Adaptive Rowing

Disabilities disappear on the water as rowers flock to man (and woman) the boats.

With a unified flowing motion and split-second timing, four crew members reach slowly out, hands poised, leaning forward in sliding seats… The coxswain calls out, “From backstops… are you ready? … ROW!” Then the hands lift, the oar blades drop into the water and suddenly the boat springs into motion as the crew heave back on the oars and release their coiled legs. Only a few strokes and the boat is slicing through the water with a rhythmical surge and relaxed action. Startled ducks scrabble away, and the stillness of the evening is punctuated by the rhythmical sound of four blades cutting through the water together.

Each crew member is locked in concentration, working to mirror the motions of the person in front of him. The sense of unity in the crew comes from hours of practicing together, working on timing and balance. But for this crew, all four have to learn to compensate for each other, because each person has only one leg to work with. This is a new challenge in rowing circles in South Africa.

Opportunity for athletes with disabilities

The International Rowing Federation (FISA) objective for Adaptive Rowing is inclusion: to provide the opportunity for athletes with a disability, both men and women, to compete at FISA events and Paralympic Games. They introduced Adaptive Rowing on a World Championship level at the 2002 World Rowing Championships in Seville, Spain, when 38 disabled athletes competed in the single sculls and the coxed four categories. The sport has continued to develop since then, with four boat classes at the 2003 World Rowing Championships in Milan, Italy.

At the 2004 World Rowing Senior and Junior Championships in Banyoles, Spain, 66 adaptive rowing athletes took part. In 2005, 10 countries entered a total of 42 adaptive rowers for the World Rowing Championships totalling 15 boats. Rowing was a demonstration sport at the Athens Paralympic Games, but it will be included as a competitive sport for the first time in the Paralympics at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.

Adaptive rowing is rowing or sculling for rowers with a disability. “Adaptive” implies that the equipment is adapted to the user to practice the sport, rather than the sport being “adapted” to the user. Adaptive rowing is open to male and female rowers, and is currently divided into four boat classes, which are part of the World Championships programme. These include coxed fours, double sculls and single sculls. The single sculling races are split into men and women sections, while the other two classes include mixed genders. Races are held over 1000 metres for all events.

Classification and Eligibility

Classification places athletes in groups with other athletes of similar levels of recognised disability to provide competition which is as fair as possible. FISA has developed three classification classes: LTA (legs, trunk, arms), TA (trunk and arms) and A (arms only).The LTA class is for rowers with a disability, but who are able to use their legs, trunk and arms and make use of the sliding seat. The LTA class includes intellectual impairment, visual impairments and physical disability. Each of these disability groups has minimal eligibility criteria, which define the minimum amount of disability that a person may have in order to qualify to compete in this class. This class makes use of a normal boat with no adaptations.

In official competitions, the LTA class competes in a ‘coxed four’ (a boat with four crew members and a Cox – LTA4+), with a mixed gender crew with two men and two ladies. The crew can be made up of a combination of disabilities; however there may be a maximum of two partially sighted rowers per crew. The TA class is for rowers who have trunk and arm movements but are unable to make use of the sliding seat due to significant weakness in the lower limbs. This would typically include bilateral lower limb amputees, paraplegics with a lumbar injury, and some cerebral palsy athletes. This class uses a minimally adapted boat, where the seat does not slide; they may also make use of stabilising pontoons if needed. They compete in a mixed double (TA2x), that is, a smaller two-seater boat with a mixed gender crew.

The third class, the A class is for rowers who have minimal or no trunk control (shoulder and arm functions only). This would include people with spinal cord injuries above the T12 level, and some cerebral palsy athletes. The A class boat has a high seat back to which the athlete is strapped so that only the arms and shoulders can move during rowing. This class only competes in sculls (single rower boat). Men and women compete in separate classes – AW1x (arms only women’s single) and AM1x (arms only men’s single).

Technology and Equipment

The hull of the adaptive rowing boat is identical to an able-bodied boat, but is equipped with different seat designs which vary according to the disability of the rowers. Specifically, the LTA4+ has a sliding seat; the other three boat classes have fixed seats. The TA2x has a seat which offers ‘complementary support’. The AW1x and AM1x are equipped with a seat with ‘postural support’ to rowers with compromised sitting balance due to spinal cord injury or cerebral palsy. This ensures that the upper body is supported and kept in a fixed position.

Smaller boats are equipped with buoyancy pontoons attached to the oar outriggers which act as stabilisers providing additional lateral balance.

Development in SA

Carl Schroeder has a lower limb amputation and he has been rowing in able-bodied crews for many years. But in 2004, when Adaptive Rowing was demonstrated at the Paralympics in Athens, Carl decided that it was time to encourage other South Africans with disabilities to participate in this dynamic sport.

Carl has his own style of recruiting people for rowing. “…I see you got one leg … do you wanna come rowing with me?” This was how Carl got Kim hooked on rowing four months after she had lost her leg. He teamed up with coach Adrian Higgins and together they have been working on getting Adaptive Rowing established in South Africa.

ROWSA (Rowing South Africa) have given their full support to the inclusion of people with disabilities into their sport, and they made Adrian Higgins the national coach in 2005. He has been working hard at recruiting new athletes, learning the classification system, learning how to coach people with disabilities and fund-raising for development boats. At present in South Africa, most of the disabled rowers train with able-bodied crews, but Adrian hopes that as the sport grows, he will be able to develop a lot more disabled crews.

He has high hopes for his disabled crew. He is aiming to have them compete in the World Championships in Munich in August 2007, and at the Paralympics in Beijing in 2008. Looking at the results from some recent regattas, they are not far off. While competing at an able-bodied Masters regatta in October 2006, in a mixed crew of able body and disabled rowers, they won the Masters 8 event. Their time was a qualifying time for the World Championships.

Why row?

Rowing is totally addictive. The beauty of the lake environment, the harmony and camaraderie of the teamwork, the full body workout, the motion and sound of the boat slicing through the water, each of the rowers has their own reasons why they are addicted to this sport. For some, the competitive side is appealing; for others, it is just a form of relaxation, a place to release the stresses of city life and to be close to nature. For anyone living in a wheelchair, it liberates them from the wheelchair to find a new freedom of movement on the water.

For anyone interested in getting involved in Adaptive Rowing please contact Adrian Higgins on 082 322-5255 or

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