Blake Haxton, an aficionado of investing and investment philosophy, refers to his rowing career as a set of data points on a continuum.
The law school student and double-amputee’s continuum is about to curve to a precipice as he attempts to qualify for his first Paralympic Games this week at the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Team Trials in Sarasota, Florida.
Haxton will compete in the men’s arms and shoulders singles sculls discipline, which is for athletes with minimal or no leg or trunk function. The time trial will be contested at 8:10 a.m. (EDT) on Thursday, with the final slated for 9 a.m. (EDT) on Sunday.
Team USA has already earned a quota spot for the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Paralympic Games in the discipline, but Haxton is unsure how he stacks up with his opponents heading into the event.
“There’s so few races during the year that there aren’t a lot of data points to compare where people are coming from,” Haxton said. “I know I’ve put in a lot of work and that I’m faster, but I have no idea how much faster. Going into trials, you really just don’t know, and I think that’s true of the other rowers as well.”
Haxton, 25, has been gauging his fitness level by various output measurements on his rowing machine, and more objectively, through physiological measures such as blood lactate levels.
Whereas Olympic rowing is a leg-driven sport, Paralympic rowing for some is arm and shoulders driven, requiring athletes to have a different type of balance in the boat and focus more on upper-body strength and more explosive weightlifting in training.
Haxton was an accomplished able-bodied high school rower in Columbus, Ohio, and was recruited to compete in college before both of his legs had to be amputated in 2009 due to necrotizing fasciitis, more commonly known as flesh-eating disease. He endured more than a month in a coma, 100 days in hospitals and more than 20 surgeries, proving wrong the doctors who didn’t believe there would be any chances of survival.
But Haxton pulled through, and as soon as his rehabilitation progressed, he returned to the boat to take up arms and shoulders singles sculls.
Because he was so new to the discipline, Haxton and his coaches looked to the some of the sport’s greats, such as Great Britain’s four-time world champion Tom Aggar and Australia’s three-time world champion Erik Horrie, when he first began in order to create a starting data point for himself.
“We tried to see what their strategies were,” Haxton said. “One of the things we learned right off the bat was that even among my classification, there’s such a variance of body type and disability type, that you really have to figure out how to row your own race. I think once we figured that out, that opened the door to a lot of improvement.”
With that, everything started clicking for Haxton, and a new set of data points could be added to his continuum, which turned into a Paralympic pathway.
He exceeded everyone’s expectations in his first competition year, winning his event at the 2014 U.S. Para-Rowing World Championships Trials before going on to finish fourth at the world championships. He missed joining Horrie and Aggar on the international podium by just one second.
In 2015, he finished fifth on the world stage, all the while wearing a chest strap at the event before finding out after that he had sustained a broken rib.
This week, Haxton drove down to Sarasota with his boat, coach and roommate, giving himself plenty of time to study for his law school finals at Ohio State on the way, which he’ll take shortly after the competition.
“I think to some degree they’re synergistic,” Haxton said of rowing and law school. “It’s easier for me to study when I’m already worked out and a little worn out and calmed down. Likewise, practice is easy when you want to get away from the books for a while. I’ve been OK the last few years, so we’ll see what happens.”
This month could very well be the end of Haxton’s law journey, though, as the current mutual fund intern who studied finance as an undergraduate said at heart he is “an equity research kind of guy” and would much prefer to go back to the investment sphere.
With two of Haxton’s journeys about to peak parallel to one another, several of his closest buddies from high school have ventured down to Sarasota as well to see how it all plays out.
“It’s going to be pretty special having them around,” Haxton said. “If it weren’t for having people like that around, it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun or nearly as rewarding.
“Some of them said they’re not surprised; they thought I’d be here, especially the people who have been there since the beginning of this and have been with me my whole life, they’ve just done anything they can do to support me.
“I know I’m the only guy in the boat, but it doesn’t feel that way. It feels like it’s a boat of many.”
Stuart Lieberman covered Paralympic sports for three years at the International Paralympic Committee, including at the London 2012 and Sochi 2014 Games. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.