Juan Carlos Gil is soaked. He has sailed in rainy conditions before, but nothing like this recent morning.
“This is crazy. I would be capsized right now,” Gil says as he watches one menacing gust of wind after the other flog heavy raindrops across the creek.
“Hey, it’s a watersport,” Daviana Campbell chirps.
“No, that’s a monsoon sport,” Gil quips back. He may be drenched, but he hasn’t lost his sense of humor.
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Moments before the sudden thunderstorm brought practice to a soggy halt, Gil and rowing coach Justin Kallman were gliding up and down Miami Beach’s Indian Creek: Gil in his sculling single and Kallman in a small motorboat, closely flanking Gil and sending him pointers and words of encouragement across the glistening waterway.
Gil, a native of Medellín, Colombia, is part of a new adaptive rowing program at the Miami Beach Rowing Club that allows disabled individuals to become familiar with and eventually participate in the sport of rowing.
His medical condition has rendered him legally blind and confined to a wheelchair, but his goal is clear and lofty: the Paralympics, an international competition for athletes with disabilities.
Gil’s first chance to show off his rowing skills comes later this year in Philadelphia.
“It is a national competition for individuals with disabilities. And from there you have a chance to go far,” Gil said. “Like any sport they’re always looking for potentials to be in the U.S. team and this is the only sport, after 25 years, that I’ve seen, which allows somebody who is physically impaired and visually impaired to be on the same playing field. In other sports they cannot. I have been unable to qualify in the Paralympics for the last 10 years, and not because of my [racing] times, but due to my visual disability.”
The free rowing program in Miami Beach, still in its infancy, currently has two members and is run with the help of several coaches and volunteers — including 15-year-old Daviana Campbell, who came up with the idea.
“When she was younger, she won her little title — Little Miss Flagler — when she was 11 and she had to have a platform like Miss America so she started to work in the community,” explained Daviana’s mother Ann Marie Campbell. “We teamed up with our local youth center and they were very supportive and she, during that year, raised money for many, many charities.”
What started out as a requirement for pageant participants soon turned into second-nature as Daviana became more involved in volunteer and charity work. And when she wasn’t leading a fundraiser or planning an ice cream social, she could be found on the water – rowing. It was only a matter of time before her two passions would coincide.
“I rowed at Halifax about a year ago and they had an adaptive row program and I thought ‘Wow, that’s really inspiring to see people with disabilities able to row,’ ” Daviana said. “ ‘They’re doing something they enjoy. That’s great.’ And Miami Beach was thinking a long time about starting an adaptive row program and I said ‘Hey, let’s start an adaptive row program. Let’s do it! Let’s really change the lives for people.’ ”
After getting the green light from the Ronald W. Shane Center, which hosts the rowing club, Daviana called up Gil whom she had met at a watersports center for the disabled when her mother used to work there.
“I was like ‘Sure, I’ll try this’ and from there I started rowing, ” Gil said.
When Gil warms up at one of the many rowing machines in the center’s gym prior to his early morning training session on the water, he does so with unrelenting fortitude; his willpower as strong as the metal wire that zips back and forth with every stroke.
He is an endurance athlete, through and through, but the truth is he should barely even be alive. Or so he was told.
“I have cerebral palsy and, actually, recently I found out I have cerebral palsy with something called Dandy-Walker syndrome,” Gil said. “It’s a syndrome that does not allow you to really talk, walk, do anything. So in essence I’m a miracle child in a sense because I should be in a vegetative state or pretty much dead.”
In reality, Gil couldn’t been any further removed from the gloomy prognosis. The 32-year-old, who moved to the United States when he was 5, is an avid scuba diver, participated in his first marathon at the age of 10, and has handbiked up to 500 miles in a week.
But even with his athletic background, Gil’s first week rowing was anything but easy.
“I was dead for almost a week and a half,” Gil said. “But I kept on pushing and pushing and I was actually very surprised when a coach from a university who has volunteered ... tells me that he’s never seen an athlete perform the way I have. And even the head coach here has told me the same thing, so that gives me a lot of motivation to push forward.”
As his shell, aptly named “Swift Racing,” zooms past Miami Beach’s exuberant water-side villas, wooden jetties and towering palm trees, it’s easy to understand why his favorite aspect of rowing is the independence it affords him.
“The eagerness to be a part of a group of people,” Gil said. “You are finally looked at as an able bodied individual. Even though it’s a disabled rowing event, it’s an able body sport. So it’s a great, equalizing feeling.”
While Gil sees rowing as an avenue to fulfill a lifelong goal, Ivanna Brown sought it out to train a muscle that is often overlooked.
“I like knowing that my heart’s a muscle,” Brown said. “You can go through life really easily and not even realize that your heart is supposed to be working and a muscle. Five years can go by and you can be like ‘Oh, what’s that? Oh, my heart is beating.’ So I like that aspect.”
Brown, a native of Scotland and Air Force veteran, who now lives in Hollywood has been in a wheelchair for two decades after a car accident outside of Tucson, Arizona, left her paralyzed from the bellybutton down.
She heard about the program from a recreational therapist at the local Veterans Administration hospital where she was enrolled in a cardio program and decided to check it out.
“[I] got a really lovely tour and I met JC [Juan Carlos] and I was like ‘Oh, my course sucks. I really want to do this,’ ” Brown said. “I came back a few days later and started.”
Much to Brown’s surprise, however, she wasn’t going out on the water just yet.
“I had my bikini on. I was ready,’’ Brown said with a chuckle, adding that one of the volunteers told her, ‘You’re not going in the water.’
“They’re very serious about making sure you have the form right, because you can get injuries so easily, you know, especially having different challenges,” Brown said. “So I knew they were serious, because they were like ‘Yeah, three months on the machine.’ And I was like ‘I can do that.’ ”
While Brown is still unsure about rowing competitively (“They’re trying to talk me into competing. I’m more thinking like: glass of wine, row around, avoid thunderstorms. But they’re pretty motivational so they’re starting to change my thinking”) she is eager to follow Gil’s lead and conquer Miami Beach’s canals.
“I can’t imagine moving around without a wheelchair stuck to your butt,” Brown said. “I’m very excited about the freedom. I’m excited about sitting in the water in the sun, because the beaches aren’t very accessible. And it feels like the Miami thing to do.”