by Jim Flint
TOKYO ‒ During the last ten days of August, Mark McAndrew of East Hardwick had one of the best jobs in the world. McAndrew arrived in Tokyo on August 20 for the 2021 Paralympic Games. On August 31, he returned home filled with inspiration from the athletes he worked with.
McAndrew, 70, retired from Concept2 in 2017. He had a 28-year career with the Morrisville-based manufacturer of rowing equipment. In 2016, McAndrew represented Concept2 at the Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The company asked McAndrew to come back for the 2021 Tokyo Paralympics to support the athletes who use Concept2 oars.
Concept2 oars are preferred by the majority of Olympic and Paralympic rowers. At the Tokyo Olympics, 97 percent of all medals in rowing were won by competitors using oars built in Morrisville. The oars are custom-made using carbon fiber material and special adhesives.
Each oar consists of a blade, a shaft, sleeve rests, and a handle grip. Any of the components can need adjustment, repair, or replacement. Most of the work that McAndrew did on the oars in Tokyo was during the first three or four days of practice. He also was called on to make final adjustments to the oars right before events.
COVID-19 protocols at the Paralympics were strict. McAndrew took his temperature every morning and had a saliva test each day. Transportation from the hotel to the rowing venue was by a specific bus. Walkways were one way and there was no sightseeing. He had to remain socially distant from athletes and coaches, yet still work with them.
McAndrew got up at 5 a.m. each day. Breakfast was at 5:30 a.m. He caught the shuttle to the rowing venue at 5:50 a.m. McAndrew was usually the first person to arrive. He stayed at the venue until 5 p.m. then made the 40-minute shuttle commute back to the hotel.
“I did not see a single person without a mask,” McAndrew said. “The Japanese are very good with mitigation. Hand sanitizer was everywhere. I was more concerned about COVID-19 at the Detroit Airport and on my full flight back to Burlington than during my time in Tokyo.”
Twenty-six countries were represented by Paralympic rowers. The United States sent a full nine-member team. Other countries had from one to nine rowers in the competition. McAndrew worked with nearly all the teams and their coaches.
Three Paralympic rowing events were held: Men’s and women’s single sculls, mixed sculls (one male and one female rower), and mixed sweep boats (two male rowers, two female rowers, and a coxswain). Rowers compete according to disability levels. Disability levels are lowest for the athletes in the sweep boats.
All of the Paralympic rowing events are 2,000 meters, which is the same distance as in the Olympic Games. The sculls and sweep boats are 18 to 20 inches wide. In a one-person or a two-person scull, each rower has two shorter oars. In a sweep boat, each rower has one longer oar, which is rowed with both hands.
The sweep boats have a coxswain, who uses a microphone hooked up to speakers on the side of the gunnels. He or she controls the stroke rate. The coxswain helps to steer the boat by using a cable control connected to the rudder.
Blake Haxton of Columbus, Ohio competed for the U.S. team in the men’s scull event. He is in the PR1 class which represents the most severely disabled athletes. PR1 athletes have no legs and little if any trunk functionality. They use only their arms and shoulders to propel the scull forward. A PR1 athlete is strapped to the seat of the scull.
Haxton is a bilateral amputee. During the spring of 2009, he rowed for his high school team and was being recruited to row in college. Tragedy struck. He contracted necrotizing fasciitis, also known as flesh-eating disease. Haxton lost both legs and some of his pelvis, which effectively left him paralyzed from the chest down.
McAndrew has known Haxton since 2014. He first worked with Haxton to adapt a Concept2 indoor rowing machine to meet his specific needs and abilities.
McAndrew ran the para event for the 2014 CRASH B indoor rowing championships in Boston. Haxton won. He went on to Sarasota, Fla., for a developmental camp. McAndrew was there, too.
Haxton continued training and competing. He placed first in both the 2016 and 2021 U.S. trials for men’s single sculling. This earned him a place on the U.S. Paralympic teams for Rio and Tokyo.
At the 2016 Paralympics, a coaching miscommunication resulted in Haxton’s oars not arriving at the venue. McAndrew built a pair of oars for Haxton onsite using spare parts. Haxton finished fourth in the men’s single sculls.
The level of competition increased for the 2021 Paralympics, Haxton placed tenth in the men’s single sculls. He is also competing in the 200-meter sprint canoe event, where he is a medal contender.
Working with disabled athletes at the Paralympics, the Warrior Games, and the Invictus Games, McAndrew has learned to “check his emotions at the door.”
“The athletes are focused on what they need to do to do their personal best,” he said. “If you focus on that, their disabilities become transparent. You are an extension of their need to get the best out of themselves. That is what has kept me in it.”
“The Paralympians are inspiring,” McAndrew reflected. “You walk away realizing the remarkable adversity that they have faced. The gift the athletes give is the powerful message of managing adversity. When you focus on what you can do, then you take charge over adversity and are on a path to excellence.”