Story and photos by Laila Soleimani
Joannah Whitney is an avid rower. She’s a regular participant in our Universal Access Program as she has been rowing on the Connecticut River for the last three seasons with Holyoke Rows. Formerly an archaeologist before a diagnosis of MS, she’s someone who loves being out in the natural world, particularly on the open water. During the regular rowing season, from May-October, Joannah is on the water every week, without question.
I first met Joannah this past August. Looking very comfortable and relaxed on the water, she smiled from ear to ear, when I asked her to pose for a photo. She has that same jovial smile when I ask her to tell me what she loves about the rowing program. “Over the course of the season I get to see the trees change, I get to see the water level rising and lowering. I love seeing eagles, herons, cormorants, or other animals on the banks, or in the water. I love the feeling of putting my oars in the water, pulling against it for part of the stroke, then feeling the scull glide as I reach forward to start the next stroke.”Embracing outdoor recreation has helped Joannah regain her independence. “I had a significant change in my ability level in August of 2010. That autumn, I worked hard to regain very basic skills – sitting up, getting out of bed, getting dressed - things like that. I began rowing in the summer of 2012. When I am out on the water, no one is tripping over themselves in their desire to help. When I get into situations that are a little more challenging, I have the confidence to figure out how to get out of them. I get to have those challenges without anyone around, getting nervous that surely I must need their help now!”
She continues, “Rowing also is very compatible with the conditioning I need to be able to use a manual wheelchair in a way that allows me to be fully independent. As my core gets stronger, I am able to increase my range of wheelchair skills.” She’s currently looking into participating in other wheelchair sports in the off season to continue to build her core strength.
During the course of the season, I have witnessed her making strides in the sport as well. She gets better and stronger each week. “She’s gotten so much better in terms of using her abs,” says Stephanie Moore, director of Holyoke Rows. In September, Stephanie tells Joannah, “You’re rowing at a much higher stroke rate than I’ve seen you before.”
Joannah’s tenacity and dedication to rowing is truly remarkable. She maintains a positive attitude and wants others to know that it’s possible to engage in outdoor recreation sports no matter what their disability. “It takes work and persistence to get to a point where you can be places that are accessible and you can push at what the limitations are. Your life may be radically different but it doesn’t mean you can’t do it.” Sometimes Joannah rows 4000 meters in one week - a testament to all of her hard work and love of the sport.
“Meeting people who have various types and degrees of disability and are also athletes is a very important piece of this program. Outside of this program, I rarely have the opportunity to be with people who clearly have a similar level of disability, never mind meeting people who use wheelchairs and also are clearly athletes.”
When Joannah is out on the water, she uses her camera phone to take photos and videos. She loves to be able to showcase to others with disabilities the types of outdoor recreation programs that available to them - and the fact that they can do it! She will be taking a video editing class next semester and plans to express visual anthropology through film.
Although shaving time off and improving her speed are important to her (she hopes to shave four minutes off the time it takes her to row 1000 meters by next season), her favorite thing is rowing as far as she can. When I ask her what her highlights were for this summer, she says with a grin, ““I row far now! If there weren’t bridges, I would be rowing beyond the bridges! I’m not there yet, but I really love that I can row far.”