Wheelchair no longer obstacle for whaleboat racer

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Whatever stereotype one has about whaleboat racing, forget it.

First off, one doesn’t have to be a big, burly, beefy man. Lots of women compete. Sure, some may be big, burly and beefy. But it’s not required.

Secondly, about needing to be an “able-bodied” person. No doubt it helps. But, as Troy Plunkett has proven, even someone confined to a wheelchair can now get out on the water and row with the best of them.

The 33-year-old lifetime Vallejoan and his company, Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) Active Network, developed an adaptive chair so Plunkett and those in the same (figurative) boat can also participate in the same literal boat.

Making the whaleboat accessible for the wheelchair- bound “is something we’ve talked about for a long time,” said Faith Hazeltine of the Straits of Mare Island Rowing Club. “We can’t take credit for this. It was all Troy. We just unlocked the gate. He made it happen and we’re happy to have him on board.”

Before Plunkett gets the real competitive test Oct. 6-7 with the Whaleboat Regatta segment of Vallejo Waterfront Weekend, he’sbuilt his “rowing muscles” with about 10 excursions on the boat, which leaves from behind Zio Fraedo’s restaurant a short stroll from the Vallejo Yacht Club.

“Any time you do a new activity or a new sport, you’re always going to break in some new muscles,” Plunkett said.

Initially, he was sore a few days. Now, it’s no big deal “other than a couple of blisters from the oars.”

Already an active athlete, Plunkett said there was zero apprehension being assisted into the boat for the first time earlier this year.

“I’m always one to try whatever at least once and see if I like it,” he said.

Plunkett had witnessed the whaleboat races at last year’s Vallejo Waterfront Weekend at the SCI Active Network booth.

“I watched them race and saw the ins and outs of the whaleboat rowing,” he said. Since Plunkett’s company refurbishes donated used wheelchairs and gets them “to those in need” who may not be able to afford wheelchairs, there was an inventory to take and fabricate for an adaptive whaleboat.

“We needed it to be stationary and give us flexibil-ity,” Plunkett said.

With two rowing members easing into Plunkett into the boat that first time, “I wasn’t nervous or fearful,” he said. “I want to try things at least one time. Anything that gets my adrenaline going is a good thing.”

While in the boat, “it’s having consistency and timing. It takes a little bit of time,” Plunkett said. “You can see a progression.”

Plunkett was 17 and about to graduate from high school when he suffered a motocross accident in 2003, suffering broken

ribs and a broken back that left him paralyzed from the belly button down.

“I knew instantly … I couldn’t feel my legs,” he said.

Air-lifted to Mt. Eden Medical Center in Castro Valley, Plunkett took on the rehab challenge at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center Vallejo.

The doctors said he had slight chance of recovering right after his accident.

“It’s always a guess on their part, obviously, ” Plunkett said.

He may have had a different mental outlook if he were injured by a drunk driver or by gun violence, two of the most common injuries Plunkett sees as president and CEO of the SCI Active Network.

However, he always knew the risks of motocross, a sport popular with Plunkett’s family — particularly his dad and brother.

“I had other friends or fellow racers injured or killed,” Plunkett said. “It was what I love and I wouldn’t change a thing. My brother still races. It’s in our family.”

Plunkett advises others — able-bodied or not — to give whaleboat rowing a try.

“It’s awesome to be out on the water,” he said. “You never know until you try it. It could be something you really enjoy that you can do with family members.”

Plunkett hopes that at least two whaleboats have two adaptive chairs available by the Waterfront Weekend to set up at least one race involving four spinal cord injury competitors.

“The main thing is to have the chairs and bringing to fruition and letting people know what it’s about,” he said. “And to know it’s an event or activity that we can do with spouses, friends and kids.”

Plunkett hopes that visitors to Waterfront Weekend witness the adaptive athletes in action.

“I just want to increase the awareness and bring empowerment to people,” Plunkett said.

For more, visit vallejowaterfrontweekend. comContact reporter Richard Freedman at 707-553-6820.

“I want to try things at least one time. Anything that gets my adrenaline going is a good thing”

— Troy Plunkett

Troy Plunkett, second row in black, gives the thumb’s up after sitting in the adaptive chair for a whaleboat. Plunkett has been confined to a wheelchair since a 2003 motocross accident.


The adaptive chair that allows Troy Plunkett to join the rest of the Straits of Mare Island Rowing Club members at the upcoming Vallejo Waterfront Weekend whaleboard regatta.