Rowing the distance: Lack of vision can't keep Shaler teen from competitive sports
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Andy Starnes, Post-Gazette photos
Rachael Gniewkowski, 14, learns how to row with David Curry on the back channel at Washington's Landing.
On a sunbathed September afternoon, Rachael Gniewkowski leaned hard to the left to prevent a racing shell from tipping into the Allegheny River's choppy waves.
"The boat almost tipped over. It was scary," the teenager said, recalling the effects of a passing motor boat's wake. "They didn't even care that we were there."
Luckily, the 14-year-old high school freshman had help that day from David Curry, a veteran rower who volunteers regularly to work with beginners at the Lambert Boathouse operated by Three Rivers Rowing Association on Washington's Landing.
The duo rows together again Saturday in the 20th annual Head of the Ohio, a competition that draws nearly 2,000 athletes from high schools, colleges and rowing clubs, many of them on the East Coast.
In a neat stroke of coincidence, Miss Gniewkowski of Shaler will be the youngest competitor while Mr. Curry, 77, of Fox Chapel, will be the eldest and, probably, the most experienced.
Mr. Curry's crew mate also is legally blind from a birth defect. The teenager, who wears glasses, has some forward vision but no peripheral or depth perception. To learn the basics, she sat on the dock in an oar master. The portable, single-unit piece is made of aluminum and consists of a sliding seat, the tracks on which that seat moves, slots for your feet and the riggers, which hold the oars.
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Mr. Curry has coached her since August 2005. He's been rowing since he joined Brown University's team in 1948. After he suffered three concussions on the football field, the school's football coach suggested he find another sport.
A retired federal prosecutor, he is passionate about his pursuit.
"When an eight-oared shell is being rowed well, it just sort of sings as it goes through the water and it's an exhilarating experience," Mr. Curry said.
His student paid close attention.
"She really took to it very well," Mr. Curry said about Miss Gniewkowski. "She's a good little athlete. She enjoys the water and ... she responds very well to instruction.
"The best part about it is that she enjoys it. Rowing is something that you cannot do if you don't enjoy it."
To learn the sport, rowers with visual problems also use their sense of touch.
"What we do is have them put their hands on the body of a person who is experienced in rowing. The most difficult thing is understanding how the body parts function and how they are related to each other," Mr. Curry said, adding that novices must learn the proper position for their shoulders, hips, hands and legs.
Still, vision is not essential to learning how to row.
"Rowing is something you don't have to be able to see to do. A lot of the college crews practice with their eyes shut. They do it as an exercise to develop timing, which is so important. Timing is not related to vision," Mr. Curry said.
Practicing with your eyes closed is useful, he added, because, "You can't see something and react and be in time with that person."
Each year, about a dozen volunteers are recruited from the ranks of high school students and blindfolded during their training.
"We ... have them work with the boats and row the boats to get an awareness of what it's like to be without vision," Mr. Curry said.
The sport, he added, demands participation.
"You can send a kid out to play right field or left field in a softball game and they can stand around and watch the game. You can't put a kid in a boat and have them sit around and watch things. He or she has to participate."
Miss Gniewkowski did just that last month during Philadelphia's Bayada Regatta. The teenager and Laura Cord, who had rowed on the Carnegie Mellon University team, raced nonstop on the Schuylkill River for a little more than a half a mile in 5 minutes, 55 seconds.
"I'm real competitive. I was only a minute behind first place," Miss Gniewkowski said proudly during an interview in her family's comfortable, eat-in kitchen.
Her coach was pleased with her, too.
"She had the courage to go down there in a totally new environment and compete in a regatta that involved disabled people from a wide area. This is a big event. Her mother said it was an extraordinary experience, that they had never imagined anything like that ever existed," Mr. Curry said.
Staying in motion is as second-nature to this ebullient teenager as her volunteer work at Sarah Heinz House Boys & Girls Club on the North Side.
There, she takes classes in ballet, tap and hip-hop dancing, plays defense on a soccer team and belongs to the Lead Team, which raises funds and gives an annual grant to a local charity.
Every summer, she attends a five-day camp at Slippery Rock University to play goal ball with a team of VIPs -- visually impaired players. During a game, athletes wear blindfolds as they pass a ball with bells inside around a court. Players on one team roll the ball while the other team's members dive at the sound and try to stop it.
"She's our little sports diva," said her mother, Denise Gniewkowski.
The teenager's initial rowing experience was not promising. During a physical education class, she canoed in a swimming pool.
"I couldn't really get the hang of it. I kept going backward," she recalled.
But now, Miss Gniewkowski plans to continue rowing and has a practical strategy for this Saturday's race.
"We just want to finish and get a good time," she said.
"She really took to it very well," David Curry, 77, said about Rachel. "She's a good little athlete. She enjoys the water and ... she responds very well to instruction."
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First Published October 4, 2006 12:00 am