By Aerial Gilbert
GDB Outreach Manager (and accomplished rower!)
GDB alumna Eleni Englert of Vista, Calif., got her first introduction to rowing at the 2008 National Federation of the Blind (NFB) conference rowing workshop that was sponsored by Guide Dogs for the Blind. Her dad and cousin rowed in college, so Eleni was intrigued by the rowing workshop at the conference. At the time, Eleni was in 8th grade and already 6 feet tall (height is a real advantage in rowing). She had always been an athlete, competing in volleyball and basketball, but these sports had become progressively more difficult as her vision was diminishing. She took to rowing naturally, and when she competed at the rowing workshop, she blew everyone out of the water, including some athletes from the men's Paralympic Goal Ball team! I encouraged Eleni to contact a local rowing club in her home area if she wanted to pursue the sport. The first team she contacted was afraid to include a blind athlete, but she was met with open arms at ZLAC Rowing Club in San Diego where she rowed on the juniors program through high school. Her coach had told her that being a blind rower was a good thing, since she wouldn't be distracted looking outside the boat.
In 2009, Eleni and I ran into each other at the San Diego Crew Classic regatta where after hearing of her rowing success, I encouraged her to contact the coach for the US National Adaptive team. She met the time standards and was invited first to a development camp and then to selection camp where she was picked to represent the United States at the World Rowing Championships in New Zealand. She has now made the team for the past three years, rowing at World Championships in New Zealand and Slovania.
She got her first Guide Dog, Briggs, a little over a year ago, before they went to Slovenia. “I love having a Guide Dog,” Eleni said. “He’s amazing. I can do fine with a cane but with the dog I can go so much faster, we like walking fast. Briggs is always with me and can go everywhere. It was so cool to take him to Slovenia. He wore a USA bandana and was a great ambassador. People from all over the world were so excited about seeing him. Even if we didn’t speak the same language, Briggs gave us a connection. He’s also a great flyer, we had no problems on the plane. It was a twelve hour flight to Germany and he slept the entire time!”
This year, Eleni made the team that will be representing the United States at the Paralympics in London, which run from August 29 through September 9 at Dorney Lake in Eton. When asked what the sport of rowing means to her, Eleni responded: “Rowing has become a huge part of my life. I can row any boat I want and love the feeling of being on the water. I can’t imagine myself ever stopping, its too addictive. Even when the workouts are really hard and painful I can’t help but have fun.”
Eleni is currently with her team at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif., where they train three times a day. This is what she has to say about her normal training regime when she is home: “I usually wake up early and swim. I do hard cardio in the morning and a light erg in the afternoon. I do two workouts a day and usually go to the beach and surf or swim.”
Eleni said that going to the Paralympics is very exciting and a lot of hard work. “Anyone can do it," she said. “If you find something you want to do, you have to just go for it and try.” Next fall Eleni and Briggs will be attending the University of Washington where she will continue her rowing career. Congratulations Eleni! Go Team USA!