As each nation gears up for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, the country of Zimbabwe is proudly preparing to send its first ever Paralympic Rowing team to compete on the world’s stage.
Zimbabwe has already produced a number of competitive world rowers, includingMicheen Thornycroft, who is best known for coming in fourteenth place overall in rowing at the 2012 Olympics after finishing second in the Final C race. However, there has never been a Para-rowing presence there until recently, when Rachel Davis, a Physical Education teacher and rowing coach, decided to pilot a Para-rowing program by putting out an open call for physically-impaired athletes who wanted to learn how to row.
Davis managed to identify and recruit three para-rowers through this open call – one man, Previous Wiri, and two women, Margret Bangajena and Chipo Zhento – but she needed a fourth to complete the roster for a para mixed cox four boat. That’s when she noticed that her fellow teacher, Takudzwa Gwariro, had a physical impairment himself: nerve damage in his right foot that he had incurred during a game of Rugby. Although Gwariro maintains that Davis was initially nervous to ask him if he would consider competing, it seems that their partnership was a serendipitous one, as after a number of rounds of classification, it became apparent that Gwariro was a terrific fourth member of this history-making team. Once the team had been formed, the athletes had just three weeks to train before traveling to a pre-Paralympic qualification camp in Gavirate, Italy.
Although Gwariro, Wiri, Bangajena and Zhento were all beginner rowers, each had previously been involved in other sports: Zhento had played wheelchair tennis, Bangajena and Wiri had both been competitive wheelchair racers, and Gwariro had been an avid rugby player before injuring his foot. Because of their athletic backgrounds, the four Para competitors were already well-versed in the art of working as a cohesive team, and each had the fiery competitive spirit that is required to excel at sports. Regarding forming their team and having so little time to train, Gwariro maintains that “the biggest challenge has been meeting expectations in such a short space of time,” but that the basic tenets of competing on a sports team are consistent, regardless of the sport. As Gwariro says, “with rugby, like in rowing, you still have to be accountable to your team and you still have to be dependent on your team and your team is dependent on you.”
And despite Davis’s slight initial trepidation about working with Para athletes, having never done so before, she explains that, “at first I thought, oh, I should make exceptions because she doesn’t have a leg or a foot. But after a while I realised, it’s just rowing. It is exactly the same. Everyone needs to work on technique, on timing, on boat feel. I don’t make any exceptions anymore.”
While the Zimbabwean Para-rowing team did not successfully qualify through the Final Paralympic Qualification Regatta, this is not very surprising, in light of how recently the team was formed and the fact that none of its members have any prior experience with competitive rowing. However, for their inspiring efforts and dedication to the sport and each other, the team has been offered bipartite invitations to the Rio Paralympic Games, which are “opportunities offered on a discretionary basis by the IPC and the respective International Federation to athletes who have not had the chance to meet the qualification criteria due to extraordinary circumstances.”
To me, the story of the Zimbabwean Para-rowing team serves as a moving demonstration of the transformative power of rowing. I hope that you’ll join me in loudly supporting these amazing athletes when they compete in Rio later this summer!
This post was originally syndicated on my Rowing blog, which you can visit at: http://www.AliciaAeziman.org/