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Feeling free: Adaptive rowing allows the disabled a chance to relax on the water

  • Elderkin, right, says rowing helps her leave her troubles behind for the time she is on the water. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Carol Elderkin and Stephanie Moore row on the Connecticut River. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Carol Elderkin and Stephanie Moore row on the Connecticut River. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Stephanie Moore, left, and Tarik Clark of ServiceNet, right, help Carol Elderkin, left, into a boat equipped with a special device that allows her to move the paddles with her right arm and leg. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo—

  • Tarik Clark of ServiceNet, right, helps Carol Elderkin, left, into a shell equipped with a special device that allows her to move the paddles with her right arm and leg. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Stephanie Moore, below, helps Carol Elderkin, above, into a shell equipped with a special device that allows her to move the paddles with her right arm and leg. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Stephanie Moore, right, helps Elderkin into a shell equipped with a device that allows her to move the paddles with her right arm and leg. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Stephanie Moore, left, Tarik Clark of ServiceNet, center, and Kiah Jiggetts, also with ServiceNet, right, help Carol Elderkin out of her wheelchair and into a shell in the Connecticut River in Holyoke equipped with a special device that allows her to move the paddles with her right arm and leg. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Kathleen Saunders, right, helps Tarik Clark of ServiceNet, center, and Bo Tanner, left, clean a shell at Holyoke Rows on Jones Ferry Road in Holyoke. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Carol Elderkin, below, watches as Stephanie Moore helps to carry a canoe from the Holyoke Rows boathouse to the Connecticut River. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Carol Elderkin hasn’t been able to move the left side of her body since a hit-and-run driver struck her when she was 10. Above, she prepares to row on the Connecticut River with adaptive equipment. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Bo Tanner, right, a volunteer with Holyoke Rows, who herself is disabled, helps a client from ServiceNet's Enrichment Center in Chicopee into a shell at the Connecticut River. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Carol Elderkin, right, rows at the Connecticut River in Holyoke with Stephanie Moore, left, using a special device that allows her to move the paddles with her right arm and leg. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo



@AndyCCastillo
Monday, August 20, 2018

Carol Elderkin of Florence drifted down a section of the Connecticut River in Holyoke Thursday afternoon in a long shell, pulling hard at long oars. Rowing in the front of the boat, Stephanie Moore, director of Holyoke Rows in Holyoke, shouted words of encouragement.

From a distance, it was easy to miss that Elderkin was rowing exclusively with her right hand and right foot.

Ever since she was run down at age 10 by a hit-and-run driver and “left for dead,” said Elderkin, 54, she hasn’t been able to move the left side of her body. Before the accident, she had dreams of competing in the Olympics as a gymnast.

“Second, third and fourth grade, my ultimate dream at that point in my life was to become a gymnast on the uneven parallel bars, the rings and floor,” Elderkin said.

After her accident, Elderkin gave up hopes of competing in anything ever again. But then, three years ago, she discovered adaptive rowing at Holyoke Rows on Jones Ferry Road in Holyoke. The community rowing club, which is run by Moore and incorporates programs for people with disabilities, has given her a second chance at being an athlete.

By using a pulley system attached to a wooden frame that rests at the bottom of the boat, Elderkin is able to control the left oar by peddling with her right foot, and she pulls the right oar with her right hand.

Out on the water, “I’m free,” Elderkin said later, taking a break inside a boathouse, the Sue Ellen Panitch River Access Center. “There’s so much freedom out there. Freedom, and a sense of competition. I get to compete against myself, with the help of another rower who is the second person in my boat. It really is a thrilling feeling.”

As she talked, she sat among others from ServiceNet’s Enrichment Center in Chicopee, including Kathleen Saunders, 57, who had invited Elderkin to try rowing. ServiceNet is a nonprofit agency that provides services for disabled people. Money from a state grant allows staff from the enrichment center take groups to Holyoke Rows every Thursday.

