(but dont worry, he's not leaving us)
"A dragon boat full of blind paddlers? Now that sounds like a challenge I want to be a part of!"
Those were my thoughts when I heard that Blind Start of America was forming a dragon boat team of blind paddlers and they were looking for volunteers to help coach, recruit, and paddle. I had absolutely no idea what to expect, but with most things in life, I’ve found that if you jump into it wholeheartedly something wonderful will happen. So I volunteered to be a coach for the fledging Blind Start team, and after only two practices, I haven't been disappointed!
Teaching a blind person to paddle has its obvious challenges. With some input from the Blind Ambition team from Portland, OR, we learned that one-on-one coaching is needed, so each vision impaired paddler is teamed up with a coach on the bench next to him or her. Coaching a blind paddler requires literally taking their hands and running them over the paddle, the gunwale, and the bench in front of them so they can form a clear mental image of the boat. Then we take them through the paddling positions, again by holding their hands on the paddle and physically moving them through the positions over and over until they get the feel for it.
I quickly got used to describing the paddling stroke by body mechanics and not with visual cues. Instead of showing how to set the paddle and pull through the stroke, I describe holding their top hand close to their forehead and extending their bottom hand all the way forward, then twisting from the waist. I tell them to feel for the water with the paddle and then move up a few inches to get into the set position. Then, Go! push the paddle in, feel the water touch your hand, now pull back, untwist and rip that water! There is a lot of adjusting and repositioning that makes the one on one coaching a must, so volunteer coaches are vital to the success of this venture.
At our first practice, I worked with a young man named Christian. He got the stroke down in less than five minutes. Good paddle depth, awesome rotation, and tons of power! I couldn’t believe how quickly he progressed. He looked better than some of the sighted paddlers on the team! After our blind paddlers got the stroke down in a separate boat, we put them into the boat with our sighted paddlers and went through a few 20 stroke sets, both sighted and then blindfolded. Timing is going to take some work, but I think everyone is getting a feel for the motion of the boat and getting timing cues from that. We’ve also been calling each stroke and recovery to help keep everyone in time. We’ll be ready for Big Long Beach!
So far, my favorite part has been getting to know the blind paddlers and seeing their excitement about the sport and life in general. One young girl took a train and a bus to get to practice, by herself! Christian has completed 9 marathons and is signed up for another one and also a 500 mile bike tour! These individuals have so many obstacles, yet they just don’t seem to care about them. They are going to have a great time no matter what seems to be in the way!
I think that is the greatest thing that I have taken from this experience. You cannot be afraid of what will happen or if you can meet a challenge. Just do it!
Team Blind Start set a goal to have a full boat of paddlers ready for the Big Long Beach tournament. Currently we have six blind or visually impaired paddlers on the team, and we are recruiting additional impaired paddlers (if you know anyone, please share this blog with them and encourage them to contact me). The rest of the boat will be filled with sighted paddlers wearing blindfolds so the whole boat will be blind (except for the caller and steersman, of course). Our current practice schedule is Sundays at 2:00 PM at Mother's Beach. Please come check us out or let me know if you're interested in learning more. We specifically need..... (coaches, sighted paddlers, recruiters, cheerleaders, money, equipment, shenanigans, and after the tournament beer!). You can also learn more about Blind Start of America at http://www.blindstart.org/.