Adaptive Training Requires Inclusive Design for a Wide Range of Impairments

In today’s Excy’s HealthYeah live interview, we got to sit down with Coach Tara Morgan, the founder and head coach for Seize The Oar about the sport of adaptive rowing. As a long-time athlete with a love of the sport of rowing, Coach Tara started Seize the Oar in 2013 when a local man with a spinal cord injury wanted to learn to row. Even though she had never taught anyone with a disability, Coach Tara didn’t hesitate.

Adaptive rowing is a fairly new sport and there were no programs in the Pacific Northwest for adaptive rowers. So, Coach Tara set out to build one from scratch. With no equipment and no knowledge of working with adaptive athletes, she focused on building a transformative, resilient, and trusting community that celebrates every aspect of the athletic endeavor of rowing.

ParaRowing Growing Alongside ParaSports

USRowing, a nonprofit organization recognized by the United States Olympic Committee is the governing body for the sport of rowing. It defines adaptive rowing as the sport of sweep rowing or sculling for people with physical or intellectual impairments. An adaptive rower is a rower who requires modifications to equipment, coaching and program structure to allow for maximum functionality of the rowing stroke. According to USRowing, more than 60 USRowing member organizations now offer adaptive programs.

The athletes of Seize the Oar train on the water and on land. Indoor training is critical in the off season, so the athletes turn to a CrossFit training model. For Coach Tara, CrossFit is great for adaptive athletes because it offers a controlled environment to set goals, build a community, and to focus on strength training and conditioning.

In addition, she likes the CrossFit model for adaptive athletes because the gyms are typically spacious and provide ample workout room for all adaptive fitness enthusiasts, including wheelchair users. Equipment also tends to be modular in nature. This is important because it’s easier for the athletes to easily move or adjust machines, navigate around them if in wheelchairs, and to get creative in making them adapt to their specific needs.

Personal trainers, coaches, physical therapists and other rehab specialists interested in building inclusive adaptive training environments can learn from Seize the Oar. During the interview, Coach Tara gets into several aspects of what it takes to build an inclusive adaptive athletic training environment, including the need for:

Inclusive Adaptive Fitness Facilities and Equipment

Adaptive athletes are used to a world that is not designed around them, but there are a few things facilities can do to build inclusive environments that prioritize accessibility. Coach Tara specifically mentions the importance of elevators, shower facilities, and hoists for pools, handrails and more. During the off season, Seize the Oar trains at CrossFit RE in South Seattle, which was named as one of Seattle’s 25 best places to feel the burn” by Seattle Met Magazine. The team primarily focuses on using Concept2 rowing ergometers from Rogue Fitness with WinTech Adaptive Fixed Seats for those in wheelchairs. The team also incorporates a Concept2 SkiErg, an Excy XCR 300 hand cycle, resistance brands, free weights, and more.

Creative and Collaborative Trainers

Every athlete at Seize the Oar has a unique set of requirements. Coach Tara mentioned the importance of having a trainer who is willing to collaborate with the athlete based on their specific injury. She suggests that adaptive trainers have a smart toolkit for strength and conditioning techniques. In addition to equipment, this also means being compassionate, having good coaching skills, including the ability to give a good high-five.

Having someone on the team with an occupational therapy, recreational therapy, or physical therapy background to formulate workouts is helpful. If not on the team, then at least an advisor with a solid background.

Know Your Specialty

Coach Tara outlines an entire ecosystem of adaptive training. This ranges from those with life-altering physical injuries, to those born with disabilities, to those with cognitive challenges and more. Some trainers might opt to work with those who are training at a Paralympic level, others for competition, lifestyle fitness, or therapeutic recreation.

At Seize the Oar, anyone can participate in the training. But, because there are risks in getting out on the water, Coach Tara has defined safety rules for those who row on the water. These guidelines were created under the advisement of professionals at Harborview Medical Center and Veteran’s Affairs. It’s important to know your audience to help minimize risks for the athlete, volunteers, and staff.

Inspire Others on the Athlete’s Terms

Athletes are working hard and doing challenging workouts. Coach Tara mentions how they want to focus on their goals and being an athlete, but not on the journey that got them to becoming an adaptive athlete. If they don’t want to share their story, respect that. If they do, figure out how to support them.

Partner with Rehab Professionals

People with spinal cord injuries will spend months and years rehabilitation. If trying to grow an adaptive training business, it’s important to help people make the transition from rehab to a lifestyle of training. These conversations should begin with local rehabilitation professionals and associations. For example, Coach Tara worked closely to establish a relationship with Movement Systems Physical Therapy, who now works closely with the team and is a sponsor. Focusing on relationships with rehab professionals not only helps the business, but can also be very helpful in creating home and gym workout programs to avoid and treat common adaptive injuries.

Shoot for Progress, Not Perfection

When working with adaptive athletes, Coach Tara mentions that it’s important to understand and create adaptive techniques and not to measure techniques against able-body sport participants. For example, in rowing, you have to re-think technique and need to consider how to rig the boat to maximize what they are able to do physically with the balance of making the boat go fast. The goal is to make the most of what’s possible, while preventing injury.

Like any athlete, adaptive athletes must listen to their body and communicate about what’s hurting and doesn’t feel good. But as trainers, Coach Tara says it’s important to communicate effectively. Techniques will be different for those in wheelchairs vs. those who are not.

What’s Next for Seize the Oar

Coach Tara would love to see more boathouses in the Pacific Northwest think about inclusion and the opportunity to serve adaptive athletes. Not all boathouses have the capabilities to accommodate athletes with wheelchairs, but they can accommodate others with different needs.

There is a need for inclusion everywhere, from adaptive rowing on the water, to adaptive CrossFit training in the gym. This includes those with cognitive challenges like Asperger’s, autism, MS, Parkinson’s, ALS, and a number of challenges. Seize the Oar is committed to facilitating the conversation and expanding the opportunities for adaptive athletes. She’s also excited about what’s going on with WheelWod CrossFit workouts and thinks it will help drive even more interest in adaptive training.

The Seize the oar team will be at the Renton Rowing Center on April 7. Anyone interested in adaptive rowing, being an adaptive trainer, and meeting the athletes should check it out. Seize the Oar will also participate in the Seattle Public School Sport Inclusion Day on March 23.


Watch the Interview with Coach Tara from Seize the Oar!

Connect with Seize the Oar on Instagram and Facebook.

What’s Coach Tara Reading?

“Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter” by Liz Wiseman

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