Rowing against all odds

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Ms. Smith and her teammates winning the silver medal at the 2015 World Rowing Championships in Aiguebelette, France. Courtesy of row2k.com

Although she is legally blind, 2016 Rio De Janeiro Paralympic silver medalist and rower Ms. Jackie Smith has always had her eyes on the prize. This year, she hopes to train for the upcoming 2017 World Rowing Championships in Sarasota, Florida and inspire other disabled athletes to pursue their dreams.
Raised with a competitive spirit, Ms. Smith played soccer, basketball, lacrosse, and softball as a child but her vision caused her to fall behind in most sports. Known as ocular albinism, her condition designates her as legally blind due to a lack of pigment in her eyes. While most people with 20/20 vision are able to see objects 20 feet away, Ms. Smith’s vision is corrected at 20/200, meaning she sees the same object 200 feet away. As a result, she struggles to identify light and depth within competitive athletics.
Due to her disability, Ms. Smith believed that she was unable to make high school varsity teams. However, she soon learned about rowing and discovered that the sport does not require much depth perception. At age 14, she joined Our Lady of Mercy Academy’s high school rowing team and quickly grew to love the sport. She continued to row throughout high school and Division One rowing teams recruited her.

Ms. Smith (far left) and her teammates winning the silver medal at the 2015 World Rowing Championships in Aiguebelette, France.
Courtesy of row2k.com

“I’m an athlete, and I come from a very athletic family. I really could not imagine life without playing a sport so if I could make it onto a college team, whether I’d be a starter or benchwarmer, I would do my best to help benefit that team,” Ms. Smith said.
With a few different scholarship offers, Ms. Smith ultimately chose Sacred Heart University (SHU) because of her relationship with the coach. Practicing approximately 20 times per week on the varsity team and a few times per week on her own, she was able to set school records with her performance.
“I think that [collegiate rowing] really helped prepare me for the real world and challenges in life. You learn how to manage your time really well and prioritize the things that really matter from the things that don’t,” Ms. Smith said. “A lot of kids look up to you so you know that you have to be your best in every aspect of life to be the best role model possible.”
During her sophomore year, Ms. Smith realized her desire to continue her rowing career after college. Thus, she sat down with her college coach and, a few weeks later, she stumbled across an Instagram post of a double, a two person sculling boat, that won bronze for the United States at the 2012 London Paralympics. The photo inspired her to apply for a USRowing development camp in Oklahoma. After attending the camp, the United States national team invited her to a try-out a few weeks later.
The US national team holds an annual try-out. For an invitation, prospective athletes must exceed specific ergometer test scores, receive a coach’s recommendation, and showcase racing accomplishments from the water. The try-out lasts about a week and a half, and concludes when the national team coaches select the fastest rowers from the group.
As a member of the national team since 2013, Ms. Smith has competed at three World Rowing Championships and one Paralympics. Her boat placed fourth in the 2013 Chungju, South Korea championships, second in the 2014 Amsterdam, Netherlands championships, and second in the 2015 Aiguebelette, France championships.
“My best memories aren’t the races or the rowing, which have been the main focus, but my best memories are of meeting and becoming best friends with my boat mates. We come from all across America and thanks to rowing we have crossed paths,” Ms. Smith said. “They have been with me through the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. They are awesome people, and I can’t imagine life without them.”
At the 2015 World Championships, she qualified for the 2016 Rio De Janeiro Paralympics in the event Legs, Trunk, and Arms 4+ with coxswain (LTA4+), an adaptive rowing category that requires the use of at least one leg, trunk, and arms. The top eight finishers of the Championships were automatic qualifiers for the Paralympics.
In Rio, Ms. Smith’s LTA4+ boat exceeded expectations. In order to make it to the final round, the Paralympic Committee required most boats to compete in two preliminary rounds but the first place boat from each heat went straight to finals. Ms. Smith clutched the first place boat and thus, only had to race twice.
“It was the end of winter in Rio. Therefore, it was pretty nice with the temperature hitting mid-60s to 70s the entire time we were there. Although the media was portraying the water quality to be extremely dirty, it was not that bad. However, the water conditions were pretty rough and the course was not really sheltered from the wind,” Ms. Smith said.
In the Rio finals, she competed against boats representing Great Britain, Canada, Germany, South Africa, and China. Falling just behind Great Britain, her boat won the silver medal for the United States.
“It was a pretty emotional day for us. We had been looking forward to this race for over a year after missing Gold in 2015 by .26 of a second. On top of that, it was 9/11 which is a day that I hold close to my heart. I remember that day like it was yesterday watching those buildings fall 15 years earlier and having both my parents there as New York City police officers,” Ms. Smith said. “I was feeling it all; excited, nervous, [and] ready.”
During the last few moments of the race, Ms. Smith looked to her faith for strength in the competition. As a product of a Catholic education, she believes that God gives everyone opportunities to succeed and has a larger plan for society.
“Some things don’t end up the way that you may have wanted them to, but everything happens for a reason and contributes to helping us to be the best person that we can be,” Ms. Smith said.
Ultimately, Ms. Smith appreciates the opportunity to travel to Brazil and to perform on the world’s largest stage. She hopes that her experience encourages more people to learn about the Paralympics.
Ms. Smith and her LTA4+ boat racing at the Rio Paralympics.
Courtesy of USRowing

“I hope that people become more educated about para-sport, and para-athletes,” Ms. Smith said. “Para-athletes don’t need to be missing a limb in order to compete, they don’t need to be a veteran, and there is a difference between the Paralympics and special Olympics. Don’t pity these athletes. They train just as hard as their Olympic counterparts and the sports are not much different, if different at all, from their Olympic sport counterparts.”
Currently, Ms. Smith is an assistant rowing coach at SHU, where her national team journey began. As she was on the team only two short years ago, she understands the pressures to perform well, succeed academically, and give back to the University community. While she imparts the wisdom from her own rowing journey to the young women on her team, she also hopes to teach discipline and respect.
In the future, Ms. Smith hopes to encourage other athletes with disabilities to take risks and go for the gold, or, in her case, silver. She believes that success requires facing fears and learning to be uncomfortable.
“Rowing is a tough sport. It takes grit,” Ms. Smith said. “We may not be the biggest, and we may not be the best, but if we work hard, do what we set out to do, and do it while respecting ourselves and others, not only will we perform well in the sport, but we will also be prepared for the world.”
– Arielle Kirven, Co-Editor-in-Chief