Rowers in eight-oar rowing boats on the tranquil lake

Rowing…It Keeps Me Going

By Francesca Crozier-Fitzgerald

George Shreve was among the first group of rowers that showed up to the very first Visually Impaired Adaptive Rowing Project (VIARP) practice to see what rowing was all about. What he found was an opportunity to be a part of something he never thought he’d be able to do. Today, in his late 50s, he doesn’t know where he’d be without rowing in his weekly routine. As long as he can get himself to practice, rowing will be a major part of his life.

George met Gary in 2008 in Oklahoma City, where he was taking tech classes, and Gary was volunteering to drive blind and visually impaired students, like George, to and from the class.

“He told me he had an idea,” George said. “He asked me if I’d be interested in exercising with him on a new rowing team he was starting. I said absolutely and started showing up. It was the right place, right time.”

When George first joined the team, it was just him and two other women. Gary had them do a swimming test and practice a couple of times a week on the erg (land rowing machine). He gave them workouts to do on their own, and they took it from there. Before the end of their first season, the novice rowers were demanding to have their shot on the water.

George remembers his first time on the water well. “It felt like freedom. I grew up in the sighted world, but have gradually lost my vision after my diagnosis of retinitis pigmentosa. Now, I was doing something that I thought I’d never be able to do,” George said.

And from the time they started going out on the water, rowing in boats of four and eight people, he felt the flow that many rowers have described as addictive, euphoric.

“That feeling of being on the water—you’re moving, there’s a breeze, you’re listening to the sound of water. There’s a peacefulness to it that you can only get in nature and around water. I’m free out there.”

Growing up, George has always found a way to integrate exercise into his routine. He finds the physical stimulation very important, as it motivates him and keeps him goal-oriented, but his options have been limited in recent years. He remembers hiking with his parents as a young child looking out over the panorama. He liked to ride his bike and was able to drive himself to the park or wherever he wanted to exercise, but in recent years as his sight deteriorated he is no longer able to drive. Another rower on the team, a volunteer, who lives miraculously close to George, brings him to and from practice. Without that ride and rowing, he’d feel stuck living out in the country far from Oklahoma City.

“I’m a competitive person,” George joked. “That’s all there is to it, it’s part of my personality. I like to test myself, and I like to reach goals I set for myself.”

George also enjoys yard work, taking his guide dog Castillo out for long walks, and sticking to his routine alternating indoor bike workouts and indoor erg workouts.

“That’s all good to stay active and all,” he said, “but it’s getting to the river, getting out in a boat with these new friends that I enjoy the most. I need the contact. I need to get out of the house, and rowing gives me that.” Once he saw he was pretty good, it became a source of personal reward, too.

Rowing doesn’t prohibit George or his other visually impaired and blind teammates from participating in the sport. This is perhaps what sets rowing apart from other contact sports like basketball or football. Gary was able to coach these individuals, help them gain a comprehensive understanding of the sport on land, and then guide them to translate that same technique, strength, and focus out on the water. That’s all it takes.

“My eye condition doesn’t stop me from being a part of the sport, and that’s important. With my retinitis pigmentosa, I still have some light perception. I can see the shadow of the person in front of me, and if I need to, I can use their shadow as an indicator when they start moving on their slide. For the most part, though, I just listen.”

As VIARP has grown over the years with sighted volunteers and visually impaired and blind rowers, has created a sturdy network of friends and confidantes for its members. George has known some of his teammates for as long as seven years, and he values the balanced relationships that he finds at the boathouse and out on the water.

“After rowing in front and behind these men and women, you develop a level of trust with them. We trust one another to pull hard, to stay patient, to stay focused, to let each other know if one of us is out of rhythm, or out of sync. We all need that guidance. We need to hear that from one other,” he said. Despite frustrating circumstances like choppy water or cold gusting winds, the team has to be focused on achieving the same goal and, most importantly, on getting there together. VIARP gets this.

In recent months, with more racing experience under his belt and a few trophies (silver and bronze) from races and independent erging competitions, George is considering trying out for the Oklahoma City Boathouse’s Master’s rowing program. This is a team of sighted rowers, from post-college age students to adult men and women in their 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s.

“There’s one other woman on the team who is visually impaired and used to row with VIARP, but she rows and competes as any other sighted rower now. I’d like to try out for this team soon once I get a little stronger. Then I’ll go after kayaking and canoeing now that I have the rowing down.”

For other personal goals, George is determined to get a gold medal. He knows it’s a possibility, and that’s enough for him.

“I’m in my mid-fifties, and I hope to continue rowing into my sixties and seventies. I’ll stick with it until I cannot do it anymore. This connection has changed my life …it keeps me going.”

More About Rowing

Read about the Visually Impaired Adaptive Rowing Program

Find out about Mike Irons’s experience with the Visually Impaired Adaptive Rowing Program