There’s a misconception in society that those who have a physical or mental disability cannot be fit, according to Steve Daniel.
The national champion rower and former Paralympian is proof of quite the contrary.
He was stationed outside the Body Worlds Vital exhibit at Science North Aug. 2 to share his message.
In 2005, Daniel, a 14-year veteran of the Royal Canadian Regiment, was holding the post as the chief parachute instructor in Petawawa. During a routine free-fall jump, Daniel was unable to slow his descent, and landed improperly. The impact fractured his T-11 vertebrae, paralyzing him from the waist down.
After several months of rehabilitation, Daniel became involved in Canadian Forces Soldier On, an organization that promotes an active lifestyle for injured soldiers.
In 2007, the organization hosted a summit, bringing in Paralympic athletes from across the country.Prior to that, Daniel said he had next to no knowledge of the Paralympics.
“I thought the Paralympics were the same as the Special Olympics,” the 38-year-old Sudbury man said. “I had no clue whatsoever because I wasn’t really exposed to it.”
He left the summit inspired.
“Just listening to the athletes tell their stories about the experience was incredible,” he said. “Right away, I put it on my list of things I wanted to do.”
Daniel poured himself into achieving this new goal. But rowing was never really on his radar.
“When I was young, I used to canoe and kayak quite a bit, but I’d never tried rowing,” he said. “I had a friend who I played basketball with and she thought I’d make a good rower. I told her I knew nothing about rowing, so she introduced me to Thomas.”
Thomas Merritt is the coach of accessible sports in the city, and had just launched an adaptive rowing program.
“It was a very steep learning curve,” Daniel said. “But I grew to really enjoy it, especially the early morning practices I’d have on Ramsey Lake. It was a great feeling to get out of my wheelchair and into the boat and be able to cruise along Ramsey at a fair clip.”
Daniel started out on an indoor rowing machine, and, soon after, hit the water. Entering the 2008 Canadian Indoor Rowing Championship, Daniel returned home with the gold medal, as well as a record in his category. That success propelled him into global rowing competitions. In that same year, he earned a gold medal in the Royal Canadian Henley Regatta, and a silver medal at the U.S. Nationals.
As luck would have it, the 2008 Summer Paralympics in Beijing, China were the first games to include adaptive rowing, and Daniel’s skills cracked him a spot on Team Canada’s roster.
“It was a bit of a quick rise for me from a novice rower to the Paralympics,” he said.
Quick indeed. It was roughly four months after he hit the water that he was rowing in the world’s largest competition.
“I had no vision of making the Paralympics — making it to that level of competition in such a short period of time,” he admitted. “For me, it was more of a long-term goal — maybe 2012 or 2016. It was a whirlwind experience and one of the best experiences of my life.”
Daniel took 11th place in the men’s arms and shoulders single sculls event on the world stage. He said the Paralympic experience forever changed him.
“I met a lot of people with diverse backgrounds — very unique stories of overcoming great hardships.”
He said it opened his eyes to different possibilities.
“I met a woman while I was over there who was actually in her last year of medical school. I had so many questions for her and that really inspired me to apply to medical school.”
Today, Daniel is attending the Northern Ontario School of Medicine with a goal of practising family and sports medicine. He’s also officially retired from competitive rowing.
“I have a nine-year-old son, I’m a full-time medical student and I’m no spring chicken,” he said with a smile.
“It’s very physically demanding to train your body to be able to compete at that level. Your body undergoes a lot of wear and tear by pushing yourself to the extremes of human potential. You can only sustain that for so long.”
Daniel continues to enjoy many sports, including wheelchair basketball and curling. He said it is “physical activity, sport and recreation that allows me to live a fully engaged life.”
“A lot of people in my condition rely a lot on medication to manage pain control, but by remaining active, you’re going to improve your quality of life, fitness and longevity,” he said. “There are many benefits to being physically active, especially for people with disabilities.”
The 2012 Summer Paralympics run Aug. 29 to Sept. 9 in London, England.
Posted by Laurel Myers