Paralympian Great Eight Dominates New Mixed Eight

Para 8

By Julia Guilardi – Posted on October 25, 2016

For eight Paralympian rowers from across the globe, the 2016 Head of the Charles Regatta was an event filled with firsts.

In the first-ever Director’s Challenge Mixed Eight on Sunday, the first-ever Para Great Eight earned top prize out of 33 boats with rowers of all levels of ability.

“I think it was huge for Paralympics and Paralympians everywhere that we were able to produce basically a Great Eight, like our Olympic counterparts were,” said Jaclyn Smith, a U.S. Paralympian who rowed in the inaugural Para Great Eight.

This year’s Head of the Charles saw a new competition added to the event lineup: the Director’s Challenge Mixed Eight. This race allowed, for the first time, men and women to compete together in the same eight boats. For Ellen Minzner, this was an opportunity too good to pass up.

Minzner is the coach of the U.S. Para National Team Leg, Trunk and Arm (LTA) 4+ boat, which rowed its way to a silver medal at this year’s Paralympics in Rio de Janiero, Brazil. The LTA 4+ is a mixed boat of both men and women, and mixed competitions are rare in boats with more than four rowers. Seizing the chance to allow this team to compete in a larger boat at the Head of the Charles, Minzner oversaw the formation of the Para Great Eight.

This Great Eight was comprised of the U.S. Para National Team LTA 4+ – Smith, Danielle Hansen, Zachary Burns, Dorian Weber and coxswain Jennifer Sichel – along with U.S. rowers Allie Reilly and Molly Moore. They were joined by Jamie Fox from Great Britain and Andrew Todd from Canada. Since Great Britain earned gold in the LTA 4+ race in Rio and Canada took home bronze, every medaling LTA 4+ team was represented in this Great Eight.

“I was just so excited about the enthusiasm from the other para athletes, the international para athletes,” said Sichel. “That was really cool.”

Fresh off their medals in Rio, members of the team began training this summer for the Head of the Charles at Community Rowing, Inc. (CRI) in Brighton, where Minzner serves as the Director of Outreach. However, they had never rowed together prior to regatta weekend.

This did not deter them, and neither did the fact that the Director’s Challenge Mixed Eight was open to rowers of all abilities. These rowers are no strangers to non-para competition, according to Minzner. They compete on open teams at various events throughout the year, which helped prepare them for the 2016 Head of the Charles.

What makes this year’s regatta a special experience for this Great Eight, though, is the opportunity to race for a longer distance in a larger boat.

“[CRI] gave us an awesome place to train, and the Charles is amazing,” said Smith. “The eight is just a lot of fun. It’s a bit different, but it’s pretty cool. It’s pretty powerful, pretty strong.”

The Head of the Charles also boasts an advantage that Rio lacked: more visibility for Para rowing.

“[These are] big all-stars from the Paralympics, who, without coming here most people in the U.S. wouldn’t get to see them at all, because there was not good television coverage from Rio,” said Minzner. “So now here they are, front and center for all the world, and I think the athletes that row are going to be a huge inspiration to the next generation of Para rowers, and that’s what we want.”

In fact, Smith notes that sharing her story with younger rowers has been a personal highlight of this regatta. Their excitement is contagious, she says, and it adds to the positive atmosphere surrounding the Head of the Charles.

“It’s cool to share our experience and to be a role model for them and to share with them things we had to do,” said Smith.

For Minzner, this interaction with younger rowers matters for a different reason: recruiting. She hopes that watching the Para Great Eight take home first place will encourage more para rowers to get involved at the grassroots level with CRI and other organizations that focus on the accessibility of rowing to all.

“People see it. They love it. It looks fantastic. They want to be part of it, and they will say, ‘hey, how can I be involved?’” said Minzner. “We need more people with disabilities involved with the sport on every level.”

The Great Eight’s incredible victory on Sunday will likely help. The team finished over 10 seconds ahead of the second place boat, securing the top prize in this brand-new competition.

“It just solidified the fact that we’re just as serious, we train just as hard as anybody else,” said Sichel.

While their triumph was memorable, Minzner and the members of the Para Great Eight agree that the best part of coming together for the Head of the Charles was seeing one another, most for the first time since they competed in Rio.

“I haven’t seen my crew since Rio, so for me, I’m happy to see them.” said Minzner. “They’re a great group of athletes, and I miss working with them on a regular basis.”

Smith agrees: “It’s really nice to be able to come back and spend time with each other.”

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