Betsy Mitchell envisioned a picturesque afternoon when she arrived at the Sarasota County Rowing Club boatyard at Blackburn Point for her first rowing lesson.
Armed with her camera, cell phone and car keys, the Sarasota resident couldn’t wait to kick back and relax while enjoying the abundance of flora and fauna, particularly the birds and dolphins that call the intercoastal waterway home.
The thought of getting a little exercise only added to the intrigue.
It was going to be a day to remember.
It wasn’t until she reached the dock and met up with Sarasota Adaptive Rowing Program Director and coach Joe Dobson, who politely informed Mitchell that her accessories might be better left in the comfort of her car, that Mitchell realized this was going to be anything but an average day on the water.
The two climbed into an adaptive double, paddles in hand, and took off into the sparkling blue water for her first adventure into the sport.
“Joyful excitement,” Dobson said of Mitchell’s initial experience with rowing. “She was hooked immediately only she didn’t know how deeply the hook was set.”
Mitchell first met Dobson, who also announces local regattas, as a volunteer. She brought Dobson coffee and donuts, among other duties. Having spent so much time around the water as a volunteer, the then 53-year-old thought she would try out rowing for herself.
That was five years ago. At the time, the Sarasota Adaptive Rowing Program was just beginning to take shape.
“It’s been an interesting adventure,” said Mitchell, whose knee and foot were permanently damaged in a trampoline accident when she was 17 years old. “We joke around all of the time that who would’ve thought five years later we would’ve been heading to France for Worlds.”
Mitchell, now 58, has blossomed into one of the nation’s most gifted trunk and arms para-rowers, meaning her legs remain straight throughout the duration of the race and her arms do all of the work.
A series of three framed photographs hang on the wall in Mitchell’s home with a trio of medals resting on hooks below. Each photograph depicts the same curve in a river — one for each of the past three years that Mitchell and her partner Cam Sinclair, of Canada, have won the trunk and arms mixed double sculls at the prestigious Head of the Charles Regatta.
Those medals are just one manifestation of the experiences Mitchell has experienced through para-rowing. She's traveled the world, meeting coaches and athletes, including Australian Paralympic rower Kathryn Ross, one of the top female para-rowers in the world, who was injured in a ride-on lawn mower accident when she was 2 years old.
Rowing has inspired Mitchell to push farther than she thought she could.
“Rowing shows you what you can do and takes away what you can’t do,” Mitchell said.
It didn’t take long for Dobson to realize Mitchell's potential. After her second practice on the water, Dobson told Mitchell she would row in the prestigious Head of the Charles Regatta, in Boston. Mitchell agreed and then went home to research the race.
Blessed with a rower’s body, tall with sinuous muscle, Mitchell put her trust in Dobson to develop her into a technically proficient and powerful rower.
“I knew from the first time I met her that she had the potential to be a great rower,” Dobson said.
Two months after picking up her first paddle, Mitchell entered her first major regatta: The Independence Day Regatta, in Philadelphia.
It didn’t go quite the way Mitchell and Dobson had hoped.
“I was awful,” Mitchell said. “There’s definitely a learning curve because you’re using different equipment.”
“She was absolutely petrified,” Dobson said. “It was an absolute soup sandwich slipping through your fingers.”
Mitchell lost the race to a Canadian boat by 30 seconds. Two years later, she beat the same boat by nearly 90 seconds.
In the years since, Mitchell has learned from every race she’s entered. She’s also grown fully accustomed to adaptive boats, which are slightly wider and heavier than standard boats and have specialized seat bases and shorter oars. In addition, Dobson also created a specialized shoe for Mitchell to even out her legs.
“All those physics lessons that I never paid attention to are coming back,” Mitchell said with a laugh.
OUTLET FOR SUCCESS
Last month, Mitchell achieved a lifetime best time of 4:16.3 for 1,000 meters to win the adaptive women trunk and arms division of the 2016 Southern Sprints Indoor Rowing Championships Feb. 13, in Melbourne.
Most recently, Mitchell participated in the High Performance Para-Rowing Camp Feb. 29 through March 6, at Nathan Benderson Park. Mitchell qualified for the camp after winning the trunk and arms mixed double sculls at the 2015 Para Rowing and Junior World Championships Trials and finishing 10th in the same category at the 2015 World Rowing Championships last summer, in France.
Mitchell was one of four finalists vying for a spot in the trunk and arms mixed U.S. Paralympic Team Trials April 6 and April 7, in West Windsor, N.J.
Although she won’t be heading to New Jersey next month, Mitchell used the experience as a learning tool.
Mitchell trains four to five days a week, spending roughly two hours in the morning on the water. In addition, she also completes weight training at home with an erg and bench pulls.
“I can push myself more than I thought,” Mitchell said. “I think being older, it gives you a clearer focus and appreciation for it.
“I still wonder sometimes is this all smoke and mirrors?” Mitchell said. “Am I really good enough to do this?”
Over the coming months, Mitchell will be redirecting her training efforts in preparation for an aggressive rowing campaign, which will include the Royal Canadian Henley July 31 through Aug. 7, the BAYADA Regatta Aug. 15 and the Head of the Charles, Oct. 22 and Oct. 23, in addition to regional regattas with adaptive events.
“I expect Betsy to continue her age-defying performance,” Dobson said. “I don’t know when Betsy’s age will slow down her rowing. Apparently she hasn’t gotten the memo on the subject.”