Born from a man’s determination to learn to row after losing his legs due to meningococcal, Balmain Para-Rowing is a shining example of a program that empowers people with physical or intellectual disabilities every day through sport. After initially coaching Matthew to become Balmain Rowing Club’s first para-athlete in 2007, it was three years before another young man approached the club to learn to row in 2010, formally initiating the Balmain Para-Rowing Program. After sustaining traumatic brain and physical injuries in a car accident, the young man approached the club at the advice of his GP, who thought it might aid his rehabilitation. As it has continuously proved to be the case for participants, learning to row demonstrated both physical and social benefits for the young rower beyond expectations.
In the years since its inception, the Balmain Para-Rowing Program has grown exponentially. Under the guidance, support and assistance of volunteer coaches including current coaches Anne Craig, Barbara Ramjan, Liam James and Alexander Nikolaidis, Balmain Para-Rowing has developed into a program that caters to each participant’s own special needs, ensuring inclusivity regardless of individuals’ experience or disability. At it’s core, the program operates to provide persons with disabilities the opportunity to join the rowing community, encouraging new athletes of all levels of experience and disability to enjoy and participate in the sport of rowing.
For anyone of any ability, simply “learning to row” is not as straightforward as it sounds. A fairly technical sport, rowing requires great coordination, which is harder to master for para-rowers because of their disabilities, whether physical or intellectual. To overcome any initial frustration of not acquiring required skills immediately, the Balmain Para-Rowers, with the guidance of their coaches, exhibit great determination, perseverance and commitment to practice and acquire their skills over hours of practice.
Training three mornings a week either on or off water, depending on conditions, the squad members are committed to also working out or doing some form of cross training on the days they are not at the shed, just like any other athlete. As members of the Balmain Rowing Club, they represent the club in races and use the facilities at the BRC shed just like any other member although the equipment they need on-water is often different to that used by able-bodied rowers.
For Zarni Tun, this is especially relevant. Diagnosed with cerebral palsy as an infant, Zarni eagerly learned to swim at an early age, leading to his successful pursuit of swimming at a competitive level throughout his schooling life. At the recommendation of his physiotherapist, in 2014 he tried rowing through Balmain Para-Rowing with instruction from coaches Anne and Barbara. With three categories of rowers within the program classified depending on their abilities, Zarni is classified as PR2 – a rower with a permanent impairment who has functional use of his trunk but is unable to use the sliding seat to propel the boat because of significantly weakened function and mobility of his lower limbs.
“In the beginning, my uncoordinated body found rowing difficult as there was no support for my back and all my focus went to keeping my back steady,” he says. “After a while, a new seat with back rest was arranged for me and since then my body became relaxed, which allowed me to focus more on my strokes. From then on, I have gained greater body strength and have become a better para- rower and the strength I gain from rowing has helped me a lot in my everyday activities.”
“By the end of every lesson I have learned something new that has helped me improve, that I have carried into my next lesson, increasing my speed, strength and endurance. From time to time I do admit I am bit slow and struggle to keep staying in my lane. But I will strive to overcome this and become a better para-rower, aiming for bigger events,” he continues. “I have raced in around four or five events now and have won a medal for first place in my category for most of them. I could have not done this without the dedication of my two lovely instructors.
Squad member Stephen Lawler found his way to Balmain also at the advice of a doctor. “I lost my leg (below knee, right leg) as a result of a motor vehicle accident whilst on the way home from work and now walk with a prosthetic. After the accident I suffered quite severe PTSD and depression and, at the suggestion of my psychologist, I rediscovered sport and working out,” he explains.
“I discovered rowing through a mentoring program facilitated through my insurance company and I instantly loved it. Rowing and setting goals within that has made a great difference in my recovery and I appreciate every moment. I want to row competitively and am motivated to push my limits to see how far I can go. Outside of rowing I am currently studying youth services with a desire to go into youth crisis care. It is a change in direction in respect to career, having previously been a design engineer, but I have a strong desire to contribute to societal change for the betterment of those less fortunate.”
Stories and achievements like Zarni and Stephen’s are constant within Balmain Para-Rowing, highlighting the opportunities it provides for people with disabilities to become apart of the rowing community, keep healthy and build confidence, structure and friendly relationships in their lives, regardless of their age, gender, race or ability.
The program’s record of success and list of achievements through state, national and international competitions is also ever growing. From the NSW State Championships, Australian National Championships, Australian Masters’ Championships, World Championships, the INAS Global Games and the Paralympics, Balmain Para-Rowing has consistently proved its strength on the world stage from the tiny pontoon at the top of Parramatta River.
