Serefina King poses for a photo after winning bronze at the Parapan American Games Toronto 2015.
Serafina King already has attempted to reach the Paralympic Games in the water. This time around, she will try using a boat.
Antibiotic-resistant strep throat prevented King from getting to Rio de Janeiro as a Para swimmer in 2016 despite her American record-setting performances leading up to the U.S. Paralympic Team Trials. Her immune system was shot.
“I had no energy left,” King recalled. “I was so fatigued all the time. By the time I got to the Trials, I just had nothing left. It was definitely the most devastating experience of my life because I had definitely built up a lot of momentum over a four-year period to make that team, and I just lost all of it in the span of four months.”
An emergency appendectomy she underwent just weeks after Trials made it clear that she wouldn’t have made it to Rio, regardless. Yet, after she recovered, King got back into the pool and reset her sights on Tokyo. She became a collegiate swimmer at the University of Wyoming, where she finally burned out.
“I was competing for the wrong reasons,” said King, who has partial paralysis in her right arm. “I had this very naïve idea about what it meant to be an elite athlete. I thought it was to win.
“I had to be the best, and nothing I did would be good enough. It took me a really long time to realize that that was not the idea of athletics. I knew that my only option at that point was to quit because the mental anguish that I was experiencing every, single day — it was too much for me to handle.”
By January 2018, King was done with swimming, but she found a new athletic outlet in the rowing machine.
“I already had that endurance, I had that control,” King said. “I was posting times (on the rowing machine) that most people wouldn’t begin hitting in years.
“And (swimmers are) used to pain. We’re used to being uncomfortable. And rowing is so uncomfortable. It’s very, very uncomfortable, but I’m used to not being able to breathe, so I was like, ‘This is normal for me.’”
Her performances were so impressive that her trainer sent the results to university rowing coaches.
“I got recruited in February of 2018 to multiple universities,” said King, who accepted a scholarship from the University of Oklahoma. She immediately took to rowing.
“The transition itself isn’t that difficult, just because swimmers have very high endurance, they have great lungs, great control over their bodies, a lot of leg strength, which is what you need when you’re a rower,” King said. “You have a really good understanding of the way that water works. You can manipulate it in ways that most people don’t realize.”
Now, however, she would use an eight-foot-long oar instead of her hands.
“That was a very different situation,” King said. “It’s all leg strength, and I have an arm disability. For the first time in my life, I actually felt like I was on an even playing field in the world of collegiate rowing. I felt like I had just as good of a chance as anyone else on my team because we all just had to use our legs.”
King said that the Oklahoma coaches treat her no differently than her teammates.
“On an everyday basis, I’m not given special treatment,” King said. “I just can’t rely on my arms as heavily as my teammates. That’s the only difference, but I’ve just learned to push my legs just as hard as they’re pushing their arms.”
Despite losing part of the 2019 season to illness, she was still part of an Oklahoma Second Four that placed second in the Big 12 Conference Championship during her sophomore year.
“Our boat just clicked,” King said. “It was effortless for us, and it was just a great feeling. It was really exciting to medal at something that I hadn’t been doing very long. It was kind of the confidence boost I needed.”
King had high hopes for the 2020 season, but COVID-19 had other plans. The pandemic erased the entire season and sent her home to Santa Monica, California.
“I did not have a rowing machine when I went home,” King said. “And all of them sold out immediately once COVID began because everyone wanted to have workout stuff at their home. It was definitely a challenge to try and maintain (my fitness) for basically about six months.”
King returned to her summer job as a Los Angeles County ocean lifeguard, which is under the umbrella of the Los Angeles County Fire Department. Her duties differed in 2020, however.
“The fire department became involved in something called ‘Project Room Key,’” said King, explaining that the program placed homeless individuals in hotels. “The whole idea was to just stop the spread of COVID-19. The more people we have on the streets, the faster the spread.
“I basically worked seven days a week, 12 hours a day to run these hotels. The last hotel I was in, I had about 350 occupants, and it was my job to just run this hotel and make sure that it worked properly. I learned a lot from that experience.”
Her work with the county fire department has King thinking about a firefighting career after she graduates this spring with her degree in communication with a minor in psychology.
“It’s definitely going to be a challenge physically because of my arm,” King said. “I need to work on those physical (firefighting) tasks, specifically. Every time somebody tells me you can’t do something, I immediately want to do it.”
Directly ahead of her are the COVID-abbreviated Oklahoma season and the U.S. Paralympic Team Trials for Rowing.
“The team atmosphere — it’s been absolutely incredible,” said King of her Oklahoma experience. “It’s definitely really comforting to know that when you’re struggling or when you’re uncomfortable in practice, when you’re in pain, there’s a girl next to you feeling the exact, same thing.”
Because she is so new to the sport, the 22-year-old King said she is unsure of her chances of making the U.S. team for Tokyo.
“Rowing is a completely different story because I’ve never been to (Trials),” King said. “I don’t necessarily know all of the variables that will decide that team.
“The longer you row, the better your technique is. So, I’m going against people that have been rowing for a significantly longer period of time. I’m absolutely pushing my limits every, single day.”