Jen Fitz-Roy's competition-winning performance in February's world indoor rowing championships would be an amazing feat in its own right. The fact the 27-year-old accomplished it with less than a year of rowing experience makes it all the more impressive.
But perhaps the most remarkable thing about Fitz-Roy's achievement is she did it after overcoming a lifetime of physical hurdles, including 35 surgeries, mostly to correct orthopedic deformities in her lower legs. (She competes in the rowing category that allows only upper body and arms for power.)
Listening to Fitz-Roy talk, however, it fast becomes clear why she has skyrocketed to the top of her sport: This is a woman redefining what it means to have a disability.
"I don't want to set limits on myself," she explained. "I want to see just how far I can push my body."
Born with spina bifida, a birth defect that occurs when the spine does not fully form, Fitz-Roy is partially paralyzed and has weakened muscles from her waist down. Although she learned to walk as a child, as her condition became more challenging, she found it harder and harder to keep up with friends.
"As I got older, it was getting more and more difficult just getting through the day," she said. "I started to rely on my wheelchair much more."
Today, she uses a wheelchair about 90 percent of the time, although she can walk with forearm crutches when necessary. Fitz-Roy takes exception to those who use the term "confining" to describe those in wheelchairs.
"For me, it was liberating," she said. "Now I could keep up with people, go longer distances without being totally fatigued."
Foray into fitness
What was good for her mobility was not necessarily so good for her fitness, and around age 17, Fitz-Roy began taking herself to the gym to keep her weight down and strength up.
"It was my first experience doing anything athletic," she said. "I would swim or do the upper-body arm bike."
It wasn't until she got to college that she discovered the world of playing sports with other people.
"I found an organization called Northeast Passage that offers adaptive sports to people with disabilities," she said. "I learned to water ski and kayak and cross-country ski. Suddenly, fitness wasn't just about taking care of my health, it was this really fun thing I could do with other people."
Her confidence grew along with her athletic skills. The more sports she tried, the greater the growth of her desire to explore new opportunities, like an upper-body spin class at the local gym called Spin Krank Fusion.
"I love it," Fitz-Roy said. "Anything that challenges me and pushes me outside my comfort zone, I want to try it."
Enter rowing. Last fall, Fitz-Roy got involved with Community Rowing, a Boston rowing organization that offers an adaptive indoor rowing program. Her initial interest was just in trying something new -- Fitz-Roy shied away from the idea of serious athletic competition.
"I remember meeting with the coordinator for the program the first day, and she asked me what my goals were. I was like, 'I just want to mix up my exercise routine.' I thought competing was out of the question."
Going to practice two or three times a week quickly began to pay dividends. Her times improved, along with her technique. The best part, she said, was the social interaction with other rowers.
"We were having fun, but there was also a competitive spirit," she said. "And I realized I really liked that." Then, she began comparing her rowing times to those of other athletes online. "My times were actually quite good," she said. "And I thought, 'I have the potential to compete and even be near the top in this sport.'"
After entering -- and winning -- her first competition at the world indoor championships, Fitz-Roy set a new goal for herself this summer.
"I am learning to row outside on the water," she said. "It requires more skill and more technique, but I am happy for the challenge."
When asked what sets rowing apart from the other sports she's tried, Fitz-Roy points to the aerobic intensity required.
"I love feeling my heart racing and my body challenging itself, and feeling like I am going to faint from pushing myself so hard," she said with a laugh. "Seeing my numbers improve with each workout makes me want to go through it all again!"
Rowing also requires a mental toughness, she said, an attitude she carries into other parts of her life, like traveling abroad. She just returned from a trip to Europe to speak at a conference about spina bifida.
"Sports has taught me so much," she said. "I have the confidence to seek out new experiences and to constantly expose myself to new ideas and activities. I have learned that I am not limited by my situation. Sports have given me that sense of freedom."