Visually Impaired Adaptive Rowing Program

by Francesca Crozier-Fitzgerald

The Visually Impaired Adaptive Rowing Program (VIARP) is a featured organization of VisionAware. It is a story of patience, focus, and listening.

9 people rowing boat

The Impetus

When Gary Mayo was diagnosed with cancer in 2008, he was advised to take time away from work during treatment, but Gary is not the kind of guy that enjoys sitting still. Almost immediately, he started looking for a way to volunteer his time in doing something, anything, that would get him out of the house. In a fateful chain of events, he came across the Oklahoma League for the Blind, (now NewView Oklahoma) in Oklahoma City. They needed volunteer drivers to take blind and visually impaired individuals around the city to various appointments and back to their homes. He and his wife did this volunteer work together. After just a couple weeks on the job and a handful of conversations with the men and women he was driving, Gary was picking up on a common thread.

Need for Exercise Recognized

"It became obvious to me and my wife that these men and women were in serious need of exercise. Some were overweight, and they weren’t getting out of their homes enough or getting healthy activity." That one observation was the seed that set the Visually Impaired Adaptive Rowing Program (VIARP Vipers) into gear.

Chesapeake Boathouse Donates Land Rowing Machines

Gary and his wife, both of whom are rowers, had an idea. They went down to the Chesapeake Boathouse, not far from NewView Oklahoma, to ask if they’d lend them a few ergonometers (land rowing machines, known as ERGs) to get a rowing program started. Without hesitation, the Chesapeake Boathouse donated five ERGs to Gary and his wife.

The "erg," as it’s more affectionately abbreviated, simulates the rowing experience as you sit, strap into (at the feet), and move through the rowing motions. The VIARP Vipers started as a team of two, whose ages ranged from early 40s to 50s. From the time they heard that the ergs were available, they were already finding a way to reserve time in their day. Over the next few months, as word spread around the facility, the Vipers gained three more valuable members of the team.

"We would settle on a practice time that worked for everyone; they’d show up, get on the ergs, and document what they did during their workouts in their logbooks. That went on for a few months. Then one of them came to me and said, 'Okay, Gary. When are we getting on the water?'"

Getting in the Water

Gary firmly believed that if they were unanimously ready for the water, he was ready to get them there. That afternoon, after ample training on land, the VIARP Vipers were sitting in a boat—a larger, secure, unflippable shell—on the water, oar in hand, and placing that oar into the water to move the boat. In the program’s earliest days, when the team was just five bodies thick, it was the insatiable ambition of its rowers and the faith placed in them by their coach that served as the cornerstone.

Program Builds with Use of Rowing Shells and New Rowers and Volunteers

Within a month, VIARP Viper rowers were lowering themselves down into the regular rowing shells provided by the Chesapeake Boathouse. Gary and his wife would switch in and out of the boat or ride along side the boat during the safety launch as needed. The Vipers were finally taking on the Chesapeake. Within six months of the initiation of the VIARP rowing program, there were enough rowers (six) and a steady rotation of volunteers to organize two practices a week and take out a rowing shell for eight people. Their next hurdle would be racing.

The Beauty of Rowing: No Adaptive Equipment or Techniques Needed

"We do not compete in an adaptive category, in fact, I think some of our rowers really dislike the term—they don’t like being singled out," Gary said. "So, we do everything that anyone else would do. The visually impaired rowers do everything that a sighted rower would do; they carry the boat; they put their oars in the oarlocks, and they get in the boat. They do everything. It’s just that we do it a little slower and a little more deliberately, especially around the dock area."

While the adaptive rowing community has been spreading across the country over the last decade, many of their missions have been to fulfill the needs of a much broader community of individuals with a wide array of physical or developmental disabilities. Many are equipped to provide the necessary services to any individual who wants to try their hand at the sport of rowing. VIARP, however, was started specifically to address the needs of people who are blind or visually impaired and that’s how it’s grown ever since. In the process, they realized that despite its name, people who are visually impaired do not require adaptive equipment or special adaptive learning techniques. They are in the same "boat" as a sighted rower.

Rowing: The Same Rules for Everyone

"After a few weeks on the water, we could see that these guys can row. They don’t need any adaptive equipment, and frankly, I don’t even know what they’d use. We never even bothered to look into it because we didn’t have to,” Gary said. Essentially, the rowers at VIARP are participating in the same exact sport with the same equipment and rules as any typical club or community rowing team. "They’re very proud of that," Gary added. "They’re very proud to be racing head to head with their sighted peers. They realize they’re not going to win every race, but they’re very proud of the good, competitive races they’ve had and the handful of second and third place medals."

