With no fewer than 28 Paralympic medals won by its 11 members, rower Lauren Rowles could hardly have picked a more apt name for the training group helping keep some of Britain’s leading female para-athletes motivated during the coronavirus disruption.
Going by the title of “Para Queens” on their WhatsApp group, it represents a multi-sport dream team. From five-time gold medallist swimmer Ellie Simmonds to four-time Paralympian Claire Cashmore, as well as rising stars aiming for their first Games next year, it is a Who’s Who of British para-sport which Rowles put together as soon as the reality of training alone for the foreseeable future hit.
“I was doing a couple of [virtual] weight sessions with cyclist Helen Scott, who’s a good friend of mine, because we’re both pretty big lifters,” Rowles, 22, says in an interview over video call. “In the same week I had Kare Adenegan [sprinter] and Charlotte Henshaw [canoeist] text me asking if I was up for doing an online session together. So, I said right, let’s get a group set up and if you’ve not met each other you can ‘meet’ online in this girls group.”
The result is a virtual community where they can lean on each other for motivation as their respective elite sport organisations work on trying to deliver a safe return to organised training.
“I think it’s a strange thing with Paralympic athletes, we all know each other but don’t really speak to each other a lot,” says Rowles, who is missing the feeling of being free of her wheelchair in a boat on the water but draws positives from the frequent messages that ping across on the WhatsApp group.
“Now we chat on the group, keeping spirits high, and once a week we’ll do a gym session over Zoom, and that’s been so awesome. It’s incredibly inspiring just to see how these girls operate. In between reps, we’ll be at our laptops shouting, ‘Come on girls, get the lift,’ for whoever is going,” Rowles says, imitating their enthusiasm by getting her face as close to the camera as possible.
“It’s supportive and competitive as well. It’s immense the amount of motivation I get from these girls. On my bad days, where I’m like I can’t do another session, I call them up and they can give me a pep talk.”
As well as the sessions with the Para Queens, Rowles has been on video calls with the British Rowing team as they adapt to indoor sessions. The advantage of competing in a sport that has specific indoor machinery is not lost on Rowles, though, and is why she has made the effort to make it accessible to para-athletes not as fortunate.
Eight-time world champion para-swimmer Alice Tai reached out to her on Instagram asking for tips to use her parents’ ancient rowing machine while in lockdown. Not only did Rowles add her to the Para Queens chat, and teach her how to fix her seat by jamming it with a tea towel, but she also gave her a rowing training programme.
“I can’t use my legs to row, and I knew Lauren had a fixed seat, so I was like, you know what, I’m going to drop her a message and see how it goes,” Tai, 21, says. “Lauren gave me some sessions to do, she was monitoring my progress and it got to the point where she felt like I could comfortably join some of the GB sessions. Now I’m doing sessions with them every week, so I’ve kind of been adopted into a second team, which is really cute and they’re all lovely.”
Rowles is mentoring athletes in wheelchair rugby and basketball who have taken to their own ergometers, feeding back to them on technique and acknowledging the added accessibility challenges adaptive sport has. “In the para-rowing team we all have custom supports, and when we went into lockdown I literally must have had 30 people messaging me from the adaptive community saying, ‘I’ve got this indoor rowing machine, how can I adapt it?’ Equipment is a huge thing, but access to knowledge is as well.
“Adaptive rowing is so different to able-bodied rowing, I wanted to make sure these guys weren’t injuring themselves.”
Despite being sick during one of the more intense early sessions, Tai has officially got the rowing bug thanks to her new coach’s guidance, and Rowles says she and Tai’s swimming coach are even goal-setting with an aim to possibly have the swimmer compete at the British Rowing Indoor Championships come December.
Tai says the community she has gained in lockdown makes next year’s Paralympic Games more exciting than ever. “I feel like in Tokyo next year there’s going to be a huge community feel, more so than ever, because in Rio I only knew the swimmers. Now I’ve reached out and all the different sports are learning from and getting to know each other. I really love it.”
“It’s actually made us really sad because when we come out of isolation, we’re not going to be able to train together,” Rowles adds. “So, now we’re like, ‘Aw, we’ve created this group and it’s not going to go ahead after lockdown.’ ”