe the process of becoming classified as an adaptive rower - from the 'I wouldn't mind trying rowing' stage to the 'I'm ready to compete - classify me please!' stage. When I was hoping to be classified, there wasn't really any source with information about the process other than the information provided by British Rowing. Hopefully here I can answer the questions that I had, and answer any that other new adaptive rowers may be thinking of. However, I am by no means an authority on this topic - I'm merely recounting my own experiences. Please bear in mind that if you have a specific question, the best place to take it is to British Rowing. There are contact details on the website (see link below) and very friendly people at the other end!

Click here for more information on para-rowing from British Rowing.

NB: you will see a few terms which seem to be describing the same thing: 'para-rowing', 'adaptive rowing' and 'Rowability'. They are essentially interchangeable. 'Para-rowing' is a useful way of describing your sporting activities to people who aren't involved in rowing, and who aren't aware of the term 'adaptive'. 'Adaptive' just means that the equipment (and sometimes technique) is adapted to the athlete according to disability - so in a way, that's quite a good word to use in a club to remind people that sometimes you will need some changes to be made. 'Rowability' is the name of a national adaptive rowing initiative run by British Rowing (BR).

How Bendy Rower got involved...

I started out at my college club, initially training as a cox. The cox (or coxswain) is the person who sits in boats such as 8s (with 8 rowers) and coxed 4s (with 4 rowers), steering the boat and telling the rowers what to do. It's a fantastic way to be involved in the sport, and brings easily as many technical challenges as rowing itself. As I got better at coxing I did feel that I was making a positive difference to my crews, and I loved learning how to steer imperceptibly (almost!), and how to work with tides, stream and wind conditions.
However, it was quite cold a lot of the time, and I always felt that something was missing - I wanted to be the one powering the boat, the one experiencing that strange combination of the mechanical action, the interaction with nature, and the musical flow of the stroke and the boat's movement through the water. In particular, I really liked sculling (where you row with two oars, or 'blades', one in each hand) as opposed to sweep (where you have one oar that you hold with both hands): it had a symmetry which I loved, and the freedom of being in a single and being completely responsible for the way the boat moved was exhilarating.

I did a bit of rowing, but was always held back by my silly joints and my diminutive stature! I kept on coxing the men's eights, which was a lot of fun, but after four and a half years of coxing I felt ready for a new challenge: I wanted to win things in my own right; I wanted the freedom to explore the river alone; I craved the maneuverability of singles; I felt I wanted to learn new skills.

And, I wanted to be allowed to eat more.

Potato animals FTW.

"How does someone get involved in para-rowing anyway?"

There are lots of routes into para-rowing! Some people, like me, are involved in the sport as an able-bodied rower before becoming classified 'adaptive'. Others start out with the intention of becoming classified as soon as possible. If you are disabled and you want to get involved, the first thing to do is to find a club...

"How can I find a club?"

In the UK, the British Rowing website runs a club finder, which you can also use to search for clubs offering adaptive rowing. Depending on your disability, however, you may find that you can join a club even if it doesn't officially offer adaptive rowing. My club, for example, isn't an official adaptive club, but it does own some wide shells which are perfect for LTA people to learn in, and which can be adapted to suit TA and AS people (more on what these mysterious abbreviations stand for in a minute!). Lots of clubs own stable boats which they use for their able-bodied beginners, but often they're also appropriate boats for disabled people to row in.

If you hope to row in a crew boat (which will probably only be possible if you can use your legs), you have even more options of clubs, because you can go out rowing in normal shells with able-bodied people. If you find a club which you think might be able to help you out, the best thing to do is to contact them and ask if they think they'd be able to accommodate you. Be realistic with what you can manage - it's not fair to them or to you if you aren't - but be prepared to be flexible. And if you're lucky enough to live near a club which already has an adaptive section - go to that one!

"What is classification all about?"

Classification is only really necessary if you wish to compete, but it can be a helpful indicator of what you can achieve, and an easy way of describing your disability in rowing terms to any potential coaches. The classification categories are reasonably straightforward. Athletes are assessed on an individual basis and assigned to one of three categories:

LTA - Legs, Trunk and Arms
TA - Trunk and Arms
AS - Arms and Shoulders

The category you are assigned to describes which parts of your body you use to power the boat. If you are an LTA rower (like me!) then you basically row the same stroke as an able-bodied rower, and the only changes are those that have to be made because of your disability. LTA rowers are the only adaptive rowers who use their legs as well as their arms. If you want an idea of what LTA rowing looks like, just watch an able-bodied rower - the blade goes in (the 'catch'), the legs drive, then the back opens out, then the arms draw in.

