Helman Roman’s legs were nearly blown off by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan. The bones in his ankles were crushed and “everything was so twisted the doctors could turn my feet 360 degrees on the operating table,” he said.
Laura Goodkind has an unsteady gait, poor balance and limited control of her leg muscles because of cerebral palsy.
“I tend to shuffle my feet,” she said. “I trip a lot. I’ve heard every tripping joke in the book.”
Yet together they have been able to conquer a sport in which leg power is essential — rowing. They are competing in the trunk and arms double sculls classification at the Rio Paralympics.
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The date of Sept. 11 — which is the 15th anniversary of the terrorist attacks against four U.S. targets — is significant for Roman, who joined the U.S. Army on Sept. 11, 2003, was injured on Sept. 11, 2009, and advanced to the Paralympic B Final in the event, which they're competing on Sunday.
“I joined the army because I didn’t want to be on the sidelines, and now I’m going to the Paralympics where I get to represent my country in another way,” Roman said. “This has been a dream of mine since I was in the hospital wondering if I’d walk again.”
The partnership of Roman and Goodkind — in the only mixed rowing event — captures both the spirit and the ingeniousness of the Paralympic Games. They’ve adapted boat and body to the sport. Their knees are strapped down, feet placed on a footboard, seat remains stationary, and movement hinges from the hips. The boat is wider, the oars are shorter and the length of the stroke is reduced from 10 to 12 feet to six to seven feet.
“We like to say different strokes for different folks,” Roman said. “It’s a false idea that they make it easier for us. It’s the same challenge, just adapted.”
Roman lives in Miami Beach and trains at the Miami Beach Rowing Club, which has one of the most advanced adaptive programs in the country, run by Stephanie Parrish, coach of Roman and Goodkind.
They were paired together at a U.S. Rowing training camp in the spring and won their first race 10 days later. They finished third at a qualifier in Italy and were added to the U.S. roster when Russia was banned from the Paralympics.
“We don’t have a lot of experience but each time we get in the boat we get better,” Goodkind said. “We have a special chemistry. We step up our game when it counts most.”
Concerns that the Rio Paralympics would be diminished by budget cuts have mostly been allayed as ticket sales took off. NBC has expanded its coverage tenfold since 2012 to 70 hours.
Since the Paralympics’ official inception in 1964 (although they can be traced back to 1948 for soldiers injured in World War II), growth has been steady, from 21 countries to 159, from 375 athletes to 4,336 and from 144 medal events to 500. The 2012 London Paralympics drew a TV audience of 3.8 billion, and in a British survey of viewers, 83 percent said the Games improved perceptions and acceptance of people with disabilities.
“We are proud that we are the most important sporting event in the world that can affect positive social change,” International Paralympic Committee president Sir Philip Craven said. “It’s an awakening process, an educational process.”
Standing on her balcony in the Athletes Village, Goodkind observed the flags of many countries hanging from surrounding windows.
“It’s nice not being stared at because people think I’m drunk,” she said by phone from Rio. “Here we’re judged on our character and performance, not on our so-called abnormality. I hate the word ‘normal.’ What is ‘normal’ anyway?”
Goodkind, 30, was born three months premature and diagnosed with cerebral palsy when she was 1 1/2 years old. That’s when her father, who had been an elite hockey player, taught her how to ski. In high school in New Jersey, she played basketball and tennis with able-bodied kids and compensated for her slow foot speed with an accurate three-point shot and powerful groundstrokes.
“Sport was not exactly my equalizer but it allowed me to feel like I was no different from my peers,” she said.
Goodkind moved to Los Angeles to study psychology at Whittier College, and during a study-abroad term in Denmark she endured near-death crises when she went into septic shock and when surgery to insert a feeding tube went awry.
Earlier this year, she encountered financial and insurance problems and lived out of her car for months until she was placed in a homeless shelter, where her rowing gear was stolen.
“I’ve expended a lot of energy just surviving in the shelter,” said Goodkind, who wants to go to medical school and eventually run a center for patients with rare diseases.
She joined the Long Beach Rowing Club, which offers adaptive rowing, two years ago.
“Rowing opened up a brand new world,” she said. “I go to the boat house and I’m among people who believe in me, care about me and challenge me.”
Roman, 47, a native of Colombia, was serving his third tour of duty when his truck, last in a convoy, was hit by an improvised explosive device (IED) in Najil. He was placed on a stretcher, reeled up into a helicopter and underwent surgery on his shattered tibias. He spent the next two years in hospitals having his legs reconstructed.
“I’m like a car without a suspension system,” he said. “I can’t get on my toes or jump. I have limited range of motion because my ankles are fused and my lower legs are filled with metal.”
At the Walter Reed Medical Center, he took up hand cycling. U.S. Paralympic rower Jacqui Kapinowski told him to cross train in rowing, then he excelled at the Miami Beach club.
Roman is in 24/7 pain because of nerve damage, particularly in his Achilles tendons. He takes Oxycodone and Percocet daily. As a result of post traumatic stress disorder, he suffers from migraines, memory problems and hyper-alertness that can interfere with concentration.
“I can never sleep more than two hours straight,” he said. “I have to sit in an aisle seat or a seat where I can see the door.”
Rowing provides ideal physical and mental therapy.
“Sports really helps with the pain,” he said. “When I’m training and competing, something else hurts besides my feet.”
Parrish and Roman have had to be creative with their equipment. For example, Roman uses clamps to lock the ergometer seat in place.
“There’s a lot of tweaking,” she said. “He’s been a good guinea pig as we learn together.”
Roman rows up to 50 miles per week in preparation for the 1,000-meter races.
“You’re always searching for the perfect stroke, like a golf swing,” Roman said. “We’re stroking 160 times per race and each one has to be in sync.”
Said Parrish, a former University of Miami rower: “To achieve that kind of timing it can’t just be one person matching or muscling up to the other. They’ve built trust, camaraderie and compromise in a short time.”
Roman and Goodkind said they expect rowing to take them much farther than Rio.
“I’m now a believer in the motto that Olympians show us what the human body is capable of,” Goodkind said. “And the Paralympics show us what the human spirit is capable of.”