Paddling their way back

MARQUETTE – A few local veterans didn’t let their disabilities interfere with trying what can be a demanding water sport.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources has partnered with the YMCA of Marquette County and Northern Michigan University Intercollegiate Athletics and Recreational Sports to offer adaptive kayaking lessons for veterans with disabilities.

The first class took place March 13 at the Physical Education and Instruction Facility on the NMU campus, where sessions will be held on four consecutive Thursdays.

Two vets, Sean Tebby, 30, and Michael Ryan, 29, both of Marquette County, honed their skills in the pool under the guidance of Sam Crowley, a kayak instructor with the YMCA.

“They’ve all paddled before,” Crowley said, “but what they’re doing is coming back for a formal session.”

Crowley helped the vets acclimatize to the pool, performing exercises such as swimming but touching bottom, putting their faces in the water and making “motorboat sounds,” floating on their backs and faces and rolling over onto their backs.

The vets then learned the proper way to get into a kayak (particularly challenging in a pool setting) and basic paddling strokes.

Kayaking might be a great way for the vets to stay active.

“My opinion, it’s one of the most accessible sports,” Crowley said. “Essentially, if you can get in and out of your bathtub, you can get in and out of a kayak.”

People also can kayak everywhere, he said.

They are plenty of scenic places to kayak in Marquette, but the vets still had to work on basic moves.

During the class, those moves were encouraged and applauded if completed well.

“Perfect, Sean,” Crowley told Sean. “You’re turning the boat. You got it, Sean.”

Sean even capsized his kayak, but still held onto his paddle.

“That was a wet exit,” Crowley said to the vet. “You did exactly what we needed you to do.”

Sean’s mother, Vida, said her son served in the Iraq War, but suffered a severe brain injury in a vehicle accident stateside near the Arizona-California border while returning to Camp Pendleton, and was given a 1 percent chance to survive. In fact, Vida said she was asked to sign organ donation forms.

“They told me he’d be nothing more than a vegetable,” Vida said.

He made a remarkable recovery, though, and now Sean can “swim like he used to,” he said.

“I just like being in the water in general,” Sean said.

His mother noted he had previous kayaking experience, taking a class with the Superior Alliance for Independent Living.

Vida said the class at the PEIF gives him an opportunity to get more physical.

“I’m sure it gives him a sense of accomplishment where other things might not,” she said.

Matt Williams, YMCA aquatic director, said the YMCA has partnered with the DNR, NMU and veterans groups to help vets assimilate into life.

“If we can teach some skills or relearn some skills in a controlled environment, we can do some things in open water too,” Williams said of the kayaking classes.

Ryan, who served in the Iraq War as well, said he incurred a brain injury plus suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. Already having some experience in kayaking, Ryan said he helped come up with the idea for the kayaking classes.

“This is really enjoyable,” Ryan said. “I like being out here with Sean, and helping him out.”

Greg Andrews, DNR accessibility coordinator and special projects liaison, said similar programs involving activities such as fly fishing and mountain biking are possibilities.

“It’s really a neat initiative,” Andrews said. “We’re hoping it takes off.”

Christie Bleck can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250.