VANCOUVER, Wash. - Small waves lapped against a sandy shoreline at Vancouver Lake, the sun struggled to peek out of the clouds and a light breeze blew in the air - then something unique happened.
On Sunday, disabled veterans, and anyone else with a disability who wanted to try it out, got a chance to get on board a dragon boat or try another water sport, like rowing. It was all part of a free Spring Water Sports Demo organized by local businesses and organizations.
"A lot of these guys, once they get out in the water and realize the peace and tranquility, it's wonderful," said Alan Stewart, director/head coach of the Vancouver Lake Crew. He was one of the volunteers helping out during the day.
"I love it," said Air Force veteran George Hamilton, one of the disabled vets who participated in the event and tried his hand at dragon boating. "They've really made me a fan. The other boat beat us, but it was a good race. It teaches you a lot of teamwork, it brings people together and it helps you develop a rhythm."
"I got out here and did this and it's just awesome," said Jeff DeLeon, president of Oregon Paralyzed Veterans of America. He participated in the event to see if it's something he would tell his fellow veterans to try. He's pretty sure he will.
"Whenever you can find something where you're not a disabled athlete, you're just an athlete - to me that's the greatest thing ever," DeLeon said.
Participants also got to rub elbows with local star athlete Anthony Davis, a former U.S. Naval Officer who has made a name for himself as a world-class rower.
Davis, who was badly injured in a car crash in California several years ago, still has trouble walking. But his positive outlook on life, hard work ethic and his desire to give back to those who have struggled like he has was an inspiration to everyone at the lake.
For him, seeing folks focus on their abilities, rather than their disabilities, was what the day was all about.
"Just the fact that these people are having the courage to get out here and get in a boat is awesome," he said. "That's what we need - just somebody to say 'I want to do this.' "
Anthony Davis rows on Vancouver Lake on Sunday, April 28, 2013. Photo by Shannon L. Cheesman, KATU.com.
"It's the feeling you get of just being on the water," Davis added. "And you're doing something that anybody can do - you're competing with them, you're able to keep up or just go for a row. You're the adaptive guy and you've got five other guys that row normally and you can row with them. You can go as far as they go. You can go wherever they go. And you're just another rower out there."
It's a sentiment that DeLeon, who lost the use of his legs but participates in a number of sports, understands well.
"For me, my turnaround was the Seattle to Portland bike ride," he said. "I do it on a handcycle and everybody sees it and they don't know it's a handcycle. They just think I'm another cyclist. And this is the same thing. You're using the same equipment that everybody else uses. Literally, you have no disability."
Rower Anthony Davis and Vancouver Lake Crew's Alan Stewart help Jeff DeLeon get ready for his first time rowing at Vancouver Lake on Sunday, April 28, 2013. Photo by Shannon L. Cheesman, KATU.com.
Portland athlete Aaron Paulson, who contracted polio when he was a kid and is hoping to make it to the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, was also there helping folks out. He works with the local chapter of Team River Runner, an organization that helps wounded warriors get out and enjoy water sports.
"It's all about getting in a boat," Paulson said. "It doesn't matter what ability you're at - it's just getting in the boat. You don't know unless you try."
"I think this is awesome," said Salina Norton, the commander of Disabled American Veterans Portland Chapter #1. "I'm a 20-year veteran. I don't have a disability status that is as severe as many other veterans, but I just enjoy the camaraderie that goes on around here and seeing other veterans get out and do something with their life."
We asked Norton what it was like out on the water and she told us "it was a beautiful breeze and such tranquility - so relaxing."
"Veterans and their families, especially disabled veterans, need to know there is recreation for them that will accommodate their disability. And at no charge to them," Norton added.
All in all, it was a success and organizers are hoping to make this an annual event.
"It would be nice to be able to talk to veterans and say 'yes, if you want to try a sport, every year in April down at Vancouver Lake they have water sports," said Davis.
Organizers are also hoping to create a disabled water sports program at Vancouver Lake and the first step in the process is revamping the docks.
"There are no ramps to get guys on wheelchairs down to the water," said event organizer Jeff Campbell, owner of Double Fifth Dragon Boating. "There are just a lot of capital improvements that need to be made out there so we can get these guys out on the water. And we'll make it happen."
"The old rickety docks are great for regular folks carrying rowing shells down, but for folks in wheelchairs it's not so great," said Stewart.
A dragon boat fundraiser to get the ball rolling on the project is coming up on May 26 at Vancouver Lake (during Memorial Day weekend).
We learned about this event through a news tip. If you have a story for KATU, send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Your emails go straight to our newsroom.