Veteran reclaims his confidence and place in the outdoors while riding the rapids
By: Jennifer A. Sheffield
A non-competitive, team-oriented advocate group of whitewater kayakers is giving veterans like Gerald “Jay” Hall an opportunity to try paddling as an adaptive sport.
Hall, a former U.S. Army air traffic controller with three years of service, needed activities to keep him from dwelling on the negative parts of his life following a spinal-cord injury and traumatic brain injury (TBI) he sustained in a motor vehicle accident in 2004.
He found the local chapter of Team River Runner (TRR) near Fort Belvoir, Va., and it gave him a chance to safely return to his former lifestyle. The exercise and adrenaline of the challenge, paired with scenic river views, helped him rehabilitate and make the transition to living independently after a family separation.
He was introduced to kayaking in a swimming pool, before the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic shut it down. Thankfully, said Hall, that didn’t stop the group from finding places to put their watercrafts in for practice. The Fort Belvoir team is one of 71 national TRR chapters in 34 states. The chapter primarily paddles the Potomac, but also makes frequent excursions to the Upper and Lower Youghiogheny and Stonycreek Rivers in Pennsylvania and Cheat Canyon and the Shenandoah in West Virginia.
“In terms of disabled or non-disabled inclusiveness, kayaking allows people to be equally as capable as those without disabilities,” chapter coordinator Scott Russell said. “When running a rapid, they are able to be true and equal members of the team.”
For Hall, the TRR model works because it mirrors his military experience in a working unit.
“I had the best summer – enjoying waterways I’d never dreamed of,” said Hall. “Now, I have goals to improve my skills and the opportunity to show others the sport.”
Skills And Strokes
Hall was raised near water in Michigan until he joined the Army in 2002. His accident caused a loss of feeling and strength in his left leg.
“I figured sitting in a kayak is perfect for me because I have less strength in my lower body,” said Hall. “The more advanced I become, I realize I need to paddle harder and use my feet to take advantage of the power of my strokes.”
Testing different paddling skills in a pool before entering open water is a step toward gaining a sense of control and total comfort in a paddlecraft.
“We use the pool to learn flatwater and rolling and bracing. We then move into moving water,” said Russell, who has been kayaking for three years.
Core skills include ferrying (or ferry gliding), eddy catching (entering) and peel outs (exiting), where the current flowing upstream meets water coming downstream.
So far, Hall has experienced a wide variety of rapids, starting out with Class 1 and 2 and moving up to Class 4.
“The most challenging river was the Cheat,” he said. “That trip was about 12 miles. About mile 8, I started to make mistakes, and so I flipped over and swam a lot, but I was able to learn about my endurance and how to use my craft. The river is also amazingly beautiful, and that made it worth it.”
Overall, Hall is confident that his experience is adding up, and his resilience is helping him face the risks of rocky rivers and rushing, wild water.
“By this time next year, I want to be a solid Class 4 boater,” he said.
The Healing Process
TRR Fort Belvoir serves approximately 50 veterans, while the national organization has helped over 6,000.
“The military attracts similar types of people,” Russell said. “By the time their career is over, many are more comfortable being with others who understand their life experience, and this is especially true of those with disabilities.”
Hall said TRR has enhanced his view of community purpose.
“When going to the pool sessions, I would see people who were there just to be around other veterans because they felt safe,” he said. “By creating a sense of community purpose, TRR also helps create each participant’s healing.”
Hall admitted that kayaking is scary, but experiencing nature from a different perspective is its reward.
“Everyone has strengths and struggles on a TRR team,” Hall said. “The camaraderie helps work on your weaknesses. For example, I was terrified of being upside down underwater. Now, I know what to expect. I learned in the military that you might find yourself in situations that are out of your control, but if you have a team, they can help pull you out of it.”
Russell said kayaking is also about giving veterans with disabilities a sense of freedom that might be limited in their daily lives.
“It also pairs the best parts of their military experiences with the thrill of success when running a whitewater rapid,” he said. “It’s been great to share this with our local veterans and give them this rewarding way to help each other.”
Find out more about Team River Runner and locate your state’s chapters by visiting https://www.teamriverrunner.org.