Blake Haxton’s natural candor won’t let him suggest he’s on any kind of a pleasure cruise, “because I would never tell somebody to get into rowing because it’s fun.”
Nor will he say that gripping the oars again has rekindled old love, because what he came to love most about rowing growing up isn’t something he’s found in the sport as he pursues it now.
To be frank, the driver now is more practical than emotional.
“The chance to compete for the United States is what got me back in the boat,” Haxton admitted. “Any hesitation completely washed away. That’s what did it.”
It also turned Haxton into something of an overnight sensation, going from para-rowing newbie to world class in a matter of maybe two competitions. An indication of his staying power should come at the 2015 World Rowing Championships, which begin a weeklong run Sunday in Aiguebelette, France.
It’s the 24-year-old Ohio State law student’s second crack at the worlds, having finished fourth in last year’s Amsterdam finals in men’s arms-and-shoulders single sculls less than a year after dusting off his old erg machine at home and indulging in just the outline of training.
“We were a second out of third, and while we were really happy with that and didn’t expect it, fourth still hurts,” Haxton said. “So we set what we felt was a realistic goal of getting 3 1/2 seconds better. And we think we’re faster, though we really have no idea.”
“Well, I race twice a year — the worlds and at our trials again,” he said, “and I was the only one entered in our trials this year. So it’s been 12 months since I’ve raced next to somebody. I’m a little stir crazy.”
If Haxton’s rise in para-rowing has been rapid, only he can appreciate just how long the climb has taken — or even the long odds of it ever beginning.
An accomplished high school rower in suburban Columbus, Haxton had gone to bed on a Saturday in March six years ago complaining of a sore calf from an intramural basketball game. But it was something far more insidious: necrotizing fasciitis, more familiarly called flesh-eating disease. Within 72 hours, he’d endured his first amputation — he would eventually lose his left leg up to his hip, and his right leg to above his knee. But it was considerably more dire than that. As the infections spread, his heart, lungs, kidneys and liver had all shut down. Doctors wouldn’t put a percentage on his chances of survival “because they didn’t think there was one,” he recalled. Funeral arrangements were discussed.
There would be a month in a coma, 100 days in hospitals and more than 20 surgeries before the infection and other complications were brought under control. As Haxton’s rehabilitation progressed and his life assumed a new normalcy, those close to him suggested he return to rowing — if nothing else, as a link to the old normalcy.
“But, really, until my senior year (at Ohio State), it didn’t appeal to me,” he said. “Rowing, for me, was the last wound to heal.
“I knew what kind of rowing I’d be doing, and that it would be slow, restrictive and confining compared to what I’d known. There wouldn’t be any ‘swing.’ That’s kind of an ephemeral concept — when a team is doing the same thing at the exact same time, and you take all that force and send it in such a precise manner. I knew I wouldn’t be a part of that anymore, and I didn’t want to invest all that time unless I knew it was something I could really enjoy for what it is.”
Still, he wanted to stay in shape, which eventually drew him back to his old erg. In time, he noticed that he’d dipped under the U.S. elite standard on the machine — news he shared over the phone with his coach, Pat Kington.
“He’d been out on a run,” Haxton remembered, “and he ran home, opened the door and told his wife, ‘Blake is going to make the U.S. team.’ That’s the kind of belief I’ve had backing me up.”
But there were instant epiphanies for Haxton. He recalls, when he first got back on the erg, being irritated constantly. He would grapple with breaking old attachments and “being more humble, and learning this new sport for what it is.” He wondered if the time, the commitment and pain would be worth it.
“And up until the possibility came to row for the U.S., for me the answer was no,” he said.
Now it’s very much yes. While Haxton eyes Rio and the 2016 Paralympic Games with eagerness, he’s also committed to what he calls “a slow build. We had good fortune to get off to a good start, but I want to be doing this for a long time — not just next year as the ultimate finish line.”
And yet at the same time, Haxton can look at Kington and assistant and childhood friend Stephen Barthelmas and share a laugh about where they find themselves, and the possibilities ahead.
“My uniform (for the world championships) came in the mail last week,” Haxton said, “and I still can’t believe my name’s on the package. It’s like they sent it to the wrong guy.”