HIGH ACHIEVERS: Stay-Safe Edition
Keeping Local Sport Spirit High During the Pandemic
Sport: Para Alpine Skiing
Category: Men’s Sitting
Local Club: Calabogie Peaks
By Martin Cleary
BEIJING BOUND: Brian Rowland is a strong proponent of winter, mountains, danger and speed.
For 20 years, he spent his free time in the coldest season preparing and riding his snowboard. He loved the adventure of every single run, the elements of excitement created by carving each movement and his ultimate reward of exhilaration at the end.
Unfortunately, that part of his life suddenly stopped one day in 2015, when he had a motocross accident. He broke his back, suffered spinal cord injuries and is paralyzed from the waist down.
But his fervent desire for winter, mountains, danger and speed never deserted him.
Two years later, he returned to his happy zone, a new man in a new sport with new dreams. Rowland, who lives in Merrickville, Ont., was back in his element carefully and cautiously learning how to ride a 30-pound, $13,000 para-alpine sit-ski down a snowy and icy alpine course and going around gates.
Rowland, 35, learned well from Calabogie Peaks’ instructor Andy Van Grunsven – so well he was named to Team Canada for the Beijing 2022 Paralympic Winter Games, which start Friday in China’s capital city. During his first Winter Games, he’ll compete in the men’s para-alpine sit-ski downhill, super-G and giant slalom races.
“It’s getting pretty real,” Rowland said in a phone interview before flying to the Paralympics. “It’s a bit overwhelming. I have worked so hard in the last five years. It’s a dream come true.”
When Rowland rode his snowboard at various ski centres, he’d notice the recreational downhill skiers, but never thought he would be part of that culture, especially the sit-ski community for athletes with disabilities.
“I used to love snowboarding for 20 years. It was a big part of my winter,” Rowland explained. “When I broke my back, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to go up on the mountain again. But a good friend at Calabogie (Van Grunsven) volunteered to help me. I have become his protégé. I adapted to its challenges and I stuck with it all (that first) winter. He told me what to do and not do.
“I never skied before January, 2017,” he added. “But when I took up skiing, I fell in love with it.”
In an International Paralympic Committee social media posting, Rowland added: “I was looking for a sport that gets my heart pounding. I was a snowboarder before my spinal cord injury and it’s amazing to still be able to go up on the mountain.”
As he worked his way through the challenges of learning to become a competitive sit-ski racer, Rowland’s determination brought him to the elite level this season on the World Cup circuit. As Rowland attacks a course, he does so sitting on a small seat that has a shock absorber positioned between the seat and the small ski. He also uses two outrigger skis for balance.
Rowland, who won the silver medal in the men’s sitting giant slalom at the 2019 Canada Winter Games in Red Deer, Alta., has experienced a mix of international results in his first season. In his 11 races, which included three at the world championships in Lillehammer, Norway, he has had five results, while not finishing six other races.
During the opening World Cup session in Steinach am Brenner, Austria, he posted his best result, a ninth in the sitting super-G. At St. Moritz, Switzerland, he had a 12th- and a 13th-place showing in giant slalom as well as a 15th in slalom. Competing in his first world championships, his lone result was a 12th in the giant slalom.
“I didn’t get the results I wanted, but I’m determined to be one of the best in the world,” he emphasized. “I’m not stopping until I get there. I try my best to be one of the elite racers.”
But being a speed skier on a precarious flying machine, he knows that sometimes you finish and sometimes you crash.
“I’ve always had a passion for speed,” said Rowland, who also won the adaptive class title at the 2019 Canadian wakesurfing championships. “I used to ride motocross… on a track with big jumps. When I snowboarded, I looked for excitement to get my heart going and scare myself. But the best feeling is after a race and, if you complete it, there’s such an adrenaline rush.
“It (racing) is an all-or-nothing kind of race. I have DNFed, but it’s hard to find the balance between going too hard and not going hard enough. I’m in it to win it. I can be in contention, but there are guys who have been in my field for a long time.”
Entering the Paralympics, Rowland has International Paralympic Committee rankings of 19th in downhill, 32nd in super-G, 40th in giant slalom and 41st in slalom.
Rowland, who strictly focused on training during the 2020-21 season because of international travel restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, feels well prepared for the Paralympics, especially after an eight-day training camp at Whistler, B.C.
“I’d like to be fast and use my ability to lay down clean runs,” he said about his inaugural Winter Games. “It’s me against the mountain. If I finish, I’ll be happy with the results.”
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 49 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.
When the pandemic struck, Martin created the “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @martincleary.
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