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Unleashed: Don't Ever Say Can't to Eleni Englert
Release: 09/05/2012
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Eleni Englert and her guide dog Briggs (far left) with members of her boat on the London 2012 dock.

By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing

Click here to receive Gregg Bell Unleashed via email each week.

SEATTLE - Eleni Englert is two-plus weeks from entering UW. But she is already a Husky like no other.

The 18-year old from suburban San Diego is a world-class rower on a United States national team. She has earned a spot at Washington from one of the legends of her sport, Huskies Director of Rowing Bob Ernst. She has maintained a 4.0 grade-point average from middle school through The Classical Academy High School in Escondido, Calif.

She is 6-feet-2, 185 pounds, an ideal size to row powerfully. She wants to win national championships, plural. She wants to make the U.S. Olympic team in 2016 and beyond. She intends to major in both business and law, and then attend law school.

"This young woman," Ernst says, "she's the REAL DEAL."

Oh, yeah, she is also blind.

Ernst has coached college rowing for more than 40 years, the last 38 of them at UW. He coached the U.S. Olympic team for 12 years into the 1980s. He's done and led just about everything imaginable in his sport.

Except this.

"And I have been around a while," Ernst said Wednesday afternoon, his excitement bolting through his cell phone like lightning.

"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. Because this girl, she is a weapon, man!"

Not only has Ernst never coached a blind rower, he's never even heard of one on an intercollegiate team. Anywhere.

Where might Englert's rowing career lead her and the Huskies?

"Hey, I don't know," Ernst said. "I think the sky's the limit for her."

It always has been.

"I can," Englert says resolutely, "do anything without eyesight."

"THIS IS WHO I AM"

Six years ago, Englert was a five-sport dynamo; she'd played swimming, tennis, soccer, volleyball, and basketball. She was at the top of her class academically.

But suddenly the chalkboards in her sixth-grade classes in Oceanside, Calif., were becoming indiscernible black splotches. She asked to move up to the front of the classrooms. That didn't help. She went to her eye doctor for more tests than a 12-year old should ever have. That didn't help, either. Neither did her parents getting her stronger prescriptions for her glasses.

"Then I couldn't see any of the board any more. My eye doctor wouldn't believe me, to the point of me crying," Englert said. "Every time I see him now he apologizes to me over and over."

Eleni adapted and kept overcoming, so much so that when she finally learned she has Stargardt disease, a juvenile form of macular dystrophy that occurs in one of 10,000 children, it was already in an advanced state. Basically, her retinas have what she likened to "flecks of gold" on them. She has a fist-sized blind spot directly in front of her and her peripheral vision is poor - and getting poorer by the month.

Imagine trying to row - and live life - with a telephone pole constantly at the end of your nose.

Legal blindness is the 20/200 level, with higher figures than that being worse. Englert's eyesight is 20/600.

"There is no cure," she says flatly of Stargardt disease.

She briefly tried a daily regimen of way too many pills in an attempt to stave off worsening eye sight, but that became onerous to her, just not worth it.

"This is who I am," she says.

I don't remember being angry. I thought it was kind of cool, because I started learning Braille.

"I don't remember being angry," she said of learning at age 12 she was permanently losing her sight. "I thought it was kind of cool, because I started learning Braille."

Her best friend is her guide dog Briggs, who has been with her at all times for the last two years. The yellow Labrador leads her everywhere. To class, to shower, to workout, to bed -- and into the adaptive four with coxswain boat she stroked to a sixth-place finish last weekend for our country in the London Paralympic Games.

She sees some faint images outside her direct line of sight, but little else. I could see her through my phone Wednesday with her dark, pulled-back hair and her energetic smile on our video call. I could see Briggs' dutifully at her side - he is as much a part of the U.S. Paralympic rowing team photos as the red, white and blue uniforms. Briggs was passed out at Eleni's feet, exhausted from a long Wednesday of leading her pal through attending adaptive rugby and watching the Americans beat the host British in goal ball.

Englert couldn't see me on her phone as we talked. She, for once, didn't have on her favorite pair of sunglasses she almost always wears to ease the discomfort of light on her damaged retinas. She avoids eating carrots or anything with much vitamin A, because that has shown to somehow make bad even worse.

So what. Her infectious, can-do attitude struck me seconds into our half-hour talk.

Don't even waste your time telling Englert she can't do something. Some have tried the last six years. All have failed.

Take the blowhards at the San Diego rowing club who told her and her mother when Eleni was in eighth grade to go to the other crew club down in Mission Bay. Eleni recalls hearing, "we don't want to have to deal with an adaptive rower here."

Fine. She indeed went to that other club - and became a national-team rower from San Diego's ZLAC (the initials of the first names of the women who founded the club in 1892).

Eleni actually loves this story of the snub by those clowns at the other San Diego rowing club.

"My favorite part of this is that I was rowing on the national team and going to that other club to pick up my younger brother, who was rowing there," she said with pride Wednesday night from the main athletes' village in London, from one of the same apartment-style rooms used by competitors in last month's Olympics.

"I wasn't good enough for them, but I was good enough to be on our national team."

Oh, yes, she's basically told the folks at that other rowing club where they can stick their oars.

She's since gone on to compete in the World Rowing Championships in New Zealand in 2010 and the 2011 ones in Slovenia before these Paralympic Games.

Englert's pride comes through beyond rowing - and not just because she hasn't gotten a B in school since about when nap times were part of her curriculum.

"Hey, I can drive!" she exclaimed. "I am a fantastic driver.

"I just need someone to tell me when to turn."