TA and AS category rowers do not use their legs at all, and are strapped into the boat. TA rowers rock forward from the hips to get extra reach, and power the boat with their backs and their arms. AS rowers also have their upper body strapped into the boat, and row with just their arms and shoulders.

Basically, LTA is for people who have a permanent disability which stops them from being able to row in the same way as able-bodied people; TA is for people in the same situation who can't use their legs but can use their body; and AS is for people with a permanent disability who can't use their legs or upper body to row, but can use their arms. Simple!

"None of those things really applies to me..."

You could still be classified! LTA covers a lot of conditions: many blind rowers are classified as LTA, as are some rowers with intellectual disabilities. If you feel you would have trouble using your arms, you aren't alone - lots of adaptive rowers work out ways of helping to grip the oars even if they have amputations, nerve problems or from-birth conditions that make holding things difficult. If you're wondering whether or not you could row, never assume that you can't just because of a disability. Get in touch with clubs, or with British Rowing, to see if they can help you out. Often all that is needed is a bit of imagination, a bit of time, and a bit of elbow grease!
...and a friendly boatman.

"How do I know if my disability is classifiable?"

Firstly, don't ask me. I am not a medical professional, nor am I in any way responsible for classifying adaptive rowers. The best thing to do is to contact British Rowing for more information. Speaking on the phone might ultimately be the easiest way to do this, but a quick email first will soon be picked up. The most important thing that I can stress is that your disability has to be permanent - so blindness, an amputation, or a genetic condition could all be classified, but other conditions (even if quite long-term) usually cannot.

If your disability cannot be classified, that doesn't mean you can't still be involved in the sport. Classification is only required for those who wish to compete in para-races: without classification, you can still row recreationally and you can still compete in mainstream events. If it helps to know, I had been heavily involved in rowing for five years before becoming classified. I was never much good as a rower (not that it stopped me trying), but, being short and bossy, I wasn't too bad as a cox!

"I'd like to get classified - how do I go about it?"

Again, the people to speak to are BR (if you live in the UK) or any other relevant national rowing body. They will arrange for you to see a specialist physio who will have been trained in classifying disabled rowers. You will be asked to take along any walking aids you use, as well as any splints/joint supports, special glasses, orthotics and other such things. You will also need to provide a letter from a doctor, detailing the nature of your disability and how it will affect your ability to row. This letter really does have to be quite detailed - a mere confirmation of diagnosis is not enough. BR can supply you with a sample letter, and will contact your doctor for more information if necessary.

During the classification session you will be assessed by the physio for range of movement and strength. You will also be watched on an erg (rowing machine) - this is not to test how good you are (some people are hopping on for the first time!) but simply to see that you can move safely, and to make it easier to assess which category you should be assigned to.

The whole process is painless and friendly. There's much more information about it from BR here. As ever, if you have further questions it's best to direct them to BR - the people who work on para-rowing are extremely friendly and helpful!

"What happens after being classified?"

You carry on training! If you choose to compete, you will need to buy BR membership (some clubs require this for insurance purposes anyway). When you sign up for Gold membership you will receive a card which is your race licence. This lists your name and has some other personal details (e.g. the name of your club), and will also display your adaptive status. This card is really important for any race you enter, as you will have to show it to prove that you are eligible to compete. You will also have to show it if you win the race and want to collect your prize!
BR membership - your ticket to race...
Get involved: Rowability has a Facebook page ('Rowability: British Rowing') which keeps members up-to-date with news and events, such as the annual National Para-Rowing Development Camp. It's also a forum for adaptive rowers to discuss anything from training difficulties to motivation.

"I'm worried that rowing might be too much for me."