Learning to Row Takes Practice

In his years as a rower and in his time teaching and coaching rowing to visually impaired and blind individuals, Gary has witnessed that very little separates a sighted rower from one who is visually impaired. Whether you have vision or not, teaching the technique, rhythm, and the importance of maintaining that clean process will be the same. It can take months of focused practice and repetition before an individual (sighted or visually impaired) can grasp the idea of dropping their oar in the water at the right time and the feeling of a fully synchronous, balanced boat gliding through the water. While it may take slightly longer to teach a concept like blade work or controlled slow slide pass to an individual who is visually impaired, Gary vouches that his rowers have life’s greatest virtues on their side: patience and focus. The visually impaired rowers are using all of their senses. They’re listening to the sound of the boat. They’re listening to the sound of the seat rollers on the rails in front and behind them. They’re listening to the sound of the oars, and they’re trying to commit it to memory. "You can see it, and once they get it, they’re there."

Finding Transportation for Practice Sessions is a Challenge

One restriction for his rowers that Gary continues to notice is finding secure, routine transportation to practice. Sighted rowers don’t need to factor this in as much; they show up, have access to daily coaching, and coaching on the ergs in the winter season. "If they could be here every day, I know my loyal rowers would be here every day." The visually impaired rowers, however, have to make arrangements for rides, which at best, happens twice a week. To make up for this sparse time on the water and in the boathouse, Gary has made sure that anyone who wants to borrow an erg for home training has access to one.

Vipers Preparing for Spring Racing Season

Since finishing their Fall racing season, the Vipers have worked on technique, rhythm, and speed in preparation for the spring racing season. As the Chesapeake Boathouse has been generous with their time and equipment, providing a cost-free program for the visually impaired rowers, the team aims to schedule their practices when river and dock traffic is low, typically on Wednesday evenings and Sunday afternoons. This also allows them the necessary time to take precautions getting up and down the dock, in and out of the boat, and having ample time for drills. "Our purpose is to get them on the water, get some exercise, build camaraderie, and have fun."

While the size of the team has fluctuated slightly over the years, presently, there are 12 active visually impaired rowers and 10 sighted volunteers. Some of the rowers on the team were born blind, others retain vision in one eye, while some are living with degenerative conditions such as retinitis pigmentosa. The unifying factor, though, is the strong will that brought them to the boathouse the first time and keeps them coming back for more—an unwavering commitment to be a part of something that they never thought was an option.

"At the end of the day, VIARP is about these especially adventurous and courageous people who go out on the water and trust themselves to someone else," Gary said. "They have had some hard knocks and could have given up, but they haven’t. We volunteers learn so much from them."

Featured Vipers

George Shreve: Rowing Keeps Me Going

Mike Irons: Learning to Row

More About Rowing

Rowing Terms

Erg: An ergometer is an indoor rowing machine that simulates the rowing stroke sequence.

Erging: The act or sport of sitting on the rowing machine and practicing technique and endurance that one will need when sitting in the actual boat on the water.

Barge: The barge is a boat made for eight rowers that is more balanced. Comparable to having training wheels on a bike, the barge has four rows of two rowers each, sitting side by side—instead of eight rowers in one row of seats. Similar to a Greek/Roman galley, there is a platform between the rowers where the coach can walk and provide hands-on instruction regarding body positioning and form.

Dragon Boat: Dragon boats are human-powered boats filled with ideally 20 paddlers sitting in pairs, a drummer keeping the rhythm, and a sweep, who steers the boat. They do not require the rower to move their body up and down on a sliding seat.

Stroke Seat: The stroke seat is the first seat at the front of the boat, also known as seat number eight. They are responsible for setting the pace of the boat and keeping control throughout the positions of each stroke.

Move Up the Slide: Each rower is sitting on a seat that moves along a slide, bringing them to the catch (where they will place the oar in the water) and moving back to the finish (where they will remove their oar from the water to start a new stroke sequence)

Quad: A quad is a four person shell (boat) in which each rower has two oars instead of one.

Slide and Catch: The catch is the beginning of the stroke. The finish is the final position. The slide is how one moves from the catch to the finish and visa versa.

A diagram of the stroke cycle showing the different steps for rowing exercises

Caption: Chart Demonstrating the Stroke Cycle and Rowing Terms. Stroke Cycle image provided by RowPerfect

Tips for Getting Connected

  1. Contact the boathouses in your county or city and ask them if they have a program established for adaptive rowing.
  2. If they do not, don’t be discouraged. They may be able to direct you to a boathouse in the area that does.
  3. Or, they may have the resources and personnel to start a program to provide volunteer coaching or guidance as you start your training.

Visit usrowing.org for a list of key programs where you can get yourself on an erg and eventually out on the river.

Remember, all you need to start a program is one rower, a borrowed boat, and one volunteer.

Join VIARP Vipers by simply contacting Gary Mayo, coordinator and head coach of the VIARP Vipers. The team meets twice a week, Wednesday evenings and Sunday afternoons, to practice.

Contact Chesapeake Boathouse at 405-552-4040 and ask for Gary Mayo or e-mail him at gmremex@gmail.com.

Additional Information

Boathousedistrict.org/adaptive-rowing

How Athletes Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired Can Make an Easy Transition to Rowing"

Vipers Rowing in YouTube Video: Vipers Rowing in the Corporate Races of the Stars and Stripes Regatta in Oklahoma City on June 27, 2015.

RowPerfect's Guide to Resources for Adaptive Rowing

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