Rower to Represent Team USA in Rio Paralympic Games

PALM CITY — Adversity. The story of Jacqui Kapinowski cannot be told without it.

She has faced it many times over. It has risen up behind her and tried to take her down so many times she's actually lost count. But will adversity stop this 53-year-old world class athlete?

Don't bet on it.

In fact, the smart money is on Kapinowski.

The Tequesta woman, who has spent nearly two decades confined to a wheelchair by a rare neurological disease, has qualified for the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games.

On April 24 in Sarasota, Kapinowski won her qualifying trial by five boat lengths in the women's adaptive rowing shoulders and arms single scull event.

In September, Kapinowski will represent the United States when she takes to the waters of Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas near Ipanema to row the 1,000-meter sprint race.

As she trains out of Treasure Coast Rowing Club, in Palm City on the slick waters of the St. Lucie River's South Fork, she envisions the technique and form that will carry her to the medal stand four months from now.

"I envision the perfect race — even though no race is perfect," Kapinowski said. "I want to focus on being clean coming out of the water (with my oars) and then getting those catches, and really sending the boat down the course."

In her years, she has overcome more than a fair share of life's hurdles.

At 35, she discovered her life would never be the same when she learned she had stiff-person's syndrome.

The spinal and brain stem-related disorder, affecting about one in one million people, causes painful muscle spasms and muscle rigidity.

As if that's not challenging enough, the condition can flare up when triggered by stimuli such as light, sound, physical contact and emotional distress.

While the cause is still unknown, Kapinowski's case is likely the result of her contracting bacterial meningitis as a child.

She lives her life with no feeling below her eighth thoracic vertebrae.

Chris Schwartz, her coach, will work with her this week on honing her skills with a training program involving 90-minute, steady-state workouts on the water.

In between her rowing days, she cross trains with Treasure Coast Rowing Club Juniors head coach Stefanie Falkner at the Martin Memorial Health and Fitness Center, in Palm City.

There, Kapinowski uses hand cycling, weight training and other conditioning regimens to build strength.

She's been training for her shot at the paralympic games since March 2015 when she was first called by U.S. Rowing to see if she wanted to get back into training.

She had been staying in good physical shape by competing in triathlons, but had gotten away from rowing after a disappointing scenario leading up to her attempt to compete in the 2012 London Games.

Adversity, again.

But that wouldn't be the last of her hurdles. After competing in a triathlon two years ago, she learned she was sick — cancer.

"In 2013, I just wasn't feeling well after I had finished a triathlon," she explained.

"After visiting my doctor, he informed me I had thyroid cancer."

The surgery was supposed to be a fairly short procedure, and offered a good prognosis for a quick recovery. But the surgery took almost five hours — instead of two.

"He told me that, after he opened me up, he saw I also had throat cancer," she said.

"There were two tumors on each side, in the beginning stages, so we dealt with that. That was two years ago in April."

This is where most people hang up their hopes to compete on an international stage, or compete at all.

But not Kapinowski.

"I'm just blown away by all the people who surround me, and all the help I get all the time," she said.

And that starts with husband Harry, who for 26 years has served as the chief assistant, lead organizer, adjunct coach and the legs of Team Kapinowski.

"None of this would have been possible without Harry," she said.

"I always ask her, 'Well, do you have one more bounce in you?' " he said.

"She always says, 'Yeah, I do.' And then we go try something. We're always trying something."

Was he concerned Jacqui would falter during the qualifier in Sarasota?

"No, Jack's always pretty centered and focused on what she does," he said. "I knew she was going to go out and get the job done."

For the next few months, Kapinowski will be working to get herself ready for the row of her life.

"I'm focusing on getting into the 'A final' and getting a medal," she said.

"After all, I'll be 54 when I get there. This is the last time I'm going to get the chance to compete in the Paralympics."

Don't bet on that, either.


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