For the precious few, even if the flesh is weak, the willingness of spirit overcomes and powers people beyond their own limitations.
Take an unlikely pair of candidates as an example: two Marine veterans, Michael Rawlings and Don Alrichter, members of Disabled American Veterans Chapter 22, who-despite extensive and sometimes debilitating infirmities-rank among the best long-distance rowers in the world.
While Rawlings still gets out on the water-often exploring mine pit lakes near his native Crosby-these competitions take place on indoor ergonomic rowing machines, which keep a count of how many meters are rowed. Fundamentally, it's about distance, not speed. Tallies are then transmitted to and catalogued by Concept 2, a sponsor and manufacturer of rowing equipment.
Competitors can vie for titles in a number of competitions in this manner, pitting themselves against athletes of similar ability or bet against the field; solo, or working in conjunction with a friend, as Rawlings and Alrichter do.
Despite being a formidable rower in his own right-and nationally recognized in competition-Rawlings could only speak luminously of his partner, Alrichter, and the man's relentlessness.
"It boggles the mind. In a month, Don rowed 3,068,000 meters on the rowing machine. That's about 60 miles a day," Rawlings said of his partner, who's approaching 50,000,000 meters-the best among rowers since 2016, equal to 31,068 miles or roughly 6,000 more than the Earth's circumference. "That's his life. He doesn't sleep. He'll get up at midnight, 1 in the morning, and do it for four or five hours. We don't even have a competition, he's just doing it. He's so motivated."
"I've had people tell me, 'I know world-class athletes who couldn't do that,'" he later added. "I say, 'Then they're not world class. Don is.'"
Alrichter's assessment of his driven approach to rowing-which, by his own admission, takes up eight to nine hours per day-was a tad more short and sweet.
"You know I love competition, of course. I'm very competitive, very competitive," said Alrichter, who bemoaned a few hospital stints that resulted in a fourth place start out the gate to herald in the new year.
Since then, he's rowed himself back into second. And so, the inevitable question: Is a triumphant return to first place in the works?
"Oh, you know I will," he said.
If you asked Rawlings, his motivations are hybrid in nature-half medical relief, half hobby for kicks. Not too shabby for a man who put in over 1,200,000 meters of his own in a 30-day competition.
"This is more for physical therapy, depression, post-traumatic stress," said Rawlings, who battles neuropathy in his legs and degenerative disc disease. He also sports a defibrillator for a bum ticker. "That's why I do it. Indoor rowing is something to do during the wintertime, to keep fit."
As for Alrichter, he navigates the world via a wheelchair due to a leg lost primarily to diabetes, as well as injuries suffered in the Marine Corps and possible chemical contamination stationed at Camp Lejeune, N.C., during the early '80s. When he's rowing, he uses a line of oxygen and, as mentioned before, he's been in and out of the hospital on account of heart issues and other ailments.
Prior to his return to Minnesota a few years ago, Alrichter served as an executive chef in Oklahoma City for about three decades. In Rawlings' words, Alrichter lost everything he owned in the great Oklahoma City tornadoes of 1998, but that didn't compare to the loss of his wife and unborn child due to breast cancer.
Rowing, as it turned out, was a discovery later in life for Alrichter, who now resides in assisted living housing in St. Cloud. Beyond physical gains, competitive rowing sparked something in Alrichter, Rawlings said. It's made him more outgoing, more proactive-in short, a boon for his outlook and mental well-being.
Unlike Alrichter, Rawlings' rowing background extends to his college days as a rower at St. John's University in Collegeville, then as a whitewater river guide in West Virginia, California and Costa Rica-a passion for being on the water that's remained with him throughout his life, he noted, and one that took on new dimensions when he discovered a 1,000 meter row event he could compete in around 2016.
Feeling fulfilled and accomplished, the retired postmaster asked the local DAV office if they could purchase higher-end indoor rowing equipment, an ergometer. A small rowing club of 16 was formed. In the process, the two met at the St. Cloud VA Health Care System and-after feeling dissatisfied with the VA's reception for their accomplishments-Alrichter and Rawlings decided to strike out for themselves.
This culminated in a partnership over the following three years that's produced one of the most dominant pairs in competitive long-distance rowing across the country.
If the pair ever won a championship, it's this. Between March 15 to April 15, 2018, Alrichter and Rawlings competed in the World Erg Challenge, an indoor rowing machine competition with international scope. During that 30-day stretch Alrichter placed first among 4,397 rowers and 359 teams with a total of 3,086,913 meters-or, about 1,718 miles, a tad shy of a Twin Cities commute to Portland, Ore. Rawlings finished seventh with a total of 1,283,260 meters. Together, they finished first in the teams category with a total of 4,370,173 meters, with a first-place finish in the medical facility category and a second in the adaptive category to boot.
And while Alrichter and Rawlings do their fair share whipping their opponents during competition, they've also been involved in Paddlepalooza on Gull Lake, as well as fundraisers for disabled vets such as Victorious for Veterans. More competitions are on the horizon, they said, while the daily grind-hours and hours of rowing each day-remains a given.
But, if there's one thing that still drives them-beyond the natural impulse to compete-it's dissatisfaction resulting from a lack of recognition.
For Rawlings, it's recognition for the sport of rowing and its future among younger generations-of which, many younger veterans could benefit, he iterated, as well as anyone who needs a healthy pastime and peace of mind.
For Alrichter, it's recognition for disabled veterans who have been, in his words, largely abandoned and left out to dry.