For classmates Lauren Webber and Bronte Marshall, continuing their hard work and fulfilling their rowing aspirations after graduating high school came without question. Skilfully rowing in various sized boats throughout school, both ladies joined Balmain Para-Rowing Program in 2018, where they’ve since trained in single and double sculls, amongst others.
While very competitive, for Bronte the social aspect of the sport has always been highly attractive. “I saw learning to row as doing something different, improving my fitness and making new friends,” she says. “I really like being on the water and participating and I have had the most fun when I was a member of a double and a quad boat. Now that I have graduated from school I would like to continue rowing and I look forward to competing and making new friends at Balmain Rowing Club.”
For Lauren, she continues to train and compete at various regattas through Balmain Para-Rowing, especially to refine and develop her technical rowing skills further. In 2019 her dedication to rowing was recognised and rewarded when she received a NSW Union of Rowers Award scholarship and was selected for the Australian Rowing Team for the 2019 INAS Global Games.
INAS is the recognised international sport organisation for athletes with an intellectual impairment, with the INAS Global Games a world-class sporting competition that represents the peak of sporting achievement and held in Brisbane in 2019. It’s important to note that athletes with intellectual disabilities are not allowed to compete in the Paralympics, so the Games are the equivalent competition for ID athletes around the world. In 2019, Australia had a team of 10 rowers at the Games with five from Balmain Para-Rowing’s current Program and two others who began rowing with the Program. Team Australia was the largest rowing team in the competition and dominated the result with multiple medals across the podium.
The significance of this is not lost on coach Anne Craig. “The Para squad at Balmain is the largest club Para squad in Sydney, and possibly Australia. In both the winter and summer regattas more para-rowers are competing in races with and beside non-para-rowers. The Balmain Para Rower’s involvement in inclusive events has encouraged other club’s para rowers to do likewise. Steady progress is being made but our growth has been limited by lack of facilities and space in the current Balmain Rowing Club shed.”
The amenities and on-water location of Balmain Rowing Club have proven challenging for the program’s rowers since the beginning. While centrally located for those travelling from the north, south-east and west of Sydney to the club, Balmain’s water conditions are often affected by wash from ferries and boats travelling to and from nearby marinas.
As the club and boat shed are some of Australia’s oldest, access to the club has been problematic for anyone who isn’t deft on their feet. In the long process of renovating and modernising the boat shed and club, Balmain Rowing Club’s latest stage of renovation delivered disabled shower and toilet amenities in 2019. Access to the lower boat level, however, is still difficult for all until a proposed ramp is built, with current steep, narrow sandstone stairs difficult to navigate, particularly when carrying boats or using crutches, not to mention wheelchairs.
According to Anne, it’s with these factors in mind that the Balmain Para-Rowing program has been looking for a new home, “Where the access to the shed and boats is easy and level, and the water is less challenging.”
“Sites west of Iron Cove Bridge in Callan Park and in Leichhardt Park have been identified and the current draft management plan for Leichhardt Park is currently with the Inner West council. The Program’s submission to build a facility in Leichhardt Park has been included in this draft plan and we await the Council’s decision on whether this facility can be built by us for use as a community based rowing facility. Expansion of the Program is very much dependent on finding a new home for the Program. If we can achieve this, the Program will be able to expand to become a larger community.”
At present, Balmain Para-Rowing receives donations through the Australian Sports Foundation to cover new specialised equipment, like that used by Zarni, and travel costs to interstate and international regattas. One of the biggest opportunities for its rowers in 2020 comes in August, where around ten rowers will travel to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to compete in the BAYADA Regatta, a regatta solely for para rowers. The squad will also spend a few days training in Washington, D.C. prior to the regatta.
Much like the increasing number of new rowers joining Balmain Para-Rowing Program, the opportunities for members to fulfil their aspirations, practice resilience in developing their skills recreationally or competitively, renew focus for future endeavours and build hope through the Program are continuing to grow. Should the Program’s submission to build a new facility be approved, additional fundraising will be vital to further expansion of the Program and community.
Regardless, for coach Anne Craig, she’s appreciative of the very essence of the Program’s daily function. “It’s exciting when we see a rower progress, like from a wide training boat to a racing scull, or from a para-specific boat with full balance support to the same boat with limited support. For me personally, the greatest highlight is just helping all our rowers access a sport they never believed they could participate in. Some are very competitive and are achieving great results; others just want to enjoy the thrill of being on the water.”
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