We all worry about this from time to time! The most important thing is that rowing should be enjoyable. If you give it a go, like it, and want to do more, then great - do more! But at the point where it stops being enjoyable, consider whether you want to scale back or not. This may be right from the first session - rowing isn't for everyone (apparently). It might be when you're trying to push yourself to achieve more, and you realise you've pushed harder than your body can really go. Whatever it is, you should be in control and you shouldn't feel that anybody else is pushing you to do something you don't want to do.

One alternative to water-based rowing is indoor rowing, or 'erging' (rowers call rowing machines 'ergs', which is short for 'ergometers'). The advantages of this are that you can do it in more places (e.g. a normal, fitness gym), you don't need a special boat, you can do it in bad weather, it's easier than rowing on water if you have balance problems (or some visual problems, if you can't easily find someone to help guide you on the water), and as a training tool it's a really useful way of monitoring fitness and practising technique should you want to hop in a boat later on. All rowing clubs will have ergs that you can use, but it might be cheaper to join a gym. Beware of most ergs that can be bought from non-specialist shops (naming no names!) - they're often terrible and will encourage bad technique, which could cause or exacerbate injuries.

If you're in a club and you're worried about any aspect of the rowing, there will be a welfare officer who you can speak to - or speak to a coach, other athletes, even someone you don't know - just anyone you trust. They can all be there to help you work out a solution that makes you feel better, such as a break from the sport to recover physically or to catch up on other commitments, or a way of toning down your rowing commitments and the sessions you do so that they don't feel like a chore.

"I don't think I want to compete..."

You can just enjoy the sport too. Rowing is a wonderful activity, and you can find almost any emotion you want on a river, many of them paradoxical: excitement, calm, ambition, contentment, determination, success, perseverance, solitude, community...the sense of being not just close to nature but utterly reliant on its patterns is also a huge draw. Even if I never competed again, I would still row as much as I can, because rowing has a fantastic effect on both mind and body. And without competing, you still get a sense of achieving something when you hone your technique in the boat, or feel yourself get fitter and stronger.

When you've been rowing for a while, and you've got confidence in your abilities, there are few things more satisfying than setting aside a couple of hours in the day to take part in a physical activity, outside in the fresh air (and sometimes the rain!); an activity in which you see immediate results and which gives you an independence you may not have in every day life. From a boat, you can get up close to herons, spot moorhen chicks hiding in reeds, dangle your toes in the water amongst the fish, or just laugh at a dog bounding along the bank, barking at ducks. My family home is out in the sticks, so being out in a boat is the perfect way for me to recharge mentally: you really have to understand your environment for rowing to work properly, and I love feeling that I'm working with, through and in the natural world. I know it sounds cheesy, but just try rowing every day for a week (preferably at different times of day to get the full effect!) and you'll feel the same by the end of it.
Rowing is like this, every day. Without fail.
Daily life can be tough for anyone, but if you have a disability it's even harder. Sometimes I find it hard to express myself, and I always find it hard to get around and do things for myself, so that I often feel I'm burdening other people. In a boat I'm free to release my mind from other concerns and just concentrate on the rhythm of the stroke; I don't really need to worry about communication because I'm communicating with the boat and the water and not with people; I can move myself around with (relative) ease; and I don't need people to do things for me.

 Final thoughts

If this sounds like an attractive activity - get out there and try it. This entry has been about classification, but it ends with a reiteration of the fact that, as a disabled person, you do not have to be classified as an adaptive rower in order to get out in a boat. There is a huge amount that the sport has to offer which is external (or parallel) to racing, and you can try that out for as long as you like before considering classification for competition.

Monday, 29 September 2014

A bit about me

Hello, and welcome to my new blog about my life as a para-rower. Here are some details about me so you have an idea of who I am and what I do...

Born: 1990, Essex, UK. 
Living in: Cambridge, UK
If you're from the UK, you'll be aware of the problems of being a blonde Essex girl. If not, I suggest you google it and you'll soon find out what I had to fight against from a very early age! These days, my hair is closer to brown than blonde, which helps, and I live in Cambridge, which also helps.

Occupation: Student
I'm studying for a PhD in Music at the University of London. My first degree, in History and Music, was at the University of Cambridge, which is why I'm still living here - the people are nice, the city is beautiful and the rowing scene is very, very active.

