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Ducks Fly Together

10.Sep.2013 by Sarah Keller

Every week, sometimes twice a week, 40 sculling athletes come to Craftsbury for sculling camp. Ranging in ability from beginner to advanced, these athletes spend 2-3 sessions a day on the water being coached by one of seven Craftsbury sculling coaches. Last week I was given the opportunity to coach one of the sessions and had the extra responsibility of coaching one on one, rather than with the typical coaching ratio of 4:1. I was working with a sculler named Walt.


Walt, getting ready to launch for practice

Walt is an avid cyclist from San Francisco who kayaks in the bay in his spare time. He has hiked a “14-er” (a mountain over 14,000 feet above sea level) at night. For three years in a row he has competed in a 90-mile, three day, canoe/kayak race in the Adirondacks—twice in a canoe and once in a K2 kayak. Last year, Walt medaled in combined distance and combined sprint race categories at the US Nordic Ski Nationals. In December Walt plans to compete to qualify for the Sochi Paralympic team in Nordic skiing. Walt is a lawyer, an athlete, a good friend, and happens to be blind.

Walt and I rowed together at all three daily sessions during his first four days at Craftsbury, and another GRP-er, Phil Grisdela, took over for Walt’s last two days in camp. For the two morning sessions, we would each row in singles, I a few strokes ahead of him giving him directions. Below is a photograph of Phil rowing with Walt:


In the afternoons Walt and I would row a double. I could bow, and he could focus on technical ideas introduced in the two morning sessions without my “port press” or other directional calls interrupting his concentration. By the end of the week, we were doing 500m pieces together.

In singles, I rowed just ahead of his port or starboard blade, so that if he had a person rowing on the other side of him in the same spot we would resemble a V shape. After the first row one of the other coaches said we looked like two Top Gun fighter jets doing fly-bys up and down the lake. I, though, prefer the flying-V from Mighty Ducks as my reference. After all “ducks fly together.”

And that’s exactly what we did all week. We flew together.

I had a blast with Walt. Coaching him and learning from him are both experiences I will never forget. I was able to hone my coaching skills dramatically by focusing on how to explain something so thoroughly and completely that you don’t need to see a demonstration to understand. I learned about Walt’s uncanny ability to navigate a space he has only been in once before. I learned about Walt’s days playing soccer for Cal in the early 80’s. I learned.

Walt seemed to have just as much fun, if not more fun, than I did in his time at Craftsbury. He learned the difference between regular and skinny shafts, fat blades and smoothie blades. Here is Walt demonstrating the next Concpet2 prototype: the ultra light ultra skinny ultra flex white oar:


Walt is a phenomenal person, and extremely inspirational in his approach to and management of his blindness. I don’t want to call his blindness a disability because it’s not. It’s a dis-capability in sight, but does not affect his ability to navigate spaces, serve himself a buffet style dinner, or to live his life. Here is Walt getting his oars from the rack, and carrying the boat up from the water:



Walt has proven that you should not use a physical difference to hinder your life or athletic pursuits.

The lesson here, for me, is that you can dictate how you respond to life’s curve balls. When Walt lost his sight 8 year ago he could have hung up his hat and let his lack of sight dictate his life. Instead, he adjusted and continued to create and pursue opportunities for himself. As someone who is training full time in athletic pursuits, Walt helped remind me that I can dictate each of my practices, and that I can choose how to respond to things outside of my control—with my head up and my eyes forward, just like Walt.