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From the Brink of Death to Living His Dream

August 24, 2014

Blake Haxton warming up at the 2014 World Rowing Championships.

AMSTERDAM – Watching Blake Haxton sitting in the hotel lobby, laughing and talking about rowing in the rain and waiting for his ride to the rowing course about a mile away, wondering out loud what it will be like to race at a world championship, it’s hard to imagine what the past five years have been like for him.

Five years ago, he was an 18-year-old high school senior being recruited to row in college. Most days, his biggest concern was something as simple as what to have for breakfast. He had the best years of his life in front of him.

The twinge in his calf that he felt after playing in a Saturday night intramural basketball game surely wouldn’t disrupt his dreams, and was probably nothing that needed more than some over-the-counter pain medication and an email to his rowing coach that he needed to skip practice to rest a day.

But it was.

By Sunday afternoon, the pain was enough to bring the problem to the attention of his mother, Heather. And by Monday, it was serious enough to warrant a trip to the family doctor.

“Saturday night, he played in an intramural basketball game,” said Heather Haxton. “Sunday afternoon, he said, ‘My calf is a little sore.’ You know, as a kid in his senior year, he was very, very independent, and very easy to live with. It didn’t seem like a lot to worry about. He was getting ready to leave home, be off doing his own thing,” she said. “He just really managed his own life.

“Then, Sunday night, it got worse. Monday morning, he got up and said, ‘I really need to go to the doctor,’ and I said fine, we’ll do it. We got down there, saw the doctor and he said, ‘I’m going to send you to the emergency room.’”

Something was seriously wrong, and nothing Blake, his parents, his family, his teammates, his coach – no one – could have even begun to imagine.
 
“We went to the emergency room, and by Tuesday night, he had the first leg amputated.”

This was not how life was supposed to be.

After rowing for four years at Upper Arlington High School, in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio, Haxton was looking forward to his last spring season, at his college prospects. He was thinking mostly about what it was going to be like to be a college student, and possibly a student-athlete, and he was even dreaming, if just a little, of rowing on the U.S. National Team.

There were so many good things happening, he never imagined the slight soreness he felt in his calf would be fatal. Somehow, and no one to this day knows how it happened, Haxton had contracted necrotizing fasciitis, more commonly know as the “flesh eating disease.”

“In a mater of days, from the time I first noticed my leg hurt, to when I went to the hospital, I went from perfectly healthy to essentially dead,” Haxton said.

He lost his left leg, up to his hip, and his right leg to above his knee. There was no hope of survival. His parents were planning his funeral. The crew team was planning to carry an eight-man shell into the church, with seven people, a gesture to their loss.

“We had at least three conversations with the doctors in which they told us death was imminent,” Heather Haxton said. The only thing the Haxton’s could hope for, they were told, was that Blake would live long enough for his brother, Anderson, to make it home from college to say goodbye.

“Tuesday morning, the surgeon at (Riverside Methodist Hospital in Columbus, Ohio) came in and said, ‘There is one system that can be available at the hospital at Ohio State that has the capability that we don’t have here to keep his heart going. It’s not a long-term fix, it doesn’t mean he will get well, but it means we can keep his body alive for six or seven days, at most eight days, but that would give Anderson a chance to get home from college in New Jersey and tell him goodbye,’” Heather said.

“I was thinking, ‘Are we really having this conversation?’”

He was transferred to Ohio State, placed on a system that kept his heart, lung and kidneys functioning, but also continued to fight the infection. His second amputation took his left leg to the hip.

But instead of dying, Haxton held on.

That was five years ago.

What could have been a situation that completely ruined his young life, and in many ways would have for others, was the beginning of a journey that has taken him from end of life hospice care, to Amsterdam, and the 2014 World Rowing Championships, where Haxton will wear the rowing uniform he dreamed about.

Not only will he wear a U.S. uniform, he will represent the spirit of hope to anyone in need of inspiration.

