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Adaptive Rowing Techniques Enable Varsity Student-Athlete

Natalie McCarthy rowing on a lake

By Dave Girrard

Entering her first year at Pacific Lutheran University, Natalie McCarthy didn’t think participating in intercollegiate athletics was an option.

Although she had been a member of the track team at Steilacoom High School — competing in the 100-and-200-meter dash and long jump — McCarthy didn’t think her ability level was high enough for PLU.

“In high school I was on the track team and enjoyed being on a team, but didn’t think I was quite what the track team here at PLU was looking for,” she said. “Someone suggested that if I liked sports I should try crew. So I decided to check it out.”

There was one wrinkle, however. McCarthy is legally blind.

After she struggled with vision and stomach problems, balance issues and severe headaches for “a long amount of time,” McCarthy’s parents finally convinced her to see a doctor. She underwent surgery the very next day.

The doctor found an astrocytoma, a type of brain tumor. Removing the tumor caused damage to the optic nerve because of a loss of blood flow. McCarthy was 10 years old at the time. She can tell the difference between light and dark, and see motion. Some colors also stand out.

PLU head coach Tone Lawver ’95 said the initial step was making the boats, oars and other equipment comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“Adaptive rowing has been around for awhile,” he said. “It actually got its start from a PLU alum, Doug Herland (’94). The principals for Natalie were to develop a system by which she could assimilate as quickly and easily as possible with the other rowers.”

The first step was teaching her the proper rowing technique.

“One of the tools we used early on was to have her feel a person actually rowing on an ‘erg’ (a rowing machine) and then break down the rowing stroke into its basic component sequencing,” said Lawver.

“We worked with her to develop a rhythm,” added assistant coach Megan Carns ’97.

Next, each of the oars and boats she would be using was labeled with a Braille labeler. “This would enable her to quickly check to identify what boat she was in and what seat. It also allowed her to determine what position the blade was in,” Lawver said.

“It took a while at first to really get it down and then stay in sync with the other rowers,” McCarthy said. “But after a while it comes, when you start to really pay attention to your surroundings and start to listen to other people. And it helps when there’s someone who can make sure you’re aligned and make sure you’re on-target at first. Once you start out well it clicks.”