Russell Gernaat: profile of an elite para rower

Tall and sinewy, Russell Gernaat looks out over the deserted boatyard at the late afternoon water beyond. “I’d  always wanted to row,” he says. “I’m talking, you know, ten years or more.” Gernaat became intrigued with rowing after trying out the rowing machines in the gym as a kind of warm-up, and liking the exercise. What might it be like to take that out onto the water?, he wondered. But with his work schedule, with young children at home, he hadn’t the time or the funds to take up the sport. “It just never was feasible for me at the time,” he says.

When his wife of twenty-two years lost her battle with cancer in December of 2015, and with the kids off to school, his old life was gone. As he sought to rebuild his life around a new structure and new goals, he turned to rowing. He looked around the area to see what was available for adaptive rowers, rowers with physical disabilities, and he found Alice Henderson and BIAC.

Henderson runs a program through USRowing supported by grants from the VA for veterans, and she runs a program for adaptive rowers as well. “We’ve had maybe over a hundred different vets who have come through our program in the last year and a half,” she says. She put Gernatt on the rowing machine, or erg as it’s known among rowers, giving him some basic instruction on technique, and he’d continue practicing at the gym. “Then two weeks later,” he says, “she was, like, ‘Hey, why don’t you go over to Cañada College and try this CRASH-B event.’’ The CRASH-B sprints are races held indoors on the erg, and rowers from all over the country compete. “I remember my response was, ‘Isn’t that Super Bowl Sunday?’ I have a barbecue.”

But he went.

He ended up pulling a 3:24 in a 1K race, a fine showing considering that the league time is 3:16. Two months later, he was rowing 3:16 on the erg. From there, he was unstoppable. He began training double days, a habit he’d picked up in his swimming days, at least four times a week: rowing on the erg, out on the water, or doing cross-training morning and evening. Up at 4 am, out on the water from 5 to 7. Some days, back on the erg for an hour or so after rowing. Then off to work, with a second session in the evening. Often, he was running on four or five hours of sleep.

He began training double days, a habit he’d picked up in his swimming days, at least four times a week.

And it paid off. He mastered port and starboard sweep. He began sculling. A year later, he attended the same regional CRASH-B event, and did so well that he was invited to compete at the national event, in Boston. There, he set the world record in the 1K for adaptive rowers 50 and over. That was in February 2017. He’d been rowing a year.

Gernaat’s disabilities are not readily apparent, and he’s worked hard to keep it that way. Overcoming several structural difficulties in the mechanics of his body, he’s classified as a P3 rower, which means that he uses all parts of his body while rowing and so he uses the same equipment as any able-bodied rower. If his disabilities are not immediately apparent, his skill and drive are. After the first CRASH-B event, in 2016 — when he’d been rowing only about a month — and after she’d seen those first results, Henderson spoke to him of the possibility of rowing in Rio. “Like, in six months?” he recalls asking. “Yeah,” she answered. He elected not to go that year, but he set his sights on rowing the Paralympics in 2020. The training regime he set for himself meant that he gained steadily in strength, stamina, and technique over the next year. And USRowing was taking note. He was invited to the annual selection camp for the four, the National US Paralympic boat, held from mid-June to early August. He didn’t make the cut this year, but he’ll have a chance to try again in 2018. In the meantime, focused on maximizing his opportunities, Gernaat had begun training in April in the double with a para athlete from Seattle. The two of them won the timed trial for the mixed P3 double scull, which sent them to row for the US National Team in the 2017 World Rowing Championships in Sarasota, Florida, this past September. They placed fifth worldwide. 

Pretty good for a guy who’s only been rowing a year and a half.