Haxton’s story of rowing began his freshman year in high school. He joined a learn to row program and then the high school team. He rowed fall and spring all four years and was in the process of looking at colleges and talking to coaches, when he noticed the pain.

It might have ended then. Haxton certainly thought so.

Gradually, the infection was brought under control and after 25 surgeries and some 100 days in hospitals and rehabilitation facilities, he enrolled as a freshman at The Ohio State University.

He went though an understandable state of despair at first, but soon focused on the positive things in his life, his family, his friends and the fact that he was alive and attending college.

“There was a lot of despair, absolutely. When you have that big of a change at such a hopeful time in your life, it’s incredibly hard. I was going off to college. I was still thinking about rowing. I had been recruited at a few places. All of that was going on, and it was just a really exciting time, and to have that change so suddenly and in such a big way, it was incredibly hard.

“I guess my reaction to how to get over it was, you can’t ignore it.”

Haxton said he focused on school and on the support and love he was getting from his lifelong friends and his family and his high school coach, Chris Swartz. All throughout the ordeal, the rowing community rallied to him.

Swartz was constantly there. So were his teammates. One night at the hospital, on Blake’s parents’ anniversary, 2004 Olympic men’s eight gold medalist, Jason Read, showed up at the hospital. He sent his gold medal in ahead of him and his parents asked that he be allowed back.

“The hospital staff came in with JR’s gold medal and my husband took one look at it and he knew. He said ‘Are you kidding me?’ Please let them come back. It was JR. That night happened to be our anniversary and JR, slash paramedic, slash wonderful man, was there.

“Our neighbor had paid for dinner for us at a restaurant very near the hospital. JR stayed with him so we could go. That’s the kind of support we got. The rowing community was amazing.”
 
The support never left, but Haxton wasn’t ready to embrace rowing again.

“What I told him when he finally recovered about five or six months later, and when we knew he was going to make it, I told him whenever you’re ready, meaning mentally, to take this back on you let me know,” said Swartz. “I knew he had plenty of racing in him, and I just didn’t know if he was going to be able to do it between the ears.

“He and I talked about it. He came in to coach for me. And he continued to help when he was able to coach some of the younger guys on the team. I just kept reminding him, ‘When you’re ready, let me know.’”

But Haxton didn’t want to be back in a boat again.

“I did not have a desire to go row myself,” he said. “At the time, and really from the time I realized I was going to survive, everyone asked if I wanted to row again. ‘Thanks, but no thanks,’ was what I said. I was fortunate to be in some pretty decent boats and competed at a fairly good level for a bunch of high school guys that had speed.

“But when you go from an eight to a single with just your arms and shoulders, that’s a pretty severe speed difference, and I knew that. I thought for all the time and energy this would require, I felt there was probably some other sport I would enjoy more,” he said.

“It really took me three or four years to even entertain the idea of rowing again, and even then, I wasn’t thinking of getting back in the boat.”

But he did get an urge to exercise.

“Truth be told, I started feeling kind of lazy, so I went and bought the adaptive seat for the erg and I put it on the one we had at home and started working out, really just to work out. I did not have plans to get back in the boat. But it was nice to have a new way to work out at home, out of the elements and all that good stuff.”

Haxton struggled with the difference of rowing strapped onto a seat with only his arms and shoulders to move the machine. And the process brought back the sense of loss.

“At first, it was incredibly frustrating, and I knew that going in,” he said. “It was slow. It felt confining. When you’re sitting there with a strap around your waist and another one around your chest and your brain still remembers how to take full body strokes and you just can’t, you have to rewire yourself a little bit.”

After a month or so, Haxton had come to terms with what he was experiencing and began to look at what he could do, instead of what he couldn’t.

“I had a watershed moment, where I thought, ‘I’m not rowing anymore, at least not as I know it.’ I was doing something completely new that is still great and something I can enjoy. Seeing it as something new really helped me progress in it.

“I saw it as a new sport that I can treat differently. It really served me well.”

