It all started three years ago. Larry Gioia, an avid paddler and flat-water kayaker, was in Chicago listening to a young boy give a kayaking demo at a boat show. He admired how skilled and adept he was and then realized he was doing it all with one arm.
“At that time, I knew nothing about disability—then I see this 11-year-old kid named Evan. He lost his other arm at birth and I didn’t even notice, he was paddling so well I literally did a double take,” shares Gioia. “It was my a-ha moment. I didn’t know anything in the disability vocabulary then but he really opened my eyes.”
Gioia had been active with Venture Outdoors, volunteering as a teacher. But he couldn’t stop thinking about Evan. He found that there was a lot of activity going on in “adaptive sports” in Pittsburgh—biking, basketball, skiing—but nobody offering adaptive services for paddling.
“It was mind-boggling that no one was doing this since we live in the three rivers, with thousands of waterways at our disposal,” says Gioia.
As a result, Gioia founded Dynamic Paddlers, a paddling school that offers one-on-one training for those with disabilities. Along with his partner Don Drolet, the two American Canoe Association certified instructors use fully adaptive kayaks to train individuals with varying disabilities.
“A fully adaptive kayak has a lot to do with the seat and how to keep the kayak stable,” explains Gioia. “For example, individuals with spinal cord injuries have varying abilities—the seat can adjust to give them more lateral or back support.”
“We can also put outriggers for balance so the kayak won’t tip over,” he adds. “We also have multiple adaptions for gripping the paddle, for holding it upright.”
Dynamic Paddlers trains individuals in a pool and takes them out in kayaking expeditions in Lake Elizabeth, North Park, Moraine State Park and all three rivers.
Bryan, an athlete with a spinal cord injury appreciates going out into the world. “What really makes Dynamic unique is the ability to paddle virtually anywhere. Most adaptive programs are restricted to very specific times and places, which doesn’t give people full freedom. Giving me autonomy to chose where we went was huge!”
“There’s a new kayak launch at Point State Park and we use that for some of our clients,” says Gioia. “A launch point is built so someone in a wheelchair can independently go from their chair to the kayak and the river and back. These launch points have benches and ramps with rollers that assist individuals with disabilities. There are a number of these across the region.”
But Gioia thinks the beauty of it is not in the mechanics.
“When you get someone out of a chair or get rid of their walking device and they sit in a kayak—suddenly their disability is not their entire identity. Water becomes the ultimate equalizer.”
Since its founding a year and a half ago, Dynamic Paddlers has trained about 60 individuals, from children as young as eight to recently, an 87-year-old gentleman who recently suffered a stroke. “He loved kayaking before he suffered from a stroke and wanted to get back in the water. He had such a great time when we finally did get him in that we couldn’t get him out.”
Tim and Debbie Miller, parents of a child who visits the Children’s Institute for ongoing treatment for a traumatic brain injury, are grateful for the Dynamic Paddlers experience. “As parents, it’s our job to prepare our children to go out into the world ready and able. It was great too see Jake smile and to know that he is very capable and able to try new things.”