Jennifer Klapper is an Advanced Practice Nurse in Philadelphia. For the past few years, she has escaped the heat and humidity (for a week, at least) by joining us at Craftsbury. Jennifer lost a leg below the knee at fourteen, and sculls with a custom-built prosthetic limb, which is as good a place as any to start our conversation.
CSC: Most people don't list sculling as their first sport or outdoor activity - what were your pre-sculling experiences like?
JK: I had been involved in dance from when I was three until I was fourteen, and finally had too many problems with my leg, so that experience stopped abruptly with the amputation. And for a little while, that kind of gutted me. You know, life was over and all that. Within a year, though, I was cross-country skiing and hiking, which I did a lot of until 2000. That year I did a 125 mile trek across the mountains in France, got an infection in my leg, and couldn't walk for most of the following year - no walking at all, I couldn't even wear my prosthesis. I had also tried competitive high-kneel canoeing for a while in high school, thinking that might be something I could do on an equal basis with anyone, but that never quite fit the bill.
CSC: And sculling was next?
JK: Sort of. I had water sports experience of various kinds, and I had looked into adaptive rowing, though not very closely. I had always dismissed the idea because I didn't consider myself handicapped. I didn't want to use a resource that people who didn't have access to other athletic outlets could use. But not being able to walk, going crazy not being physically active for that year, I had to accept the reality that I fit the definition of ihandicapped.i And at that point I finally started the adaptive rowing program. I spent one season rowing in a double ocean shell, and I was hooked.
CSC: That must all have happened fairly quickly - haven't you raced at the Paralympics several times?
JK: Not the Paralympics. I've been in the coxed four at World Championships four times, rowing in the Adaptive category. In 2008, FISA officially added adaptive rowing as a Paralympic sport. Adaptive rowing has grown a lot in the past few years, and when I first got involved, the pool of athletes was pretty small. (Editor's note: anyone who has been at camp with Jennifer will suspect false modesty on that score - she regularly races her way to a podium finish on Thursday's Head of the Hosmer and has won the women's division in recent memory). In fact, the sport itself is still pretty young. The first official elite adaptive rowing events were World Championships in Seville in 2002. I'd just started rowing. But by the next year, I was catapulted into World Championships in the Adaptive 4+ in Milan. The adaptive 4+ is called a imixed LTAi boat: two men and two women, all using legs, trunk, and arms, and no more than two rowers who are blind. The coxswain need not have a disability. I also competed in the 4+ at Worlds in Banyoles in 2004, Eton in 2006, and the last time in Poznan, Poland, in 2009.
CSC: Your mention of LTA reminds me that there are several categories of adaptive rowers, and to a casual observer those acronyms and categories can make the whole thing seem fairly byzantine. Can you demystify it for us a little bit?
JK: Well, to start with, the nomenclature itself can seem sort of awkward - like LTA is Legs, Trunk, and Arms. All adaptive rowers must be officially classified by FISA physical therapists to determine the maximum level you can row at. I'm an LTA because although I row with a lower leg prosthesis which doesn't contribute much power, I still pretty much have full use of my legs, trunk and arms, and use a sliding seat, as in a standard rowing set up. Then there is the iTrunk and Armsi category, or TA, which means no leg use but full trunk control. They use a fixed seat, and the stroke is arms and body only, with no leg drive. Then there's AS, which is Arms and Shoulders, which means they have limited trunk control, the boat has a fixed seat, and the rower is strapped at upper chest level to only allow shoulder and arm movements. I've never been entirely comfortable with the names, though - they make it sound like everybody is just a bunch of body parts. But then the language around disabilities is always fraught with difficulties, and I don't have a better solution. When it comes to the sport of adaptive rowing, I'm an LTA until someone comes up with a better name for it.
CSC: What do you wish other rowers or just people in general knew about adaptive rowing?
JK: Wow, where to begin? Let's see - I guess first and most importantly - I really hope that people appreciate the athleticism that adaptive rowers bring to the sport. For example, I rowed with the arms-only man on the national team for several years- his name is Ron Harvey. He was an elite rower before his accident. The last 1k time I noticed of Ron's, which was several years ago now-- arms and shoulders only, was 4:07 -- arms and shoulders only! From the perspective of the uninitiated, that may or may not sound impressive, but stop and imagine it for a second: basically doing a pic drill for a full 1000m, racing as hard as you can - try to really appreciate and understand the fitness and athleticism that it takes to do that.
