For the first time, senior Charley Nordin weirdly hoped he would classify as disabled.
After noting he could potentially classify to compete as a part of the U.S. Paralympic rowing team, Nordin went home and scheduled a classification appointment with a U.S. Rowing representative that tested his strength and abilities.
"It was just nerve-wracking because you start having all of these big dreams and goals and it really could all end if they were like, ‘sorry you don’t classify,' " Nordin said. "Then there’s nothing you can do.”
Nordin suffered a severe spinal injury his junior year of high school after a rope-swinging accident. He had a metal rod placed in his back and lost 90 percent of his right calf's functionality. This incident ended his track career that would have led him to run at the University of Arizona.
In order to train and compete with the U.S. para-team at the World Rowing Championships in Bulgaria this summer, the 21-year-old had to enroll as a para-athlete, despite having competed as an able-bodied athlete by rowing at Gonzaga.
“Since my injury, for the longest time, the outlook I took on it was ‘I’m not disabled, I want to be able to do anything that other people can do and don’t want to set any limitations on myself," Nordin said. "So, I never personally saw myself as para.”
Nordin’s concern was that like other athletes with nerve damage, he may not classify as para because the nerve damage is not significant enough.
But in his case, it was.
This led to him training all summer at the Community Rowing facility with other para-athletes in Boston coached by Ellen Mizner to compete for a spot in the four that would be heading to Bulgaria.
Mizner was excited to find Nordin.
“We had a really great combination,” Mizner said. “A young college athlete and a very supportive college coaching environment that understands that Paralympics experience is going to help their overall program.”
In para-rowing there are three different categories for ability, PR1, PR2 and PR3.
Nordin classifies as a PR3 athlete — the most able of the three, using legs, body and arms in a stroke. PR2 utilizes only body and arms and PR1 athletes only use their arms.
The different classifications instill parameters that ensure fair competition of similar ability ranges.
“He really showed that he really wanted to a part of this," Mizner said. "This wasn’t just something he was doing because he was eligible."
It was the community of rowers from different cultural and disability backgrounds who highlighted Nordin’s experience.
Nordin said that amongst the para-rowing world, PR1 athletes have the most respect of any able-bodied or para-athletes.
Competing at the international level made Nordin take para-rowing even more seriously than he did before.
“I took it seriously before but getting that experience of going to worlds and competing and meeting everyone from all over the world. It was a very cool new experience,” Nordin said.
Another new experience, in addition to rowing in a World Championship in Bulgaria, was knowing his parents would be watching him from the grandstands.
As Nordin started rowing at GU, his parents didn’t have much exposure or experience with the niche sport.
“It was just cool seeing them get really into it and they always were," Nordin said. "But it was for something they didn’t really understand. They were like ‘Great job Charley! We don’t really know what you did but good job!' ”
This made his parents traveling across the world to watch him compete in the Rowing World Championships from Nordin’s hometown Alameda, California, all the more special.
“I try and be the calm, cool, collected one, but there’s something about race morning,” Nordin said. “I get so nervous. Like the night before I’ll be fine … but oh gosh, I get really really nervous, like I’m getting nervous even now just thinking about it. “
On race morning, he wakes up not having slept very well the night before out of nerves and meets the team for breakfast.
Then the team takes to the water.
“Once we go to the starting line, we warm up, which is nice because it’s led by the coxswain,” Nordin said. “So I don’t really have to worry about anything because I’m just going to do what she tells me to do.”
As Nordin and his teammates in the coxed mixed four lined up at the start against Great Britain, France, Canada, Australia and Ukraine, and the announcer asked if all the countries were ready, he thought about his mom.
“I just want to race to make her proud. That’s kind of the last thought going through my head before the race starts and instinct takes over,” Nordin said.
Then the largest race of Nordin’s career began.
After a close chase with Great Britain, the U.S. boat took silver after a 1.7 second difference.
Nordin wanted to get the gold, not so much for himself, but for his teammates.
“It was really disappointing, it felt awful,” Nordin said. “Just knowing that we lost. It’s not that second is bad, it’s just we trained all year basically to come in first and we came up short, so that was tough.”
Nordin’s coach, Mizner, hopes he sticks around as he has the potential to compete in two Olympic cycles.
“When I heard him say he would like to be the best para-rower in the world, I took it to mean the athlete is willing to do whatever it takes,” Mizner said. “If it's training harder, he’ll do it. If it’s a lot of paperwork and doctor’s visits, he’ll do it. If it’s going to take a lot of weight training, he’ll do it. His base fitness coming in, his long-term goal to be the best in the world and his supportive college environment is going to get him ready for the next level. We need more athletes like that.”
After Bulgaria, Nordin returned home to California for less than a week and then trekked back to campus, missing nearly a month of school.
“It definitely is tough, it’s still tough,” Nordin said. “I’m playing catch-up a little bit, but I am so thankful to my professors and everyone at Gonzaga who has been behind the scenes. Amanda [Flores], helping make this work. I really couldn’t do it without them.”
Last weekend, Nordin competed in The Head of the Charles in Boston and took home gold.
Arcelia Martin is a news editor. Follow her on Twitter: @arcelitamartin.