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Diverse U.S. Paralympic rowers pull in same direction, toward Rio gold

Right to left, Dorian Weber, Zach Burns, Dani Hansen and Jaclyn Smith will go for gold at the Rio Paralympics in the mixed coxed four race. The top of coxswain Jenny Sichel's head, in a white cap, is visible behind Smith. Jamie Cotten for ESPN

BRIGHTON, Mass. -- It was only .26 seconds, but it might as well have been forever. For years, the United States had been chasing the British in para-rowing, and last year at the World Rowing Championships in Aiguebelette-le-Lac, France, the U.S. almost caught them.

The 1,000-meter LTA (legs, trunk and arms) mixed coxed four race included six teams -- each with two men and two women with various disabilities and one able-bodied coxswain -- but with about 400 meters to go, it was a two-boat race.

U.S. coach Ellen Minzner couldn't find a good vantage point, so she watched the race on a large video board. Her team had a strong cadence and was "rowing well," she said. She thought the crew had more to give, but the experienced Great Britain team, which had won gold in the 2012 Paralympics and every world championship since, beat the U.S. at the line. The Brits finished in 3 minutes, 19.56 seconds, the Americans in 3:19.82.

The U.S. team was crushed.

"I think the long and short of it is, we were up against an undefeated crew that had done this before four or five times in a row and was a very, very confident crew," Minzner said. "I wouldn't say so much as we made errors, we were just up against somebody that was not at all worried by how close things were. They had been to the line before. They'd been quite quick, and we just didn't match them stroke for stroke in the final quarter of the race."

The U.S. hopes that will change next week at the Rio Paralympics, which begin with the opening ceremonies Wednesday. With the same four rowers and coxswain as in France, Great Britain again will be the favorite to win gold. But for years, the U.S. team has been narrowing the gap. Three of the four American rowers in Rio are carryovers from the team that competed in France, and the newbie of the group actually competed on the team in London in 2012.

"There's not a day that goes by that you don't think how close we were to winning the gold," said Jaclyn Smith, one of the U.S. rowers. "It's time to take that picture out of my head and actually go and win the gold."

They are five distinct personalities with one collective goal: to win in Rio.


DANI HANSEN IS the crier. It doesn't take much.

"She cries when she looks outside," teammate Dorian Weber said.

The third of five daughters, Hansen was born with Erb's Palsy, the result of a birth injury that damaged nerves near her left shoulder and rendered her left arm paralyzed. Doctors said she likely would never use her left arm, which was shorter than her right, but her parents didn't listen.

When Hansen was a baby, her mother constantly moved Dani's arm. Her father helped Dani learn to navigate the monkey bars in their backyard. While Hansen struggled to button her pants, tie her shoes and braid her hair, her family never treated her as disabled. When Hansen was about 8 years old and struggling with her disability, Sharon told her: Everyone has an obstacle to overcome. This is yours. Work hard, keep trying and never say you can't, and one day you're going to compete in the Paralympic Games.

After Minzner announced which athletes made the Paralympic team in June, Hansen raced out of the Community Rowing, Inc. boathouse in Brighton, Massachusetts, and called her parents. It was 7 a.m. back home in Patterson, California, and when her mom answered, Hansen started sobbing. She could get only one word out: Rio. "It was the greatest information to be able to tell my parents, the greatest news," Hansen said. "I was ecstatic, over the moon. It makes me emotional now. ... When I was younger my mom told me there was something I could be really great at even though I had a little bit of a handicap. I could use it to do something really cool. That's what I remember, being like, 'Yeah!'"

Hansen, 22, rows for the University of Washington. She did her first pushup at age 21, and then her first pull up. She still struggles to raise her arm over her head and turn it, and she said, "I still have a lot of things I haven't figured out yet."

There's still time.


JACLYN SMITH IS the sarcastic one. Maybe it's because she comes from a large Irish-Catholic family on Long Island. Maybe it's because she's the daughter of two former police officers. Or maybe it's just her.

The second of four kids, Smith was born with a genetic condition called ocular albinism. She has no pigment in her hair, skin or eyes. She has photophobia, which is sensitivity to light, and nystagmus (her eyes move rapidly and involuntarily from side to side). Her vision is at a level that makes her legally blind.

"I was born and my parents were like, 'What's up here?'" Smith said. "So they went for some gene testing, and they found out there was a one-in-four chance that they would ever pass it on to their kids. Four kids later, I'm the only sucker that's got it."

Although doctors and counselors recommended Smith attend a specialized school to try to minimize any social issues she might encounter, her parents sent her to a mainstream school from nursery school through eighth grade. Before moving on to a prestigious all-girls Catholic high school, Smith had a meeting with a couple of counselors, a teacher and her parents. Someone asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up.

Smith said a police officer, like her parents, her two grandfathers and several uncles. One of the counselors laughed at her.

"I couldn't believe it," Smith said. "I started tearing up and thought, 'This is awkward.' I was never the kid to cry -- Dani's the crier -- but that just broke my heart."

Smith, 23, started rowing her freshman year of high school. It was easier than sports she had played that involved a ball. She could do it all by feel. She's been part of the U.S. para-rowing team since 2013 and is working on her second master's degree to become a school counselor.

