Paracanoeing Improves Stability, Balance in Wounded Athletes

WIRED Magazine:

Paracanoeing Improves Stability, Balance in Wounded Athletes

Megan Blunk was one hell of an athlete before she lost the use of her legs in a motorcycle accident four years ago. She never gave up on sports, though, and tried wheelchair basketball, sitting volleyball and even skiing. Then she got in a canoe and everything clicked.

She was home. Being on the water brought back the joy she’d felt running and playing soccer.

“It is freeing,” she said during a day paddling around Gig Harbor, Washington. “I love that it is a sport that enables you to use all of the strength that you have and push through the fatigue. I had no idea how much I would love it. It was so amazing to get the feeling that I could really race again.”

That feeling may explain why paracanoe, which makes itsParalympic debut at the 2016 Summer Games, is growing in popularity. The sport is called “canoeing for all” because, unlike other adaptive sports, it is fundamentally the same as conventional canoeing when it comes to training and form. It also is exceptionally good rehabilitative training for those who have lost the use of their legs.

“It’s a core and full-body workout and helps with balance — all things that are difficult to do on land,” said paracanoeist Joshua Wold, a former U.S. Army Ranger who lost his right foot in Iraq and now coaches at the Gig Harbor Canoe and Kayak Club. “It also helps them connect and gives them confidence.”

Competitive canoeing dates to the mid-1800s and has been part of the Olympics since 1936, but remains obscure in the United States, where there are but a handful of clubs and only one university that offers a scholarship. The sport’s adaptive cousin has grown quickly in the years since its inaugural appearance at the International Canoe Federation world championships in 2009. That event drew a handful of athletes from seven countries.

A year later, as the Federation petitioned the International Paralympic Committee to include the sport, 63 athletes from 28 countries gathered in Poznań, Poland for the championship. This year’s event drew some 100 athletes from 31 countries.

The IPC decided in 2010 to include paracanoe. The Games in Rio will feature eight events, with athletes classified in three categories: A for rowers who use only their arms; TA for those who use their trunk and arms; and LTA for those who use their legs, trunk and arms. Competitors, with both male and female events in all categories, race against each other for 200-meter stretches and in single or double canoes or kayaks.

To raise the sport’s profile in the United States and draw more competitors, the Olympic Opportunity Fund — a $1.6 million program to create and expand paralympic programs for disabled veterans — awarded a $25,000 grant to the Gig Harbor Canoe and Kayak Club. About $7,000 will finance an outreach program to draw athletes to the sport, along with coaching education, technical equipment and other needs.

The remaining money will finance finance a fleet of canoes designed by Nelo, a leading name in the sport. The Viper 55 is the standard paracanoe, designed to work with a wide variety of of seats and foot hardware to suit any athlete. The idea was to create a standardized boat that would allow athletes to travel only with their adaptive gear — the boats are provided at each event.

“Some of the adaptive equipment we have to come up with to put athletes with disabilities in kayaks is kind of exciting,” said Alan Anderson, the famed sprint canoe coach at Gig Harbor. For example, Ryan Tadilla, a Class A paracanoeist, uses aluminum braces to support his legs and straps to hold them still. His canoe also sports a steering mechanism that allows him to easily adjust the rudder to counter side winds. Such equipment is typical of Class A paracanoeists, Anderson said.

Under the rules, boats must weigh no less than 15 kilograms. The weight will vary with the material — fiberglass boats are a little heavier and suited to athletes needing more support for their gear, while lighter carbon fiber vessels are generally used by more competitive or more experienced paddlers. Regardless of what they’re made of, paracanoes are heavier than their conventional counterparts to improve stability and balance. Paddlers who can use only their arms, for example, might be pushed around by the wind, so their boats are heavier at the bottom to lower the center of gravity, Wold said.

The U.S. paracanoe squad currently consists of nine paddlers. Because the sport is so new, there are no established powerhouses that could dominate in Rio. It’s anyone’s game at this point. Wold, for example, didn’t hit the water until a few months ago, but he’s already won several gold and silver medals the national level and raced against able-bodied competitors in two events, placing fifth and seventh overall.

That’s a big change from his first time in a canoe, which ended with him literally sinking the boat. He kept at it, eventually passing Anderson’s famous first test of any potential competitive canoer when he managed to stay upright for 12 seconds.

“It was just fantastic,” Wold said of the first time he got on the water. “It was just so much fun, and no one could tell if I was disabled. I was hooked after one trip.”

Blunk had the same experience.

“I felt calm and excited and I was right away having fun,” she said. “It was just a really good experience to be able to add another sport to the list of things that I can do.”

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