There is plenty of Merritt to adaptive rowing program
by Randy Pascal
Life has been anything but quiet for Thomas Merritt these past few years. Perhaps it just seems that way.
Throughout much of the early part of 2008, the professor at Laurentian University rose to prominence locally largely on the accomplishments of one Steve Daniel.
Daniel was enjoying a meteoric rise in adaptive rowing, cracking the roster of the national team and culminating that incredible journey by representing his country at the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing, China.
And while the immediate horizon might not necessarily find another local rower travelling to London next summer, that doesn't mean that Merritt has shelved his passion for the sport.
Quite the opposite, as he continues to expand a program that came together almost entirely on the convergence of some very interesting and unique personalities.
In the summer of 2006, Merritt and his wife moved to Sudbury, with both accepting positions, as professors, at the university. He arrived in northern Ontario with an established background in rowing, to some extent, from his days as a student at the University of North Carolina.
"I was never that fast in rowing," Merritt said recently, spending a typical afternoon in the boathouse of the Sudbury Rowing Club. Neither he, nor his teammates at the home of the Tar Heels, were about to be mistaken for budding Olympians.
"What we didn't have in talent or rowing background, we made up for in enthusiasm," he said. "It was a great group of guys, we had a wonderful volunteer coach, and by the end of that, I was a decent rower."
With a 15 year break from the sport providing ample time to rest his knees, a sore point at UNC, Merritt wandered down to the shores of Lake Ramsey, with no set agenda in mind, other than garnering a decent workout.
"I was rowing two, three, four times a week, just recreationally," Merritt said. "Over the winter, I started racing rowing machines, which is a really silly sport. You get in a rowing machine and pull as hard as you can until it says that you've covered 2000 metres."
It was while attending just such a competition in Toronto that the outgoing professor made contact with Minna Mettinen-Kekalainen, just getting her start in adaptive rowing with dreams of heading to the Paralympics.
The two clicked instantly. "I started chatting with her about what it would take to set up an adaptive rowing program in Sudbury," Merritt said. The conversation led to a partnership in grant-writing that procured the local club an initial base of equipment to call their own.
"By the middle of June, we had Minna invited to the national team tryouts," said Merritt. "It didn't really pan out, but we got the adaptive rowing program started."
With her contacts within the community, Mettinen-Kekalainen steered prospective athletes towards Merritt and the budding opportunities he provided. Among those athletes was Steve Daniel, whose talent and potential were easily spotted.
"The following winter, we started getting Steve's times on the rowing machine and realized that there was a good chance, if we could build up some kind of technical base, we could get him at least to the national team tryouts," Merritt said.
The energetic coach wasted little time immersing himself deeper into adaptive rowing, volunteering on the national committee for the fledgling sport and named as chair of the same group at the provincial level.
"I spent a lot of that winter going to coaching courses," Merritt said. "A lot of the material takes what we know about able-bodied rowing and pushes that across. There was a huge learning curve for Steve and I, but it was a blast."
Rather than sit on his laurels, Merritt looked to leverage the notable publicity gained for Daniel's journey to Beijing, expanding the scope of the adaptive program in Sudbury.
More grants and substantial community support have given way to a fleet of six vessels, some with highly specialized benefits. "The boat that we purchased recently is almost exclusively for use with the students at the high school level," he said.
"It's super stable and almost indestructible." The boat is ideal for students afflicted with autism, making it a nice fit within the program for special needs students in the City of Greater Sudbury.
"There are a lot of reasons why rowing fits well with adaptive sport," Merritt explained. "It's a good sport for people with a variety of disabilities and although it's still a sport in its infancy, we know more about how to adapt rowing than we do for many other sports."
While some might think that Merritt struggles without the lure of high performance rowing, nothing could be further from the truth. "Honestly, for my particular skill-set and having been out of rowing for 16 years, I believe the community programs are my forte."
And the community, in Sudbury, is stronger because of that.