"I don't want any kid to ever feel the way I did when I told them what my dream was and they laughed," Smith said.


ZACH BURNS IS the quiet one. And he's the youngest on the team at 19, which might explain his reluctance to be heard.

A native of Ann Arbor, Michigan, Burns is a sophomore at the University of Michigan and a member of the Wolverines rowing team. His parents attended Michigan State for undergrad and then met at "the U," as Burns called it, when they were in grad school. Burns grew up 10 minutes from campus going to Michigan football games and playing sports.

He was born with a clubbed left foot that was surgically repaired when he was a year old. But there were lingering issues. His left leg is about a half-inch shorter than his right and significantly skinnier. His left calf is detached, his left quadriceps muscle has atrophied and he has limited flexibility in his left ankle.

But Burns never felt there was anything substantially wrong with him. He grew up playing soccer and lacrosse. Sure, he might have to explain to a coach why when he got tired he would start limping, but he never felt significantly inhibited, and it didn't dawn on him until a few years ago that he would actually be eligible for a Paralympic team.

"I guess I didn't know what the Paralympics was about," Burns said. "I think when most people think about the Paralympics they think of someone with no arms or no legs swimming, or someone in a wheelchair or something very visible. I have a club foot. I didn't realize there was a class where I would qualify for that, and once I did, I came here.

"It's been really helpful, too. I've learned a lot about just like, I don't know, getting around some limitations."

Burns has learned how to do a power squat on one leg: his left. And when the Olympics are over, the quiet one will be back at school studying to be an engineer -- and rowing.


DORIAN WEBER IS the inappropriate one. Born in Manhasset, New York, and raised in England, Weber is 34 and a pharmaceutical sales rep in Florida. He competed in the Paralympics in 2012 and was part of the U.S. able-bodied lightweight eight that finished third in the 2013 World Rowing Championship.

"I'm told I'm the one with no filter," he said. "Depending on how strong you want your coffee, sometimes no filter is good."

Weber bumped Ricky Vandegrift, who competed in the world championships last year, out of the boat and is more experienced than Hansen, Smith and Burns.

So that makes him something else: the ringer.

Like Burns, Weber was born with a club foot, but the disparity in his legs is hardly noticeable. He qualifies for the Paralympic team because he lacks flexibility in his feet, which hinders him a bit in rowing, but on a scale of 1-10, he described his disability as a 1.

And Weber isn't shy about his expectations for the team in Rio.

"Ah, we should win," he said. "The three of them and a previous athlete I replaced, Ricky, they've been getting silver medals. They've narrowed [the gap with Great Britain] to within a second. When I did it [in 2012], the boat wasn't close to getting medals. Now they've got very fit athletes who are at very high levels. ...

"I should be bringing hopefully enough to ... you can't guarantee anything in life. I wouldn't bet the house on it, but I'd bet my crappy car on it."


JENNY SICHEL IS the self-described bossy one. And she's empathetic. She has to be both. As the coxswain, Sichel steers the boat and is responsible for keeping the crew synchronized and motivated. At barely 110 pounds, she's a peanut with curly brown hair and a nurturing disposition.

The 28-year-old also is the only athlete in the boat without a disability.

A Clifton, New Jersey, native, Sichel took up rowing at Bryn Mawr College. She made the varsity as a freshman, but the next year, while in the middle of taking a rowing stroke, Sichel felt something in her back pop. She practiced the next day and felt it again. Finally, she had a trainer look at her back. She had a herniated disk. Her career as a rower was over.

"I ended up sitting at the boathouse painting all the oars and doing random miscellaneous things, like riding a launch," Sichel said. "I love the team atmosphere. It was pretty devastating. I got into coxing and said, 'Hey, I could do this,' and then I fell in love with coxing."

Like the others on the 2015 team, she replayed what went on in that world championship race over and over. And then she let it go.

"For me, for probably a good month afterward it was definitely me repeating the race in my head, once, twice a day, overanalyze it, figure out what we could've done better," Sichel said. "After that month, I was in one of those positions where I can either use it as fodder to make myself work harder and use it as information, or I could kind of like let it affect me completely. So I definitely used it as fodder for this coming year.

"Great Britain rode a better race than us. By being able to say that and appreciate it is one thing, and being able to come back from that and perform better this year is a whole other ballgame. And that's where we are."


The moments before an important para-rowing event tend to be quiet and still. For this one in Rio, Hansen will have to work hard not to cry. Weber will be in his zone. And Sichel will be organized and prepared, buoyed by the disappointment of 2015.

The gold medal is the goal, of course, but it is not the final destination for any of the athletes or the coaches. It would mean they had traveled 1,000 meters in three minutes and change faster than any other team. But they are striving for more.

"The gold medal is great, but it sits on the wall for a long time," Minzner said. "If that's the only thing we chase, I think we can limit ourselves. I feel like we want to be part of a team that is capable of heroics, that's amazing, and how do we get ourselves in the mindset where we're capable of heroics? There's a gold medal that comes at the end if we're really heroic, so yes. But it's more, how can they row in a way that makes them feel super proud and capable of heroics? I think that that is very, very important."