The adaptation of rowing

Authored By Maggie Behringer

There was one boat at the recent Head of the Hooch regatta that was more than satisfied with its third-place finish.

Gib North, a member of the Chattanooga Junior Rowing Club’s adaptive rowing program, competed for the seventh time with his longtime boat mate, Katie Rouse, in the Adaptive Mixed 2x race.

The adaptive rowing program is a part of the larger club that Program Director Jack Fish developed six years ago to fulfill one of the tenants of the Lookout Rowing Club-CJR’s parent organization. It is open to anyone whose physical or mental needs preclude them from rowing solo or in a regular boat.

“If there is anybody that wants to row, we do whatever we can to facilitate that,” Fish said.

That has meant using fixed rather than sliding seats and strapping rowers into the boat to secure them upright. Though the program fluctuates in size, there are typically three to six rowers, ranging from quadriplegics to the blind to the mentally handicapped to wounded soldiers. 

Each rower is paired with a volunteer mentor from the CJR roster, many of whom gain just as much from the relationship as the adaptive rowers.

At home on the water
At 25 years old, Gib has been rowing since middle school. When he was 6 months old, his mother Teresa explained that she and her husband, Hal, noticed that their son wasn’t sitting up. 

Over the years, doctors gave the family every kind of diagnosis, from developmental delays to autism. One even told them to began making arrangements for his passing. However, Gib attended public schools-both special education and mainstream classes with the help of an aid-in the Red Bank system and now works at the Middle Valley Animal Hospital.

The Norths had been trying to introduce biking into Gib’s routine to improve his vestibular system when they discovered the adaptive program at CJR. What began as a means to build his body strength and a link with a lifelong physical activity became a social and emotional outlet with indescribable rewards.

“The first time I ever saw him row in the [Head of the] Hooch, I cried so hard,” Teresa said. “I just couldn’t believe he was actually rowing. Emotionally and socially, Gib feels at home with all of these [adult and CJR rowers].”

In fact, Gib’s success inspired Teresa to join in: She and a group of her friends have picked up the sport and are now frequent visitors to the boathouse off Riverfront Parkway.

Having his back
Gib and Crouse were paired together during her junior year of high school. They met every Wednesday for an hour to test their skills on the stretch of the Tennessee River around the Chattanooga Golf and Country Club, Maclellan Island and the downtown bridges. 

Though she rowed with other adaptive rowers and continued to train and race in a competitive CJR boats, Crouse and Gib formed a much closer bond. Fish noted that the two practically grew up together.

Rowing with Gib has come with a few adjustments. He does not feather his oars, which means that when his oars are on top of the water after a stroke, he doesn’t turn them horizontally, making their boat’s overall stroke distance a little shorter. The slight technical difficulty has hardly put a kink in their rowing.

“I do feather my oars, which helps me to keep the boat steady while we row,” Crouse said. “Gib just taught me how to best row with him, and we went from there.”

Their connection has extended beyond the water and beyond Chattanooga. When Crouse moved to Jefferson City to attend Carson-Newman College, she would frequently travel home so that they could continue to row on the weekends. She taught him how to drive. They schedule monthly lunch dates and still meet to row almost every week, depending on the weather. Even their families are good friends.

Gib has also begun training with CJR rower Lauren Simpson. As to why he took to rowing so well, Teresa pointed to the assurance of having a second person in the boat, someone who has his back and will pick up the stroke if he misses it.

His favorite part of the sport that has been easy, Gib said, is the competitive aspect and, of course, getting to row with ladies.

For Crouse, the relationship transformed what she took away from the experience of rowing, enriching what could be a simple form of physical activity with a much deeper reward.

“Gib put a new view on rowing for me. I always enjoyed rowing with the juniors, but once Gib and I started rowing together, it was the smile on his face that made me realize how lucky I was to have the opportunity to row with him,” she said. “I love rowing and being on the water, but having the time to spend on the water with your best friend makes the sport even more fun.”