Paralympic Sport Club Spotlight: CapeAbility Outrigger Ohana

By Jamie M. Blanchard | July 19, 2013, 8:30 a.m. (ET)
CapeAbility Outrigger Ohana The CapeAbility Outrigger Ohana canoe.

Ohana means family in Hawaiian.

For Jan Whitaker, that is exactly what CapeAbility Outrigger Ohana has become.

“After all these years, the athletes, the families, the volunteers, look after each other,” she said.

“And we let paddling bring out the best in all of us.”

CapeAbility Outrigger Ohana is a Paralympic Sport Club in West Henrietta, N.Y., that supports the growing sport of para-canoe, which will debut at the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Paralympic Games.

“From the first day of our organization, we wanted to help athletes pursue their Paralympic dreams,” Whitaker said. “But at the time when we started, para-canoe was not a part of the Paralympics, so we worked hard to get our athletes the opportunity to compete.”

The sport has also expanded to have consistent national and world championships, which paved the way for inclusion in Rio. CapeAbility Outrigger Ohana has helped field the U.S. teams for major events.

“I do a lot of coaching to prepare the U.S. para-canoe team,” Whitaker said “I have had an athlete on the para-canoe national team every year since 2009. Just a couple weeks ago in Lake Placid, two of the CapeAbility Outrigger Ohana athletes made the team and two others won silver medals. Every year, we’ve been successful in placing an athlete on the team and having other athletes on the podium.”

Anja Pierce and Bob Balk will be representing the U.S. at the 2013 World Paracanoe Sprint Championships in Germany this August.

What is remarkable is that Whitaker, a retired physical education and health teacher, provides most of the CapeAbility Outrigger Ohana programming herself.

“I personally have provided 99 days of programming every year,” Whitaker said. “I don’t do it all on my own though. A paddler in Buffalo has volunteered eight days. A couple others have given their time when they can.”

The club does not have any salaried employees.

“We’re here because we love to paddle,” Whitaker said.

CapeAbility Outrigger Ohana receives assistance from the Nazareth College physical therapy department. Every year in the winter, the department provides training to the paddlers.

“It is a win-win situation,” Whitaker said. “Our athletes receive free, individualized training. The college sees a tremendous benefit as students can work directly with athletes who have physical disabilities. Students get comfortable before going out to clinics.”

The organization serves about 250 athletes yearly, primarily in the summer, with Nazareth College filling in the gap in the winter.

The main event for the CapeAbility Outrigger Ohana is the Rochester River Challenge, an “end of the year finale” that will be held on Sept. 14 this year. It includes 40 seven-person teams competing in sprint races.

Teams race in 30 foot, double-hulled Hawaiian outrigger canoes rigged catamaran-style for safety. Each team paddles in two 300 meter sprints, with the lowest combined time winning.

“Each year since 2005, seven wounded warriors and a guest of their choice get to come to the Rochester River Challenge,” Whitaker said. “The warrior participates in training and may compete in the races.”

Veterans from two nearby medical centers participate.

“We are thankful to be a recipient of the Olympic Opportunity Fund grant, which helps us provide programming to our military athletes,” she said.

The club primarily serves adults although some children partake in the programming.

“Everything we do is at a low cost to our participants, which allows us to get many people involved in many programs,” he said.

CapeAbility Outrigger Ohana also allows disabled athletes’ family and friends to participate in programs.

Connecting people through paddling has become Whitaker’s life work.

“The best part is just to see athletes realize their dreams and the ability within themselves,” she said. “To see a sport bring families together, it’s very moving. It’s hard to put into words. My paddlers are my greatest inspiration. I give my sincerest thanks to them for showcasing their ability to the world and creating opportunities for themselves.”

CapeAbility Outrigger Ohana is a chapter of Disabled Sports USA.