Natalie McCarthy had always hoped her talent and desire would help her reach the World Rowing Championships. Paul Hurley wanted to find a competitive outlet for his athleticism and drive, but wasn’t sure how to achieve that.
Connections within the rowing community put the two together this summer, and the result proved to be historic: McCarthy and Hurley became the first U.S. adaptive rowing team to score a medal at the 2013 World Rowing Championships.
The pair earned a bronze medal in the legs, trunk and arms (LTA) mixed double sculls Para-event, held last month in Chungju, South Korea. The division is new to international adaptive rowing, and the teaming of McCarthy and Hurley was an experiment in the unknown.
The final was intense, as Ukraine, Germany and South Korea battled with the U.S. boat for the three medal positions. McCarthy begged Hurley to tell her where they finished when they crossed the finish line.
“I kept asking Paul, ‘Where’s Korea? Where did they finish?’” McCarthy said. “I held my breath. It seemed like forever until it went up on the scoreboard and Paul said we were third. We won bronze. I felt like I was shaking inside. I was so amazed. We did it.”
Ukraine took gold, in 3:27.98, Germany was second (3:34.48), and the American team was third (4:08.59). South Korea finished fourth.
Hurley also admitted that he was in shock after claiming the bronze medal.
“I give her all the credit, because she had to be so patient with me while I figured out what I was doing,” said Hurley, a retired U.S. Naval officer who lost part of his right leg during a car accident while on duty in Bahrain in 2006. “I love to row and be on the water, but learning how to be an effective racer, and understand the nuances, that was all thanks to learning from Natalie and Steve (Perry, their coach). This was fun.”
McCarthy, 26, has been rowing seriously since 2005. The sport has been her passion, helping her find a new purpose after losing her sight due to a brain tumor. She rowed competitively at Pacific Lutheran University, in Tacoma, Wash., and aspired to become a coxswain for a legs, trunk, and arms four team.
When the LTA mixed double sculls event was added to the world championships program, McCarthy saw a new opportunity. Hurley, 27, was introduced to rowing a few years ago at the Valor Games in Chicago. He got into the sport in 2011, and broke the record for the world indoors 1,000-meters.
But being paired with McCarthy would prove to be a learning experience for both of them. By his own admission, Hurley said he had to work on rowing straight. He discovered that being powerful, and navigating, wasn’t easy.
Hurley helped McCarthy work through her nerves and doubts during competition, especially at the world championships, through visualization techniques and by being calmly reassuring.
They worked with Perry, the U.S. Naval Academy lightweight rowing coach, training twice a day on the Potomac River in Washington D.C.
“I sometimes slammed into the buoys, and thought, ‘Jeez, Natalie and Steve are going to think I am just an idiot,’” Hurley, a native of Washington, D.C., said. “But she’d make a joke, or he’d encourage me, and we’d just keep going with our training. We never let anything get in our way.”
Hurley also had issues with his prosthetic leg, as it frequently came off under the physical stresses of rowing. He is researching a better-designed prosthetic for rowing. He thinks improving his leg could increase their boat power by 30 percent, and they could knock as much as 30 seconds off their time.
“He’d just really nicely say, “Hey, my leg just fell off, can you guys give me a minute to get it back on?’” McCarthy said. “First time he said that, I had to think about it for a second. Not every day you have somebody’s leg falling off during rowing. But that’s us. We’re full of surprises.”
The pair would like to keep rowing together and are trying to work out the details. Hurley works as an information systems engineer. Hurley juggled his full-time work with stringent training this summer, which he admitted, was exhausting.
McCarthy, meanwhile, had been a Spanish translator for a Seattle-based law firm but left her job about a year ago to focus on rowing. She hopes work on a part-time basis and continue to row. McCarthy also wants to move to Washington, D.C., in the spring so she and Hurley can resume training together after the Potomac’s winter thaw. Going back to the world championships, and entering other events in 2014, intrigues both of them.
“We’re actually a good team because we’re both so competitive, and now we know we have something here,” McCarthy said. “We want to win. I know the technical; he’s got the strength. We both like to laugh.
“I know neither of us will ever forget what we did this summer for the rest of our lives. Just inspires us to do more.”
Joanne C. Gerstner has covered two Olympic Games and writes regularly for the New York Times and other outlets about sports. She has written for TeamUSA.org and USParalympics.org since 2009 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.