Well, you'll have figured out that I like rowing - there'll be a lot of that on this blog. However, I also love riding, and am involved with the Riding for the Disabled Association. Outside sport, music is my main love. Music makes sense to me in a way that nothing else does, and it affects the way I perceive everything in life - including, and perhaps especially, rowing. I also have a crazy little border terrier, who is far too important to be a 'hobby'!
Rosie: too cool for school
My disability
Well, people tend to ask sooner or later so we may as well get this bit out of the way now. I suffer from a condition called Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. It's a rare genetic condition, which has caused very difficult symptoms for a long time, but which has become especially difficult for me in the last couple of years.
EDS is a disorder in the production of collagen, which causes a variety of health problems. For example, parts of me that are directly affected include my joints, blood vessels, muscles, eyes, digestive system, nerves and skin. Other problems include poor proprioception (the sense which tells you where your body parts are without you having to look), fatigue, tremors, lack of ability to control body temperature, over-sensitive hearing, photophobia, and lots and lots of injuries which take AGES to sort out.
If you'd like to find out more about EDS, try http://www.ehlers-danlos.org/.
Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome - some of the symptoms
How does this affect my ability to row? 
Here's a list of some of the main points!
  • My joints are sore. If you're a normal, healthy person, you'll know that an injury is painful and frustrating, but at least you know you're getting better. I have a permanent state of injury in all of my major joints (hips, knees, ankles, wrists, shoulders, back...). I am also prone to injuring them further - I have dislocations, sprains, strains, breaks and more in my notes!
  • My muscles are very tight. In an attempt to keep my joints in place, my muscles grip tightly, so they're basically in spasm an awful lot of the time. I have permanent spasm in my lower back (following a gymnastics injury when I was 13, when I fractured my spine - see below) and in my quads. This makes rowing at high rate/pressure for a long period of time really difficult.
  • My nerves make it hard for me to control motion or grip. In particular, I struggle with my left arm, which is very weak. I find it hard to maintain a good wrist position, and struggle to keep the blade squared during the drive phase because working against the water pressure is really tough. I also have nerve problems down my legs, which can cause pain or a lack of control - not very easy for sitting the boat well!
  • The spinal injury I foolishly acquired at age 13 has caused me a lot of trouble. 11 years on, the vertebrae have healed and the discs have healed as much as they're going to. Unfortunately, I still have a huge muscle spasm around my lumbar spine, which makes core work very difficult, and makes it hard for me to sit up straight in the boat and to support my weight.
  • The pressure of chronic pain and illness causes a lot of fatigue. This isn't an easy thing to balance with intensive training, and I'm not very good at pacing myself at the moment. Overtraining is a real risk - but one that sometimes has to be taken in order to make any improvement!
  • I have terrible proprioception - you can ask me to row at half slide or quarter slide or anything, but I'll really struggle to know how much of the slide to use unless I look down at my legs on every single stroke, because I just don't know the extent to which I move. This makes balancing the boat quite hard, but it also makes making technical changes more difficult, because I can't be sure that I'm actually making any physical changes.
  • My circulation is not great. I have Raynaud's phenomenon (which causes restricted blood flow to the hands and feet) and a condition called POTS (Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome). Raynaud's and POTS are usually manageable in the boat, but sometimes changes have to be made so that I can hold blades and feel the weight on my toes. I also have to be careful when I stand up to get out of a boat (or to get off an erg) because if I move too quickly I can pass out. On bad days, POTS stops me from doing anything at all. On the plus side, I get to eat lots of extra salt to try and help my weak little blood vessels - and I love salty chips! 
  • Keeping blood sugar constant is quite tricky at times. This is OK unless it's before a race. Usually all I need to do is check the levels with a little blood test if I feel bad, and make sure I've got some sweets. It's a bit annoying when it comes on in the middle of a session though.
I'm going to leave this list for now, otherwise I'll sound as if I'm whingeing. There are lots of other problems with EDS - a quick internet search on collagen will teach you that it's enormously abundant in the human body, so it stands to reason that when the collagen is faulty there will be lots of faults in the body.

At the moment, I handle it with the help of medical professionals, friends and family, and keep my independence with my wheelchair and a pair of crutches. However, there is a deep satisfaction in being in a boat or on a horse and having the ability to move about faster than I can on land, or on my own two feet. I may not find rowing or riding as easy as other people, but I believe I get more out of it.
"Can I put it back in the gate now, please?"