Paralympic debut in rowing
With the clock ticking down to the start of the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games, World Rowing takes a look at some of the athletes who will be making their Games debut in the sport of rowing and a few to watch out for in the coming week as racing gets underway.
Willie Morgan – (Coxswain for Para mixed coxed four, South Africa)
“A boat's adulation! The bow surging out the water from the rowers' harmonious synchrony applied brute force and finessed technical execution.” – Willie Morgan
Willie Morgan came to rowing in 2007 after he started playing cricket in high school. Enticed by a pamphlet advertising his school’s rowing team Morgan skipped cricket practice on an impulse one afternoon to attend a rowing session. There was no looking back.
“I did not know what rowing was (at all) at that point, but the caterpillar-looking vessel intrigued me and so I went to the lake that afternoon,” Morgan told World Rowing. “The rowing bug bit me right then and there!”
Morgan quickly found his niche as a coxswain. A natural sense of inquisitiveness and dedication not just to reading absolutely everything he could about rowing and training, but putting it into practice, have seen him rise through the ranks of South African coxswains. Over the years he has directed junior, senior and para crews from the coxswain seat at international events.
Taking the helm of the para mixed coxed four in 2013, Morgan will be making his Paralympic debut in Rio with this crew. This will also be South Africa’s first appearance at the Paralympic Games in rowing.
Morgan’s crew does most of their training on Victoria Lake in Germiston, Johannesburg in a collaborative high performance arrangement with the University of Johannesburg. Training in a different venue than the Olympic team, however, hasn’t meant complete isolation for the South African para-rowers. Coach Marco Galeone has ensured high levels of competition through joint training camps as well as bringing other internationals into their training environment such as Kenya’s Itaken Timoi Kipelean.
Itaken Kipelian – (para men’s single sculls, Kenya)
“Whenever I hit the water in the boat I feel like I am flying in the air, free as a bird. I fly in unparalleled, thrilling speed that I never could attain on my crutch laden feet on the ragged range land I grew up.” – Itaken Kipelian
At the age of 37, Itaken Timoi Kipelean has done a number of para-sports in his native Kenya. From sitting volleyball to wheelchair basketball and wheelchair tennis, he has represented his country on several occasions. Yet when he wheels into the stadium in Rio at the 2016 Paralympics, it will be as a rower.
Despite a lack of coaching and a body of water barely 800m long near Kenya’s capital city of Nairobi to train on, Kipelean has made the most of his limited resources and looked to the broader rowing community for the guidance needed to succeed. He points in particular to Great Britain’s Simon Goodey, a member of FISA’s Para-rowing Commission, and Marco Galeone as major supporters.
“These mentors have regularly prepared my training schedule, advised me in countless emails and assisted me to improve my technique at pre-event training sessions.”
During the lead-up to Rio, Kipelean even found a temporary home in South Africa, where he trained under Galeone’s direction alongside the para-rowing squad.
In recognition of his dedication to the pursuit of excellence in international rowing, Kipelean was allotted a special bipartite invitation to represent Kenya in the para men’s single sculls the Rio.
Following these Games, however, he has his eyes set squarely on earning an elite slot for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics as well as helping develop Kenyan para-rowing to last beyond his own racing career.
“Eventually I would like to fully cross over to the coaching side and soak in proper training techniques so I can effectively mentor other younger rowers so they can carry the mantle and make my country a rowing nation.”
Brigit Skarstein – (para women’s single sculls, Norway)
“I love the fact that rowing is such an integrated sport. It's something that all sports can learn from, it really mirrors society and I think that rowing is the introduction to an ideal world.” – Brigit Skarstein
Brigit Skarstein has become a regular sight on the podium at the World Rowing Championships since her first appearance in 2013. Skarstein will be in the medal hunt once again this year in Rio where she will become Norway’s first rower to compete at the Paralympics.
Rio 2016 is not Skarstein’s first Paralympic appearance. She represented her country as a nordic skier at the 2014 Paralympics in Sochi, Russia where she captured three top-12 finishes in the 12.5km, 1km and 5km distances.
Skarstein has continued to train and compete in both sports and her rowing training takes place side by side with the able bodied team, including five-time Olympian Olaf Tufte.