I know that there are people out there who think it's a warm-fuzzy, feel-good thing, but it's not quaint. It's serious, and adaptive rowing is loaded with disciplined athletes, who overcame huge things before even starting training for rowing. Granted, the sport is still small, and the adaptive categories still have some inherent problems. We don't yet have enough data to have benchmark standards the way that non-adaptive rowers do. I mean, we know what a good 2k time on flat water for an elite women's 8+ is, but we don't know what that standard is for an AS sculler or an LTA 4+. You know, when do we get to start saying "wow, she went X minutes and seconds for a 1k in Trunk and Arms?" Then again, maybe Ron Harvey's 4:07 is a good place to start. It certainly awes me. But really, we're still at the very beginning of the sport of adaptive rowing. For instance, at the Head of the Charles, the first year adaptive events were officially accepted was just 2 years ago, in 2010. I've been fortunate enough to row in an adaptive 4+ there in 2010 and 2011. It's fantastic to see how the sport is enthusiastically supported and growing!
CSC: We've noticed that at the waterfront, you've always got a second prosthesis. Presumably the one you walk around in is ill-suited for sculling?
JK: Yeah, the rowing leg is a pretty basic set up. It has to have a lot of flex at the ankle and cut low behind my knee so I can curl up at the catch. That takes away the two biggest mechanisms suspending my weight and force. Walking with it would put too much pressure on sensitive areas, but I can avoid putting heavy pressure on it in the boat and push mainly with my other leg. The rowing leg is also too floppy for regular walking; there's no way to control the bending ankle and I'd fall down all the time. I've come up with ways to keep myself going straight in the boat despite the unequal pressure by playing with arm pressure, reach, and sometimes crossing right over left instead of the standard left over right sequence.
CSC: Do you have a third one for dancing, or a fourth for waterskiing?
JK: Just the two. As you can probably imagine, they're pretty expensive often tens of thousands of dollars or more depending on the limb and the technology involved-- and most insurance only pays for one prosthesis over your whole lifetime- I got my one paid for when I was 14! I've gotten many new legs since then: optimally, prostheses need replacing about every 5 years. It works out particularly poorly for younger amputees. Imagine being born without an arm- you grow out of your first prosthesis in early childhood, and costs are often out of pocket after that.
CSC: You're a Philly rower, so we'd be remiss if we didn't ask you to wax poetic about Boathouse Row and the Schuylkill.
JK: I don't know if other Philly rowers would agree, but I really think the Schuylkill is sort of like Philly itself: tough, gritty, and beautiful. And of course having access to this haven for water, birds, and sky in an urban environment is really great, too. It's not the Hosmer - the Schuylkill Expressway is still roaring alongside you for at least part of the way. And the conditions are rougher, with wind and current. But there are still egrets, hawks and herons along with the floating detritus of urban floods- washing machines with cormorants perched on top, drying their wings as they ride downriver; giant rusting industrial tanks; escaping criminals trying to swim for it. But it's okay to have all this going on around you - it helps me appreciate exactly where I am. I sit in my boat watching the moon rise over the Philly skyline, see all the buses, planes and automobiles, and here I am in a quiet little oasis, surrounded by water.
CSC: Does work encroach on sculling for you, or vice-versa? Do you get fewer billable hours in your practice when the weather is fair and warm?
JK: No, but I work through a lot of very late evenings, which can make getting up early pretty tough. If I have a rowing partner shivering on the dock, pre-dawn, waiting for me, I'm still going to get myself there! When I was on the national team, especially as we'd ramp up for Worlds, it was much, much harder to fit in all the long workouts on top of a more-than-full workday. My colleagues were very understanding and have always allowed me a lot of flexibility.
CSC: You've had some pretty impressive races here at the Head of the Hosmer in the past few years. Care to share any stories or secrets?
JK: Actually I didn't win last year: Bonnie from Nova Scotia did! She's a powerhouse- I was second. The year before, it was reversed. Anyway, as for secrets, I think setting yourself up to avoid traffic in the Narrows might be the key. The first time I did the race, I was trying not to shoot all my energy before the Narrows and wound up in a clump of rowers there. Looking back at it, I felt as though I should have done a better job assessing who was where, before I approached the Narrows. I think sometimes it's okay to spend a little more energy early on, to ensure that you don't find yourself in a traffic jam there.
CSC: Thanks for talking with us, Jennifer. We'll see you next time you're up, and look forward to the Head of the Hosmer for that week.