Para rowing made its Paralympic debut at Beijing 2008. But this time at Tokyo 2020, rowers will race over 2,000m - twice the distance as previous Paralympic regattas. Here are 10 names to remember for this summer’s contest:
Birgit Skarstein (NOR)
The dual Paralympian is the current world champion in the women’s single sculls (PR1W1x) and continues to hold the World Best Times with a blistering 10:13.63, which she set at the 2018 World Championships. In fact, she has not lost a regatta since finishing fourth at the 2016 Paralympic Games.
Skarstein is also a world class cross-country skier, serving as Norway’s flagbearer at the 2018 Paralympic Games. A vocal advocate on disability rights, Skarstein showed she is a triple threat by wowing audiences during her turn on Norway’s version of ‘Dancing With the Stars’ (Skal Vi Danse).
Erik Horrie (AUS)
The five-time world champion is especially one to keep a close eye on in the sport for his story – and the feat he hopes to accomplish in Tokyo. After finishing second at both the 2012 and 2016 Paralympic Games, Horrie sure is racing with a chip on his shoulder. He will have to get by nemesis Roman Polianskyi, who upset him in Rio. But he beat the Paralympic champion at the 2017 and 2018 Worlds, and hopes to repeat that on the Paralympic stage in the men’s single sculls (PR1M1x).
Horrie, or ‘Egg’, as his friends call him, was named the World Rowing Para Rower of the Year in 2014, amid a run of five world titles in six years. Before his rowing career, Horrie was part of the Australian national wheelchair basketball team.
Nathalie Benoit (FRA)
Benoit has been around the Para rowing scene for awhile and will try to give Skarstein a run for her gold in the PR1W1x. A world champion in 2010, Benoit settled for silver at the 2012 Paralympic Games in London. After taking some time off to fulfill other dreams, like completing the New York Marathon and rowing from Paris to Marseilles, Benoit returned to the sport to claim a European Championship title in 2020.
Among the few athletes with Multiple Sclerosis, she is one of Para rowing’s pioneers and is looking for another first in Tokyo – a Paralympic gold medal.
Roman Polianskyi (UKR)
There might be no rower in the Paralympic regatta in finer form than Polianskyi. The Ukrainian came to the world’s attention by stunning then-world champion Erik Horrie for the PR1M1x gold at the 2016 Paralympic Games. The two have been at it ever since, with Horrie winning gold at the 2017 and 2018 World Championships and Polianskyi winning it back in 2019.
Polianskyi looked sharp at the European Championships in April, besting his nearest competitor by nearly 12 seconds. Originally from Ukraine’s Donetsk region, Polianskyi became internally displaced due to the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. He lives in Odesa and trains from Dnipro.
Corne de Koning (NED)
The Dutchman is a world champion in both single sculls (PR2M1x) and double mixed sculls (PR2Mix2x), but in Tokyo he will only go for the top of the podium in the PR2Mix2x. He has set up one of Para rowing’s great partnerships alongside double sculls partner Annika van der Meer. The duo has been virtually unbeatable since 2017, winning every World Championship and every World Cup race until the return of British duo Lauren Rowles and Laurence Whiteley at the 2019 World Championships.
Koning and Van der Meer teamed up shortly after de Koning missed the 2016 Paralympic podium by less than two seconds. A smashing success from the start, their torrid pace of 8:06.21 at the 2017 World Rowing Cup II regatta in Poland remains the World Best Time.
Corne de Koning (left) and
Annika van der Meer ©Getty
Lauren Rowles (GBR)
Along with partner Laurence Whiteley, the tandem won Paralympic gold in mixed double sculls at the 2016 Paralympic Games – just a year after Rowles picked up the sport.
The dynamic duo continues to impress in the PR2Mix2x, adding a World Championship to their collection in 2019 and a European Championship in April – nearly 10 seconds ahead of the four-time world champion Dutch team of Corne de Koning and Annika Van Der Meer. That is not good news for her competitors, as at just 23 years of age, Rowles has plenty of competitive racing left in her.
Laurens Rowles (back) and Laurence Whiteley ©Getty
Michel Gomes Pessanha (BRA)
If there is one team that can end the medal drought for the Americas in Para rowing, it is the mixed double sculls team from Brazil – Michel Pessanha and Josiane Loma. They will hope to better the bronze that Loma won for Brazil in the same event at Beijing 2008.
Pessanha is no stranger to the regatta, having placed on or near the podium of nearly every World Championships since 2014. Still trying to best the bronze he won at the 2014 Worlds, Pessanha and Loma represent Brazil’s best chance at a Para rowing medal in Tokyo.
Josiane Lima and Michel Pessanha ©Marcio Rodrigues/MPIX/CPB
Blake Haxton (USA)
Haxton has been a rowing star for much of his life. Captain of his high school rowing team and about to join college on a rowing scholarship, Haxton lost his legs – and nearly his life – to a rare and aggressive flesh-eating disease. He moved over to Para rowing a few years later.
Haxton quickly made the US National Team and nearly nabbed a medal in the PR1M1x at his first World Championships in 2014, where he finished fourth. He had the same result at Rio 2016, but come Tokyo 2020, Haxton will be hungry to break that streak and reach the podium.
James Fox (GBR)
Great Britain has dominated the mixed coxed fours since 2012, winning gold at every Paralympic Games and World Championships. Fox, who has been rowing for Great Britain since he was a junior, has been a mainstay in the British crew and key to their success.
Fox will be looking to add a second Paralympic gold to his five World Championships when Great Britain aims for a third straight gold in the event. One of the sport’s true greats, Fox has yet to lose a race at the Worlds or Paralympic Games. Just 29 years old, he has been rowing for nearly two decades, competing for Great Britain at the (able-bodied) Coupe de la Jeunesse as a junior before moving to Para rowing after a car accident.
Greta Muti (ITA)
Few athletes were in a better position to deal with the postponement of the 2020 Paralympic Games than Muti, a medical student that comes from a family of doctors. An anchor of the PR3Mix4+ Italian team that won bronze at the 2019 World Championships, she helped study the COVID-19 virus while training from home during quarantine.
A true world citizen, Muti was educated in North America and Germany before returning to Italy for university. Outside of elite rowing, she plays cello and sings opera. She plans to use her medical education and experience in high-level sports competition to provide opportunities for people with impairments to achieve high-level results in sports and music.