For Saunders, who paused to talk while cleaning a shell under the direction of volunteer Bo Tanner, who also uses a wheelchair, rowing is a chance to escape.

“It’s relaxing, beautiful and freeing. Just seeing the trees and all that water in front of you and behind you. It’s just so peaceful out there,” she said. “You leave all your problems behind,” Elderkin added.

‘Out of Nowhere’

During the week, Elderkin lives at a home in Florence run by ServiceNet for people with head injuries. To get around, she uses a special wheelchair that she can push straight forward using only her right hand. On her left wrist, Elderkin, who is partially blind, now wears a watch that tells the time out loud. Over time, Elderkin says she has accepted her injuries as permanent.

She recalled the night of the crash as if it had just happened. On Oct. 5, 1974, she was on her way to the Topsfield Fair with her older brother and sister. Her brother was driving and they parked across the road on the old U.S. Route 1, next to the fairgrounds, she said. They intended to sneak under the fence like she’d done the year before.

“I looked both ways, and there was nothing coming, and I was looking at my watch, my Caravel watch that glowed in the dark. When I saw the coast was clear I bolted,” Elderkin said. “Out of nowhere, pccchhh! 9:03 1/2 p.m. was the point of contact to my head,” Elderkin said, looking down at her talking watch. “A pickup truck. Hit, thrown and traveled over. Left for dead in the middle of the street.”

The driver, who was never identified, didn’t stop and drove away from the scene. Elderkin was in a coma for about six months and couldn’t talk for two years. Doctors didn’t think she’d recover, she said.

“I wasn’t supposed to come out of it and walk, talk or function like a normal human being again,” she added.

Elderkin. who grew up with seven siblings in Hamilton, noted that she has surpassed all expectations. “I have had to find my own new way of life, and I have found something that none of my siblings have found in their lives, with the rowing."

Benefits, challenges

Rowing, with all of its benefits, also poses challenges. 

To get into the boat, Elderkin needs at least three people to help her into the seat — one to keep her wheelchair from rolling, another to lift her into a standing position, and a third person to hold the boat still. 

Out on the water, Elderkin said, she has had to learn a special rowing technique to move both oars at once, which can be awkward. Despite these challenges, she approaches rowing with resilience — similar to how she seems to approach life. 

“I have to keep going. I have to keep excelling beyond my injury,” Elderkin said. “I have to be going for the gusto — the most foreseeable or unreasonably foreseeable goal … the drive in me is there to keep trying. And try I will."

A second chance

On Saturday, which was her birthday, along with a few other athletes from Holyoke Rows, Elderkin competed in the BAYADA Regatta in Pennsylvania, which is the nation’s oldest adaptive rowing competition for athletes with disabilities. It’s the second year she has competed, and she placed second, following up a bronze medal last year, according to Moore. Moore noted the adaptive rowing program is focused on improving. Upcoming, Elderkin intends to enter in the Paper City Regatta in Holyoke, a rowing competition open to everyone, also for the second year.

“I am loving it. I am loving it, Elderkin said. “I am so thrilled that I can compete again. Not only with myself, but with others and against others, and anything that I have to do during that journey to get there.”

Out on the water Thursday, after about a half-hour of rowing, Elderkin and Moore maneuvered their shell back to the dock. Elderkin​​​​​​ was all smiles.

“It was really beautiful out there — nice and calm,” she said. “I let my cares and worries travel away from me on the waves. And where they went, I don’t know. But they’ve gone away.”

Andy Castillo can be reached at acastillo@gazettenet.com.

How to Connect

Holyoke Rows, a nonprofit community organization at the Jones Ferry River Access Center on the Connecticut River in Holyoke, was founded by Stephanie Moore in 2000 with the goal of making rowing available to everyone. Moore coached college rowing for 10 years at the University of Virginia, Florida Institute of Technology, Trinity College in Hartford, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst, before shifting her focus to community rowing.

The rowing organization offers a variety of programs, including for those with disabilities and for military veterans. More information can be found at www.holyokerows.org, or by emailing office@holyokerows.org.