Nov. 7, 2012
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
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SEATTLE -Eleni Englert walked into the indoor crew training room at Conibear Shellhouse with three dozen of her new Huskies teammates. Her best friend was at her side, as always.
The rest of Washington freshmen rowers found places to sit in a semicircle three-deep, readying for a team meeting. Englert had one task before she joined them. She opened a glass door leading into the boat garage. There, in the back left corner behind a stored racing shell, she dropped her best friend off at his place to sit during practice.
Inside his blue kennel.
"See you soon, Briggs!" she said cheerfully Tuesday afternoon.
Briggs is Englert's guide dog, an always-on-the-job yellow Labrador.
Eleni is UW's first blind rower. She's the only one among 600-plus Huskies student-athletes known to have substantial vision impairment.
When I first met Englert, via Skype call from London in August, she was competing for the United States' Paralympic rowing team. The native of Oceanside, Calif., was curious if not anxious about how she'd fit in while walking on to UW's renowned rowing program.
The Huskies were curious about how they would coach her, and how she would perform.
It's going to be an ongoing adventure... this could be a whole new horizon for us.
"It's going to be an ongoing adventure, the kind of deal where you just go, `Holy cow!' I mean, this could be a whole new horizon for us," legendary UW Director of Rowing Bob Ernsttold me in August.
This is indeed a new horizon for Ernst. He has coached rowing for more than 40 years and won a gold medal for the U.S. at the 1984 Olympics - but has never had a blind rower.
Two months in and Washington's new horizon is shining.
Englert not only is one of the most talented freshmen in the Huskies' program. She is potentially world class.
"I know Bob has said this and I agree: She is capable of making the Olympic team. Not the Paralympic team. The Olympicteam," UW volunteer assistant coach Ashleigh Campbell said.
Campbell has been training Englert and her fellow freshmen on erg machines since the first day of practice in September. She, Ernst, freshman coach Conor Bullis, Washington's Student-Athlete Academic Support program, the UW Disability Services for Students office - all have collaborated to make these first months perhaps the best of Englert's remarkable life.
"Other teams, I've felt I've belonged," Englert said, smiling.
"But here, I feel like I was meant to be here."
"SHE'S BROUGHT THIS MENTALITY THAT ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE"
Englert has been wowing those around her all her life, especially since the five-sport athlete was diagnosed six years ago with the incurable Stargardt disease. The juvenile form of macular dystrophy occurs in one of 10,000 children. She rows - and lives - with a fist-sized blind spot directly in front of her and her peripheral vision is deteriorating by the month.
Yet she maintained a 4.0 grade-point average from middle school through The Classical Academy High School in Escondido, Calif.
Legal blindness is the 20/200 level, with higher figures than that being worse. Englert's eyesight is 20/600.
Yet in her six weeks at UW she has instantaneously made her teammates better by feel and determination and talent.
She's made her coaches better, too.
"One of the great things about having Eleni is she has brought this mentality that anything is possible," Bullis said. "It takes a lot of these freshmen two seconds to look around and say, `OK, I don't have it thatbad. I can actually see this course, see where I am going. No matter how hard it is, it's probably harder for her.'
"She has it a little tougher. So she has created this atmosphere that anything is possible."
With Briggs guiding her onto the dock and into the shells on Union Bay, and to the erg machines inside, Englert has recorded some of the fastest times of any Husky - freshman or upperclassman - during the fall training season. Her 500-meter splits have been varsity like.
"And I know she can go faster," Campbell said.
When she said that it reminded me what Ernst had told me in August. That the 6-foot-2, 185-pound Englert wasn't a project or a mere curiosity. That "she is the REAL DEAL."
She is proving him right.
"Bob and I can definitely see the potential," Bullis says. "There are no limitations. There are really no limitations for her. She's got the size. She's got the motivation. She's got the talent. She's got the fitness right now and all the scores. She's right on track.
"She's doing really well."
Englert's acute sense of hearing has proven to be not only an advantage for her but almost revolutionary to the team.
"She shockingly can hear everything," Bullis said. "She can hear when the three seat is off. She can hear it. She knows it. She can feel it."
The veteran coach of high school, collegiate and club rowing in the Northwest marvels at how coachable Englert is, how easily she makes technical changes.
"I've learned through her," Bullis said. "We are so focused with our eyes. It's interesting, when you are coaching and you think someone has to look to get coaching feedback. She doesn't have to look at me. She doesn't care to see what I am saying or how I look. She doesn't wait to see my reaction. She just takes the feedback - and changes. And that's it. It's as simple as that.
"She does really well with what it feels like or what feels different. Other people have to look. They have to use their eyes to look at their knee or look at their arm to realize it's not straight. She just knows it's not straight."
That's because Englert has been a coach herself.