Uh, Eleni, isn't that illegal?

"Oh, yeah," she said, chuckling. "But so what? I can drive.

"A lot of people see what I have as a disability. I don't. That's just me, it's what I have and what I am. You can find your way around every obstacle in life.

"Like, I can drive. Just not legally."

Eleni and (far right) with the 2012 USA Paralympic Rowing Team.


FINDING WASHINGTON

Englert is the second-oldest of four children and the only daughter. She and her parents, dentists Jon and Gita, were seeking a university with top academics and a top student disabilities resources program to go with a great rowing team last year.

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 visited UW and brought along Eleni's older brother Michael, a metallurgical engineering major at the University of Utah ("I still have better grades than him," Eleni says, competitively). They 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. "They said after visiting here that this was by far the best university to meet Eleni's needs."

Englert came upon rowing at a conference in 2008 hosted by the National Federation for the Blind, for which Eleni has been a junior chapter president. There was a rowing demonstration at the conference; that's where she got on an erg machine for the first time. She was already six feet tall. Her stroke rate smoked those of the fit paralympic goal-ball athletes who were also at the demonstration.

She remembers her junior coach at ZLAC thinking her so-called disability was an asset in her learning the nuances of the sport. That was when she was trying so hard to look around to see something, anything on the water that she'd almost topple each boat she was in.

"That's great! That's great!" the welcoming coach there kept telling her of her blindness, emphasizing the value of gaining a true instinct and feel for the sport.

Eleni has done far more than just get by since her diagnosis with Stargardt disease. She's excelled into a role model.

She 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.

She's also become the guiding light for her younger brother Bruce, who is now in high school. Bruce 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.

Bruce's diagnosis further strengthened Eleni's resolve.

"If I freaked out and cried about my condition, that would make my younger brother have a harder time," she said. "Now I'm like, `Bruce! Ha! You are blind like me. We finally have something in common!'

"It's funny, we are the only ones in our family with blue eyes. It's the curse of the blue eyes!"

Eleni (right) and Briggs with Helen Raynsford, a Paralympic rower and former Paralympic basketball player for Great Britain who carried the torch Eleni is holding.


A WHITE HOUSE VISIT, A KENNEL -- AND AN APP

Englert is staying in London through this weekend's closing ceremonies to the Paralympic Games. She wants to see Buckingham Palace, Big Ben and other sites before she goes home to Southern California.

After a few days there, she and the U.S. Paralympic team will be meet President Barak Obama during a White House visit.

How many Huskies can say they've done that?

Englert's arrives for UW's first day of classes Sept. 24. That will be a day of firsts for her and the Huskies' athletic department.

She is walking on to the rowing team, and that day will bring her initial meeting with her new team and Huskies freshman assistant crew coach Colin Sykes. She will begin training in a boat the next day, with her trusty guide dog leading her onto the dock and up to the shell just like he always does.

Ernst was almost as excited talking about adding Briggs to his program.

"Briggs is a character, man," Ernst says. "He looks just like a puppy, but he's all business. He works hard, and whenever he is stopped and Eleni is in one place he is passed out sleeping, tired from all the work.

"We are going to have a place for Briggs at the shellhouse."

Turns out, Conibear Shellhouse already has two kennels, for the dogs of Sykes and assistant men's coach Luke McGee.

"My guess is Briggs is going to have his own kennel, too," Ernst says. "But it's not going to be like the rowers do with Luke's and Colin's dogs, petting them and playing with them. Briggs has a job to do."

So does Michael Richardson. The assistant director for UW's Disability Resources for Students office believes Eleni will be the only one of the 600-plus Husky student-athletes with known, substantial vision impairment. It was Richardson's department that so impressed the Englerts on their visit to Washington last year. His office will be providing the services such as Braille boards, note takers if she requests them, and other aids in Eleni's law and business studies.

"A great story," Richardson says of Englert.

This irrepressible force wants to go to eventually work in disability services for youth, after seeing how hard her mother had to advocate for services once her daughter was diagnosed with Stargardt's.

"Through middle school and high school I had a lot of problems getting services," Eleni said. "It shouldn't be that hard."

Ernst says the same thing about coaching Eleni - though because he's never trained a blind person he's not completely certain how this will go.

It's not like we have to teach her how to row or what a boat is or where the water is. She is a real athlete.

"Hey, we are up to the challenge," the lively coach says. "And it's not like we have to teach her how to row or what a boat is or where the water is. She is a real athlete."

After all, Englert beat out adults far older than her to make the U.S. adaptive team.

"Who knows where this will go?" Ernst said.

It's already taken UW rowing to Microsoft Corp. There Ernst has found a software application for rowing. Enabled by a Bluetooth device, a rower puts on waterproof earphones and can hear what Ernst called the "catch strokes" of everyone in the boat. The application also tells the user how many strokes per minute she is pulling and what distance she has covered.

"It's like a speedometer on your car, for rowing," Ernst said.

Rowing for the blind? Yes, there's an app for that, too.

"This is why you take this job, to learn and experience new things and take on new challenges," Ernst said. "She's rowed stroke on the current boat she's in. She's rowed every seat in that boat. She can do it all.

"I'm really looking forward to coaching her."

As Ernst says, Eleni Englert is the REAL DEAL.

In more ways than one.

About Gregg Bell Gregg Bell is an award-winning sportswriter who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director of Writing. Previously, Bell served as the national senior sports writer in Seattle for The Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley, in 2000.

Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.

Click here to email Gregg Bell.
Click here to visit Bell's Twitter page.

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