It’s a balmy spring evening and Deas Slough is dotted with rowers gliding along the water as rush hour traffic rumbles over a bridge nearby through the George Massey Tunnel.
In her single-person shell, novice rower Kiran Aujlay concentrates on her body position and rowing technique. With every stroke, she propels her boat further and further away from the dock where she’s left her wheelchair for the evening.
Aujlay is a paraplegic athlete who participates in Delta Deas Rowing Club’s new adaptive rowing program which gives people with physical and intellectual disabilities the opportunity to get out on the water.
With a few equipment modifications and some assistance transitioning from chair to boat, Aujlay is ready to row.
“I love it,” says the 30-year-old North Delta resident with a grin. “As you’re rowing out there, it’s very serene, very beautiful. And once you get going it’s a pretty fast sport.”
Rowing has also proven a great way to get cardiovascular exercise, which can be a challenge for those with mobility restrictions, Aujlay says.
“For people with physical disabilities, that’s a big thing, trying to figure out a way to get a workout and get the heart pumping.”
Opening new doors
An adaptive rowing program has been in the works for some time at Delta Deas Rowing Club, which already has successful junior and adult programs.
“It’s something that I’ve been wanting to do for years,” says Julie Stevens, club manager and adaptive rowing coach.
“Our infrastructure is so easy, it was just a natural fit,” she says, noting the club features an easily accessible, low dock with no stairs. “We’re a rowing club that can do this, so I thought why aren’t we?”
Last October, Aujlay and two other athletes came out for a trial run but, with winter approaching, the club shelved the idea until this spring.
So far, eight people have completed the club’s adaptive rowing course and two, including Aujlay, have signed up to be full club members.
Stevens says those interested in adaptive rowing should have some range of motion and a bit of core stability.
“We’ve got amputees that row, we’ve got paras (paraplegics) that row, we do have an autistic young man that’s just started,” she says.
Stevens adds the provincial sport organization Rowing B.C. is encouraging clubs to establish adaptive rowing programs and a few others are taking root across the Lower Mainland. The new program at Deas Island was made possible, in part, by grant money and a loaner boat courtesy of Rowing B.C. and Rowing Canada.
Aujlay lost the use of her legs when she was injured in a car accident the day before her sixth birthday. She dabbled in wheelchair basketball as a teen, but there wasn’t much in the way of organized wheelchair sports in the southern Manitoba farming community where she grew up.
When her family moved to the West Coast near the end of high school, it opened up a whole new world of opportunity. Aujlay took up tennis, and later turned her attention to wheelchair racing—a sport which took her to international-level competition.
But a recent surgery—Aujlay had rods put in her back to correct scoliosis—slowed her down for a while.
“It was a really extensive surgery and unfortunately there were complications, so I ended up spending six weeks in ICU, and then six months in hospital,” she says. “I’m not the type of person who sits still for very long, so to be forced to do that was absolutely horrible.”
After the surgery, she could no longer participate in racing. At first she thought she would be OK, that perhaps athletics was just a phase in her life.
“But the more I gravitated away from sport, the more I realized that it was actually a part of who I was,” she says.
And so began the search for a new athletic endeavor.
“I’ve tried other sports since recovering from my surgery and nothing has really clicked with me as much as rowing has, so I’m pretty excited about it,” she says.
When it comes to equipment modifications, Aujlay uses a fixed seat, as opposed to a sliding seat. Her oars are shortened slightly, to lighten the load, and her shell has pontoons affixed to either side for added stability. Other than that, her equipment is essentially the same as that used by able-bodied rowers.
“It’s actually, I think, quite liberating for someone who has mobility restrictions to get out on the water and be able to do what everyone else is doing,” Aujlay says.
Athletes with vision impairment or an intellectual impairment will usually row in conventional boats that do not need modifications.
Former Canadian Olympic rower Joy Fera, who was one of the founders of Delta Deas Rowing Club, says she is thrilled with the addition of the adaptive rowing program.
“Sports can be enjoyed to a great extent by those with disabilities,” says the Tsawwassen resident, adding that one of the legacies of the 2010 Paralympic Winter Games held in Vancouver is an increased awareness of and respect for physically disabled athletes.
Adaptive events were added to the World Rowing Championships in 2002 and an intellectually disabled category was added in 2009. This summer, adaptive rowing will make its second Paralympic appearance at the London Olympics after debuting at the 2008 Summer Paralympic Games in Beijing, China.
Fera hopes the televised exposure will draw more attention to the sport.
“Hopefully they will show that coverage in Canada,” she says. “That should also inspire those that might be reluctant,” she adds, explaining some would-be adaptive rowers might be apprehensive about the water, depending on their ability to swim.
Fera gets out to the Delta Deas Rowing Club regularly and says she has enjoyed meeting some of the adaptive program participants.
“It’s just delightful to watch the progress being made by those learning,” she says.
Aujlay has only been out on the water a handful of times this season, but she’s quickly picking up the rowing lexicon, feeling her core muscles strengthen and becoming more comfortable putting her complete trust in the coaches—who keep her safety paramount.
“Every time that we go out, I personally feel more and more confident,” Aujlay says.
As the weather warms up, she plans to start rowing more frequently and looks forward to getting better—and faster.
“I would like to actually pursue this competitively,” she says. “But I’m still learning the ropes.”