Her rowing career has seen her progress from a silver medal at the 2013 World Rowing Championships in Chungju, Korea to gold the following year in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. In 2015 she suffered a rib stress injury in the lead-up to the World Rowing Championships in Aiguebelette, France, but still managed to clinch a bronze medal.
In 2016 Skarstein has been tracking well for a top performance in Rio. She took silver in June at World Rowing Cup III, where she finished 7.73 seconds ahead of defending World Champion Moran Samuel (ISR) and just 1.29 seconds behind Rachel Morris (GBR). Both Morris and Skarstein finished ahead of the previous World Best Time of 5:15.77 set by Samuel in 2015.
Jeremy McGrath – (para mixed coxed four, Australia)
“Not many sports require the same level of commitment in a team, as we are literally in the same boat, trying to duplicate the same rhythm.” – Jeremy McGrath
Australia’s Jeremy McGrath was inspired to explore para sports after watching the 2012 London Olympic and Paralympic Games. He will now have his chance to inspire others when he races in the para mixed coxed four in Rio.
Born with a missing fibula, McGrath was still able to play soccer and tennis at a young age, but his involvement in sports stopped for some years after he underwent a leg amputation at age 15.
“I chose to pursue rowing as I thought it was an upper body sport which would suit me,” said McGrath. “However I was unaware that rowing is largely a lower body sport.”
McGrath was quick to show his skill on the water, taking silver at the 2014 World Rowing Championships in the para mixed double sculls with team mate Kate Murdoch.
He will be racing in Rio as part of the Aussies’ LTA Mixed coxed Fours, which earned a berth at the final Paralympic Qualification Regatta only a few short months before the Games.
James Fox – (para mixed coxed four, Great Britain)
“I love winning more than rowing. If I wasn’t winning, I don’t know if I’d be rowing.” – James Fox
James Fox is a rower driven to perform. Before his eventual para classification in 2013 due to fused ankles, Fox had already been training and racing from the age of 11, representing Great Britain as a junior and competing with the University of London Boat Club.
“I always knew I couldn’t squat and wasn’t very good at running, but just put it down to poor ankle flexibility,” he told World Rowing.
Since his first international para-rowing race as a member of the para mixed coxed four in 2013, Fox has progressed from strength to strength, capturing three World Rowing Championships (2013, 2014 and 2015). In 2015 the crew also set a new World Best Time twice during the same regatta at the second World Rowing Cup, in the heat (3:15.47) and the final (3:13.76).
In Rio, Fox will once again be racing as part of this crew with team mates Grace Clough, Daniel Brown, Pamela Relph and coxswain James Oliver as they defend their title of Paralympic Champions.
Fox and his crew train side by side with Team GB’s Olympic squad in Caversham, Reading. “I love training alongside them,” he says. “Not only do they provide a bit of company, but they inspire me to do better.”
Zimbabwe para-rowing team
Zimbabwe is set to make their Paralympic rowing debut with the para mixed coxed four. The team have come a long way in a short time and were awarded a bipartite berth for the Games. No matter which way the results go, these athletes will leave the Games with a record that is going to be hard to beat as a crew made up entirely of rowers with less than a year of experience.
Coxswain, Jessica Davis, is the daughter of coach Rachel Davis and at 17 years old she is the glue needed to bring this crew together. Previous Wiri (stroke seat) and Margret Bangajena (bow seat) were among the first to attend Zimbabwe’s initial para-rowing session in February, 2016. An experienced para-athlete, Wiri has played wheelchair marathon, body building, basketball and swimming. Bangajena also draws on her extensive background in wheelchair marathon. Takudzqa Gwariro (3 seat) and Chipo Zento (spare) began in March 2016 and were part of the crew for their first race in Gavirate, Italy.
A long time ruby player, Gwariro sustained an injury in his final year of high school, making him classifiable as a para-rower. He is a 20-year-old junior teacher with a dream to study law and go to university outside of Africa. Chipo Zento was essential to the crew’s first race in Gavirate and will be the spare for the team in Rio. Michelle Garnett (2 seat) is the ‘newest’ rower of the group, joining the team in May 2016.
Rowing at the Paralympic Games goes from 9-11 September 2016 at Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon in Rio de Janeiro, Rio, Brazil.