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Four Rowers Secure Their Ticket To Tokyo After Paralympic Team Trials

By Lisa Costantini | April 14, 2021, 2:50 p.m. (ET)

Blake Haxton competes at Rowing's U.S. Paralympic Team Trials on April 14, 2021 in West Windsor, N.J.

 

Paralympic rower Blake Haxton had not been out of his town of Columbus, Ohio since the pandemic started more than a year ago. So when he got the call that trials had been moved up a day, he was in his car and on the way to New Jersey.

Haxton planned to get in at least one practice on site at the Caspersen Rowing Center before his race on Thursday. But with high winds in the forecast, everything was moved up a day.

“We didn’t get to test the equipment, the oars, nothing,” said the 30-year-old, who placed fourth at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 in the men’s arms and shoulders single sculls. “So that was a little worrisome, but it all worked out.”

In total, three Para classes were contested on Wednesday. Haxton — who raced uncontested in the men’s single sculls — and three other Para-rowers secured their spots to Tokyo.

“It feels a little surreal after this year,” Haxton said, “but it feels really good. I haven’t raced in a year and a half, which is the longest time I’ve been out of the boat in maybe six or seven years. So that’s been a weird shift in time. It was like there was a pause button hit last year and now we’re hitting play again.” 

But fast forward to Tokyo and Haxton hopes to be named to two Para sports: rowing, and canoe.

“Next I’m trying to make the sprint canoe team, and the last qualification regatta before Tokyo is in Hungary in May. So that’s definitely the focus for the next month is seeing if I can get qualified in that.”

Hallie Smith secured her spot on the U.S. Paralympic Team and will compete at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020.

 

The women’s single scull also went uncontested with Hallie Smith, punching her ticket to the Games this summer. Smith — who placed sixth in world championships in 2019 — has been rowing since 2016, but dreamed of becoming a Paralympian since 2014 when she became paralyzed.

“This is a really big deal to me,” she said. “I’ve watched the Paralympics since 2014 and this is a culmination of a lot of work.”

But the work continues.

“My coach said when I came in after the race, now comes the hard stuff. I’m looking forward to those hours on the river, and in the gym — as hard as they’re going to be.”

The long plane ride will also be difficult, she said, as international travel is hard in a wheelchair. But “it’s worth it for the Paralympics, for sure. This will be my longest trip. And I’ve never been to Asia, so that will be really cool.”

Russell Gernaat and Laura Goodkind secured their spots on the U.S. Paralympic Team and will compete at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020.

 

Closing out the first day of finals was national team members, Russell Gernaat and 2016 Paralympian Laura Goodkind, who went on to win in the PR2 mixed double sculls. The pair has been partners for more than two years with the ultimate goal of Tokyo.

“Our aim now is the podium,” Goodkind said, “so we’re going to work really hard and put everything we’ve got into it.”

For the athlete who learned to love rowing machines while training to be a Navy SEAL, the realization of Tokyo is a full circle moment.

“For me, it’s interesting,” Gernaat said. “I joined the military at a very young age. I went active duty at 17, and at 19 I was deployed out of Japan. If we podium, that would be like putting a stamp on it,” the 54-year-old said about what will be his first trip back.

But until then he admitted he’s “looking forward to some more racing to get us ready for Tokyo.” Trials, he said was all about “coming out and really shaking off the dust, so to speak.”

Lisa Costantini

Lisa Costantini is a freelance writer based in Orlando. She has covered Olympic and Paralympic sports for various publications, and has contributed to TeamUSA.org since 2011.

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