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Seize the Oar: Ensuring that rowing is accessible to everyone, even in a pandemic

Sept 2020:

Seize The Oar champions inclusion in the sport of rowing through adaptive team training, outreach and thought leadership. In the last 7 years, they’ve offered novice and competitive training programs on and off the water, development camps, summer camps for teens, one day Rowing Adventure Day events, and written/video content for coaching and athlete development. They are currently hosting a Global Learn To Row Project and hosting twice-monthly para-rowing meet-up calls with COVID-affected coaches and athletes around the world.

Interview with: Tara Morgan (AKA Coach Tara)

Before you start, make sure to check out this beautiful and brief intro video, to get a sense of their work:

You started Seize the Oar, after receiving an email from someone who was seeking your support and expertise to enable them to get out on the water. How did you grow from that one request into an organization?

When people hear spinal cord injury, they often think Christopher Reeves or they immediately envision a wheelchair. But, there’s a huge range of impact from a spinal cord injury and, as a result, a huge range of support that’s needed. Seattle is a big rowing town but, I’ve really come to understand the impracticality of offering adaptive rowing at the more than 25 rowing clubs across the city - there is a real lack of confidence, lack of knowledge, lack of understanding about the need and opportunity.

We have dug into the opportunity by digging into our own learning and our relationships with the rowers. We really involve the athletes who come to us in the process of figuring out their best scenario. We don’t pretend to know what’s best for them.

Can you share an example, pre-COVID, of an interaction that really defined the success of your mission?

Our mission is to be very hands-on in building community and forging partnerships, none more striking than our process of matching rowers together. Pre-COVID, we were able to row on the water and match two rowers’ skills, size, and interest - an incredible outcome of this seemingly simple action is the relationship between those two strangers becoming deeply personal, learning a new language with each other, holding each other accountable for training goals and participation on the team.

I am not a rower but I know rowers and they are all such evangelists for the sport. What is it about this sport that people love so much?

Rowing can appeal to you if you like doing sports with others, if you’re a type A CEO, or if you’re someone who doesn’t play well with others – no matter what type of person you are, you can still crush it. It appeals to folks who want to dig into their technical ability – it requires you to follow direction, find coordination, deal with a ton of uncontrollable variables like wind, water, Mother Nature, other people. It’s humbling. You really get to distill yourself down. A rower appreciates really difficult things that are beyond their control.

There’s definitely a mystique around rowing. We all like to envision the lone sculler on the lake at the sunrise – it looks so beautiful and magical. But, it is one of the hardest things to do. The more beautiful it looks, the harder you're working.

Is there something about rowing that specifically draws your clients into the sport?

Our “clients” are more aptly called: athletes, participants, partners and colleagues. We always use athlete-first language. They are athletes who need adaptation to row, not disabled athletes or disabled rowers.

I think a lot of people are really interested in being human powered, whether you have a disability or not. They’re also interested in making new friends and making new teammates, who you need to communicate with, train alongside…who hold you accountable.

What have you heard from the athletes about what they’re missing now?

We are all impacted by the disappearance of face-to-face interaction, a cornerstone of our sport - the staff and coaches, the feel of the water, moving a boat on the lake, the sweat of your teammate, the high fives. Oh, we miss the high fives!

Before COVID - how was Seize the Oar doing?

Before COVID, we were poised to have our biggest season yet, in terms of capacity-building activities, launching new partnerships, and exponential growth on our thought leadership initiatives. We were more than doubling our budget, to provide working pay grades for our coaches, adding a paid executive position and more.

What are your biggest challenges now?

We are unlikely to gather in-person anytime soon, much less be on the water together. That has been the main focus for two of our three mission points: Adaptive Team Training and Outreach. Our challenge now is to pilot AND pivot our focus to whatever is our strongest and most sustainable output for not only the team and the outreach/partnerships but also in building a name for ourselves as a premier resource for other para-rowing programs around the world. And, we are headed in that direction we recently hosted a Global Para-Rowing Meetup event, attended by over 70 para-rowing representatives from 5+ countries!

In what ways have you responded to the challenges of the pandemic?

We’ve moved our weekly team training to Zoom and extended invitations to our partners - Power20 Studios, NW Adaptive Yoga, Adaptive Crossfit. We are now hosting Global Para-Rowing Meetup, twice monthly. We are beginning the creation of the Adaptive Rowing Coaching Certification with new partner Blaze Sports. And, we are pivoting our Rowing Adventure Day schedule and brainstorming virtual ideas.

Have those responses moved the needle?

Yes. Even though we can’t be on the water; our athletes feel like they are still part of our community; our coaches are employed and necessary; our board is engaged in future planning and capacity building; our global para-rowing and para-sport community is strengthening and growing; and our partnerships are developing in terms of content creation through collaboration that wouldn’t have happened without COVID.

However, we’re also struggling to understand how we raise money during COVID, when we’re not a first responder organization.

Has anything surprised you or have you learned something new about your work through this?

When the lockdown began, we initially did not create any content or Zoom meetings. We were concerned about adding to all the “noise” happening on the Internet around productivity, and opportunity. When we casually surveyed our athletes, we were a little surprised to hear how much our athletes missed seeing each other and working out together. We quickly got our rowing machine loaner program into circulation and now everyone gets to workout on an even playing field each week and on their own.

During COVID, can you share an example that really defined the success of your mission?

In May, we hosted our first Global Para-Rowing Meetup. We were astounded by the turnout: over 70 registered, 5 countries, 3 speakers, and breakout sessions. We were proud to be the hosts and facilitators/emcees and think we’ve found a real niche.

In addition, we were able to reach exponentially more than we would if we’d hosted a conference or a weekend of clinics live and in-person. Nothing can replace the feel of being on the water together, but we can more carefully and thoughtfully participate in this virtual environment.

Is there anything you'll carry forward?

All these amazing new partners and colleagues.

What do you want local government to understand?

For small businesses and non-profits, it’s not just about LOSSES, and it’s not about being all rose-colored glasses either. There’s a balance of opportunity, discovery and respect for the best interests of the public AS A WHOLE.

Hey, Seattle, here's how you can help!

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