Eleni teaches adaptive rowers like herself to learn the sport by the feel of the oars and the boat. She's learned to tell whether an oar is feathered or squared - what angle it is entering and exiting the water -- by where the bolt feels like it is locking the paddle end into the oar's shaft.
Bullis says because of Englert he is now more conscious of how he coaches and exactly what he says to his rowers. He describes in more detail techniques and exactly what he wants done, which he believes has made him a more effective communicator - and thus better coach - to all.
"When I say do this, do it, I have to be more conscious of whether they can hear me (as they move around)," he said. "I have to speak much more clearly. It's actually helped some other girls, because I don't just say, `Watch this.'"
IT'S ALL ABOUT THE LOGISTICS
Last week, Englert's mother Gita, a dentist in suburban San Diego, and Eleni's brothers watched her race in the Huskies' only freshman boat as it beat one of UW's varsity shells in the annual Head of the Lake regatta on Lake Washington.
"My mom came up a little while after school started, too," Eleni said. "She kind of missed me, I think."
Eleni's older brother is Michael, a metallurgical engineering major at the University of Utah ("I still have better grades than him," she says, competitively).
Her younger brother is Bruce, who is now in high school. He recently was also diagnosed with Stargardt disease. The disease was found in 1997 to have a strong genetic component, according to the American Macular Degeneration Foundation. Once Eleni was diagnosed, there was a one-in-two chance a second of the family's four siblings would get it.
Michael was with Eleni on her only visit to UW prior to school starting in September. Eleni knew about Huskies crew because she is friends with Kari Morgan. Washington's sophomore rower is also from Oceanside and was a team captain at ZLAC in high school, when Englert was also rowing in the club.
The Englerts, including Eleni's father Jon, also a dentist, were blown away by UW's Disability Resources for Students department. And Ernst's nationally renowned coaching spoke for itself.
"They did the research and found us," Ernst said.
That's proving to be one of Eleni's smartest strokes yet.
It sounds simple, but one of her favorite parts of her new life is having her training facility and boats on the UW campus rather than a car ride away like at most schools.
She is capable of making the Olympic team. Not the Paralympic team. The Olympic team.
Before Washington it was a major operation for Englert to get to any workout that was beyond walking distance for her and Briggs. She had to find drivers and rides to coordinate with open gym times. And the mode of transportation needed to accommodate Briggs, of course.
Conibear Shellhouse is a walk down the hill from her dorm room in UW's Haggett Hall. That proximity has already made Englert a better rower than she already was, through better, more consistent and availably training. Getting to 7 a.m. workouts isn't nearly the challenge it could be for Englert.
"I love the boats being on campus. That means I can come down whenever I want," she said. "I don't have to rely on anyone to drive me to practice. Sometimes we work on the Rowperfects (indoor rowing machines) in the morning, and I can just do that."
Bullis, her new coach, has been equally pleased and surprised with how well this has worked out.
"I thought there'd be a lot more challenges. I mean, simple, logistical things," he said. "Getting her here. Getting her in and out of the boat. Does she need to have someone telling her every step of the way where she is and what she is doing?
"But, shockingly, she does everything herself. She can move around with Briggs. She brings Briggs into the locker room. She brings him and can warm up running with the girls, and stays with them. Carrying the boat out. Everything."
As for academics, Englert says she "loves" her math and English tutors.
She has the same affection for UW's Disability Resources for Students office.
"DRS, they are amazing," she said. "They got all my books done on the computer within the first week of school. And I didn't even need my books that first week of school! So I felt really prepared and confident going to classes."
Englert bought her required textbooks when she arrived on campus then took each one to DRS. Staffers there cut the bindings of the books and scanned them into text-selectable PDFs . Englert could then upload those PDFs into her BrailleNote, a computer with a Braille keyboard, a speech synthesizer and a Braille display screen. (Made by Humanware, based in Quebec, Canada, BrailleNote computers retail from $4,000-$6,000).
"I've done texting with them. Everything has been so smooth and effortless," she says of DRS and her professors. "It's just been awesome."
She likes dorm life, except for one small issue.
"My only problem has been the noise," she said. "I go to bed early because of (early morning practice). It's been hard to get the other students to realize that."
She even finds Seattle's gray, wet, fall weather, which turned on as if by switch a couple weeks ago, a plus.
"I like it," the San Diegan said with a big grin. "I was actually mad today because it was sunny. I haven't worn sunglasses in four days, and my favorite pair broke."
Turns out, Eleni Englert doesn't need eyesight to see how well she is fitting in as one of the most unique Huskies ever.
"I've never been on a team like this. It's amazing," she said. "Just the support and then all the athletes are so dedicated.
"I've been on teams with dedicated athletes, but at some point they are just like, ehh," she says, dropping her shoulders and pouting her mouth to portray defeat.
"They are all really supportive; they are super-cool teammates.
"The whole program is awesome."