Our Tokyo Medalists: What YOU can learn from the Paralympic Movement

summarized by David DeWinter
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John Tanguay – 2020 Paralympic Silver Medalist
Dani Hansen – 7-Time National Team Member and 2016 & 2020 Paralympian, 2020 Paralympic Silver Medalist
Ellen Minzner – USRowing Director of Para High Performance

The 3-Sentence Summary

Para-rowing in the United States has built great momentum, especially after the silver medal performance in the PR3 4+ at Tokyo, but there is still a long way to go. Youth coaches need to be aware of the pipeline for para-rowing (esp. PR3) at the national level in order to give their athletes the best opportunity to be successful. Coaches should also invite open and direct communication with their athletes about their capabilities, so they can empower and support their athletes to figure out how best for them to participate in their rowing programs.


0:33 Jack Kelly award goes to Kate Johnson

Journey to Tokyo

2:52 Introductions

  • John: 2 years on the team, rowed for Columbia
  • Dani: 7 years on the team, rowed for Washington

3:36 How does it feel to be legends of the rowing world this year?

  • John: It feels incredible being the only crew to medal in Tokyo.
  • Dani: It’s pretty cool to see how the team and fan base have grown since 2014, when John and I both tried out for the first time.

7:46 How did you get your start in rowing?

  • Dani: I rowed as a walk-on at Washington, following my mom (National Champion Husky in ’81 and ’82). Eleni Englert, one of my teammates and a rower on the 2012 Paralympic team, told me I could qualify for para, and the rest is history.
  • John: My disability prevented me from really participating in sports with running like baseball, basketball, and lacrosse. I tried a learn to row camp before high school and fell in love with it. A coach asked why I wasn’t going on team runs, and after I explained, I got connected with Ellen to try out for the para team.

11:22 How did your friends and teammates react to the possibility of you being on the Paralympic squad?

  • Dani: Entire community (teammates, family, friends, coaches, PTs) was supportive. There’s not a consistent path for people to find out about or even know they’re eligible for a para-sport, so I’m very grateful that I found my way there.
  • John: I had to deal with a fair amount of teasing in school and even in rowing. I wanted to put my head down and ignore my disability, and I hope that experience will change when more people are aware of the para-rowing experience. Still, there was a ton of positive support.

17:03 What was your motivation to go for the Paralympics? How did COVID affect that?

  • John: Initial motivation – why not? Very motivated after a silver medal at worlds in 2019. Realized I was part of a bigger movement while at the Tokyo opening ceremony.

19:05 What is We the 15?

  • John: A movement created by the International Paralympic Committee to increase awareness of people with disabilities throughout the world. 15% of the world’s population has a disability.

20:28 Motivation question (continued)

  • Dani: Going to Tokyo was one of the hardest things I’ve done. I was sitting at the closing ceremonies for Rio and saw the hype video for Tokyo–that’s how it started!
  • When it was postponed due to COVID, it was incredibly demotivating. I had to get into meditation to try to find some peace. But I had never quit anything before, so I had to figure out a way forward. I didn’t want to look back with regret and think, “What could’ve been?”

The Tokyo Experience

22:45 The distance changed from 1000m to 2000m between Rio and Tokyo. Did you have a preference?

  • Dani: 2K because that’s the Olympic distance!

26:15 Tokyo did a fabulous job making its physical infrastructure accessible to a wide range of disabilities. The curb cut effect may play a role here. (This is the effect that an investment in one group, e.g. wheelchair users to be able to get up curbs easily, more broadly benefits society, e.g. cyclists, people with strollers, people with luggage or carts…).

  • Dani: It was well done; when you increase the efficiency of one part, you increase the efficiency of the whole.
  • John: It was an amazing event–but it’s my only experience so my impression is all Paralympics events are like this.

31:05 What surprised you the most about the Tokyo Games?

  • Dani: How much heart and soul the volunteers poured into their jobs made me feel more inspired to do well.

32:43 We have a lot to share with other parts of the community, like coastal rowing, indoor rowing. How do we help those groups be more inclusive of adaptive rowing within the United States?


35:42 What would you recommend junior coaches do to help youth athletes find their way to para opportunities?

  • Dani: The earlier that you can get communication going between Ellen and the athletes, the better it will go. (I wish I had started earlier.)
  • John: Coaches should be aware of para-rowing opportunities, and also learn to be curious! It would’ve been helpful if my coach asked more about my capabilities. Limitations can be springboards for adaptations.
  • Ellen: USRowing has a big effort to reach out to coaches and provide support to athletes who may be on the PR3 track. We are not poaching! Please get in touch with us as quickly as possible.

40:06 What’s the best way to make USRowing aware of these athletes?

43:35 What are some things coaches can do to be supportive of rowers with disabilities? What are some things coaches may inadvertently do to be exclusive?

  • Dani: Coaches have always had open communication with me about my capabilities. It’s important to keep those conversations private in case your teammates don’t know about your disability. Empower the athlete to make the decisions about what she can or cannot do. Be someone they can lean on when they’re trying to figure it out.
  • John: Open and direct communication is key, especially at the junior level. Sometimes the hardest part of practice as an athlete with a disability is showing up, so don’t put any more barriers in place to their participation.
  • Ellen: “What happened to you?” is not the right question and creates barriers. Be curious! Ask instead:
    • What can you do? (not what can’t you do?)
    • What can we do to work around this?
    • How can you get yourself to full slide?
  • Dani: Meet the athlete where they are. Sometimes check-ins are simple–“Can I do anything to help?”

51:38 Is there a point where you say we don’t have what you need or this isn’t the right fit for an athlete?

  • Ellen: Get really good at defining the essential eligibility criteria for your program that apply to everyone. Just because you could accommodate someone doesn’t mean they will have a fun, successful, productive experience. Redirect people who don’t meet the criteria, regardless of whether they have a disability or not.
  • Dani: Encourage athletes with disabilities to get tasks done, even if the method is not the same as others.

55:40 (John) What alternatives do you have because you can’t run?

  • I always did the bike if I had equipment. If not, I did circuit work, extra stretching.
  • Think about the objective of the run; how can I achieve the same outcome?


58:37 Thank you for your support! Spread the word about para.

59:07 How can we incorporate design for universal accessibility in our programs?

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