The 51st Head of the Charles regatta is underway this weekend in Boston, where about 10,000 rowers from around the world will compete.
This year’s event includes a new category of race that will include some kinds of rowers with disabilities, but not others.
More than anything, Kristina Gillis would like to race in the world-renowned Head of the Charles. The 26-year-old is part of a program for rowers who have intellectual disabilities, and there’s no category specifically for rowers with disabilities like hers.
“I have ADD and I’m on the autism spectrum,” says Gillis, who’s been rowing for nearly seven years.
She sits in the rear of a two-person rowing shell, pulling her oars as her boat speeds along the Charles River. A coach calls out to her from a motorboat that’s keeping pace.
“Out on the water, you really get a feel of the freeness of being outdoors,” she says.
Deb Arenberg of U.S. Rowing says there were about seven races that included intellectually disabled rowers last year, and she expects that number to grow.
“It’s a process where you have to educate people on what the disabilities are like,” she says, “what people can do.”
But when organizers of the Head of the Charles announced they’re including a race this year that pairs an able-bodied rower with a partner who has a physical disability, they decided not to create a similar race for rowers with intellectual disabilities, who are called ID rowers.
“For all of us, the reaction was disappointment,” says Beth Noll, who coaches disabled athletes at Community Rowing in Boston. “It was something that particularly the ID rowers were very enthusiastic about, and really thought this was going to be their year.”
With its twists and turns and seven bridges to dodge, the Head of the Charles is considered one of the most technically difficult regattas in the world.
And Brendan Mulvey, director of operations for Head of the Charles, says safety is a concern.
“That is something that we are exploring and trying to learn more about so that when we are ready to expand to the ID athletes specifically, then we’re fully prepared,” he says.
For this year’s Head of the Charles, at least, it looked like rowers with intellectual disabilities like Kristina Gillis were shut out. But then Coach Beth Noll says they got an idea.
They’d been trying to figure out which able-bodied rower would be a good match for an experienced Paralympian who’s competing in the new combined event this year.
“The idea popped into our heads that Kristina would be a perfect fit,” Noll says.
She’s abled-bodied, and there’s no rule actually saying a rower can’t race in the Head of the Charles just because they have an intellectual disability.
So Kristina Gillis is competing this weekend, and she’s hoping to show that rowers with intellectual disabilities really can race in one of the world’s most challenging regattas.
“And maybe that they’ll be more willing to try to change the rules of the Head of the Charles and let us row … so it could be fair for us,” Gillis says.
In addition to her family, friends and coaches cheering her on this weekend, organizers of the Head of the Charles say they’ll be watching for her boat, too.