Down Under Series: Expecting the unexpected – Erik Horrie
The Paralympic Games 2012 was an epic time in the life of rower Erik Horrie. The Australian became a father to his third child and a Paralympic silver medallist all within a few days.
He was travelling on a bus from his team accommodation to Dorney Lake when his son was born. "When I arrived at the course, I received a picture message on my phone, on the way to the dining hall." It was to be the beginning of a week to remember.
Horrie converted from wheelchair basketball in 2011, a sport in which he previously represented Australia. "I wanted a challenge and I had never tried rowing and I really wanted to compete in London," he says. He started rowing on Breakfast Creek in his native Queensland and his potential as a Paralympic rowing star was quickly identified. It wasn't long before he moved to Canberra and began training under the tutelage of Chad King, the former coach of 2008 Paralympic Champion Tom Aggar from Great Britain.
Almost instantly, Horrie dominated Australian waters. Winning the 2011 New South Wales State Championships he quickly followed it up with victory in the National Championships in Adelaide. He was selected for the 2011 World Rowing Championships in Bled, Slovenia, where he capped off an astounding season with a bronze medal. With his family in Queensland and Horrie mostly training in Canberra, Horrie made plans to relocate his family to New South Wales, about a five-minute drive from the Sydney International Rowing Centre. This made his preparation for London much more streamlined.
After another year of solid training, Horrie travelled to Munich for the Samsung World Rowing Cup regatta as a preparation race for London. Paralympic rowers the world over could discuss the rise in standard and the increased speed across all events in Para-Rowing and none more so than the competitors in the AS single sculls (ASM1x). Tom Aggar had been leading the field for the last four years and on home waters would be tough to beat. However, a whole raft of scullers who were battling it out for silver and bronze were gradually closing the gap to Aggar. Horrie was part of that ever advancing threat.
A mantra many rowing coaches go by is "expect the unexpected", and it is one Erik Horrie may well go by for the rest of his rowing career. After the birth of his son earlier in the week, Horrie was on a high. "I was buzzing, missing his birth gave me the motivation to go out there and make the whole Paralympic journey worthwhile." The scene was set for his best performance. But after racing in his heat on the Friday and finishing third, Horrie suffered a seizure. He had a further two seizures in the ambulance on his way to the hospital and ended up being kept overnight for observation. The following day, his medical team and coaches met to discuss whether or not he would continue to compete. Horrie's resolve was unwavering. "When someone tells me I can't do something, it makes me more determined," he says. When he finally persuaded the medics to let him race, Horrie made his way back to Dorney in time for the final. It was a less than ideal build-up to the most important race of his career so far but Horrie remained calm.
The unbeaten Aggar was the local hero and once again, favourite for the gold. Cheng Huang of China raced clear of the field and after a titanic battle Horrie finished second, fractions of a second ahead of Alexey Chuvashev of Russia. For the first time, Aggar finished outside the medals. The rising speed of Paralympic rowers was never more evident.
When asked if the hospital drama might have affected his performance in a positive way, Horrie agreed. "It took the pressure off me in a way. I was more focused on doing a good race and not focused on the pressure to do well." It was a fairytale ending to a huge week.
With only two rowing seasons completed and a Paralympic silver already under his belt, Horrie has 2016 firmly in his sights. The London experience, however, will be a memory he won't forget in a hurry. Apart from his pre-race drama and his son being born he says "the volunteers and organisers made sure it was a welcoming and homely environment and that, combined with the fact that the Para-rowing community are so close anyway, made it extra special."