Anthony Davis knows a lot about second chances.
As he prepares for a second chance to qualify for the Paralympic Games, the 2000 La Center High School graduate has plenty of comeback experiences to call upon.
Severely injured in a 2005 car accident, rowing has played a central role in Davis’ physical and emotional health. Since he discovered the sport in 2009 and began training at Vancouver Lake, rowing has provided a place for Davis to fulfill his desire to compete and given him a sense of freedom.
“When I sit in a boat, I don’t feel disabled,” Davis said.
In fact, Davis believes he is the strongest rower in the United States in the trunk-and-arms rowing category, a race where competitors cannot use their lower body to help propel the boat.
“What I expect is to be the fastest rower in the world who rows without legs,” Davis said.
Given the distance Davis has covered and hurdles he has cleared since the 2005 car accident, his aspirations seem reachable.
Paralyzed below the waist and told he would never again walk, Davis admits the first couple of years following the 2005 accident were difficult. He’d been a rescue swimmer in the Navy who served 18 months in the Middle East wars. His life was one of action, so sitting in his grandmother’s house with no independence was depressing.
In 2007, Davis decided spending his life in a wheelchair was not an option — in part because he wanted to be active in the life of his young son.
Visits to L.A. Fitness in Hazel Dell became the centerpiece of his plan to rebuild his life. Davis refused to take his wheelchair to the gym and remembers the looks he got when he would fall down and struggle to get up. Giving up was never an option.
By imitating his young son’s efforts to learn to walk — and by using the pain in his feet as the signal to move his opposite hip — Davis gradually learned to control his legs well enough to walk with a cane.
A former football defensive back and baseball pitcher at La Center High, Davis became mobile enough to coach his son’s baseball team. But his own competitive athletic career seemed over until Davis attended a 2008 convention for disabled veterans in Colorado. While there, Davis tried an erg, the dry-land training machine used by competitive rowers. His times on the erg impressed a coach who suggested Davis try adaptive rowing.
His first on-water rowing experience came in 2009 on American Lake at Fort Lewis. The rowing community steered Davis to Vancouver Lake Crew, where founder Bill Kalenius enthusiastically welcomed Davis and paired him with head coach Alan Stewart.
Stewart said he could immediately see Davis had real potential to excel “because he’s a good athlete and liked to work hard.”
Like most steps in his recovery, Davis realized right away he had a lot of work to do to become a competitive rower.
“When I started rowing the most frustrating part was that I thought I was in shape until I got on the water,” Davis said.
The rowing club did not have adaptive equipment, so Stewart taught Davis the sport in boats equipped for able-bodied rowers.
Less than two years later, Davis was an elite rower training with USA Rowing in Oklahoma. He nearly qualified for the London Paralympics.
Representing the United States at the 2011 World Rowing Championships in Slovenia, Davis and Jacqui Kapinowski finished ninth, one place shy of a Paralympic slot. Also that year, Davis and Kapinowski set the course record for the trunk and arms race at the Head of the Charles regatta in Boston.
The United States missed on its first chance to qualify a trunk-and-arms boat for the 2016 Paralympics. That means Davis, who was not on the USA team at the 2015 world championships, has multiple steps to take to reach Rio.
It begins late this month when Davis and Stewart head to Sarasota, Fla., to train ahead of a U.S. Rowing training camp in early March. At that camp, a team will be chosen to represent the United States in the trunk-and-arm category.
The critical races happen in April. First there is a race to qualify to represent the USA at a late-April race in Italy where the top two finishers will qualify for the Rio Paralympics.
Stewart is confident that Davis has what it takes to qualify a USA team for the Paralympics. Davis has focused through the winter on this opportunity, training on Vancouver Lake most days and pushing himself in the gym.
What Davis does not yet have is a teammate. In the trunk-and-arms category the Paralympic race involves boats that have one man and one woman. In preparing for 2016, Davis has trained with Diana Helt from Chicago on Vancouver Lake, Laura Goodkind at Long Beach, Calif., and Betsy Irwin-Mitchell in Sarasota, Fla.
Stewart noted that Paralympians for some countries row together year-around. For Paralympic rowers in the United States, limited funding means limited opportunities for partners to train as a team.
“In that respect it’s a huge challenge,” Stewart said.
Which, given his history of embraacing challenges, explains why Tony Davis is confident about his rowing future.
Did you know?
Vancouver Lake Crew (www.vancouverlakecrew.com) offers an adaptive rowing program. A training boat for all beginning rowers can be equiped with a special seat and with pontoons to ensure the boat cannot flip over.
The 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio are scheduled for Sept. 7-18. This will be the third time that rowing has been a Paralympic sport. The trunk-and-arms mixed double is one of four races scheduled.