Still, Haxton wasn’t thinking about competing, and certainly not on the national team in the world championships. It was the fall of 2013, and he had just started law school. But as time passed and he erged away at home while navigating law school, Haxton and Swartz began to notice he was going fast.

“I realized reasonably quickly that my times were competitive and were at the elite standard for the arms and shoulders men. Then I got under the elite standard in two or three months.”

Word of what Haxton was doing reached USRowing Director of Para-Rowing, Tom Darling, who called Haxton and encouraged him to compete at the 2014 C.R.A.S.H.-B World Indoor Rowing Championships in Boston in the open men’s arms and shoulders event.

“We heard about him from Mark McAndrew at Concept II,” Darling said. “So I called him to gage his interest and he said he was interested. “He was in law school and committed to those goals, but he was very calculating. He asked a lot of questions about world records and times and things like that. He was definitely trying to see how competitive he could be.”

Haxton not only won, but also set the record, and Darling began encouraging him to come to the senior world championships trials to try for a spot on the 2014 national team.

And a new adventure began.

Haxton needed a boat and Darling found one and arranged to get it to him. Swartz began working with him on the water and preparations were made to get him his own, brand new boat.

All of that took time and the new boat was finally delivered – the Saturday before trials began, which gave him just two days to get used to it.

He rowed it for “five minutes” Saturday evening, practiced in it on Sunday and on Monday morning, launched for a three-boat direct final against 2013 U.S. arms and shoulders athlete, Daniel Ahr, and two-time Paralympian in the event, Ron Harvey.
 
“I did not have my heart set on winning,” Haxton said. “I knew Ron Harvey was going. I knew Dan Ahr was going. I have a lot of respect for both guys, two national team guys from the past.”

Haxton had a slight hitch on the start line when an official noticed the pontoons of his single did not both touch the water and adjusting it took a while and required the use of a hair tie from one of the volunteer stake boat holders. But they got it done, and Haxton took off and won.

“I was just really fortunate to have a good row and be in good shape and getting to compete against those guys, it was really awesome,” he said. “When I got done, it didn’t sink in very quickly. It was a dream that I had for a long time. I think every rower that gets in a boat at some point thinks about competing for the national team. That’s the highest level of competition in our sport.

“That’s an absolutely amazing feeling and both Ron and Dan have been really supportive and have offered all of their knowledge since trials.”

When Para-rowing competition at the world championships begins this week, Haxton will be going up against the best in the world, something he has had very little experience doing.

But Darling is not concerned. Haxton, he noted, has a lot of experience competing in the sport from his time in high school rowing. He’s strong and determined.

“Unlike a lot of people who come into rowing after being disabled who have never rowed before, he’s got a pretty extensive background with rowing. He’s coaching rowing now, he understands the physiological demands and he’s a real racer,” Darling said. “He understands how to move a boat.”

If Haxton lacks anything, it is the experience of rowing at a world-championship level. But Haxton is bringing a support team with him including Swartz, his parents and his best friend from high school, Stephen Barthelmas.

Barthelmas has been at Haxton’s side since they sat next to each other in the eighth grade. And he is one of many people who have been at his side since the Saturday evening when he felt soreness in his calf.

“I really wouldn’t be here without Steve,” he said. “He drove to C.R.A.S.H-B’s with me and back, all through the night in a snowstorm. He’s been my best friend and travel companion for the last 10 years. The list of names of people who have been there should be 15 people long.

“And if there is a moral to my story, it’s that I’ve had great people around to help me get to where I am. I’ve had a lot of good and amazing people around me every step of the way – my friends, my family, coaches, teammates, doctors and nurses. And it has been an amazing thing to see.
 
“I tell people, if you could watch my life through my eyes over the last five years, then it would be pretty easy to see how you can stay so positive. When you see so many positive things go on around you, and positive people come in and out of your life, it’s an encouraging feeling every single day.”

And for a mother who came so close to losing her son, it’s nothing short of a miracle.

“It is so exciting,” Heather said. “I’m delighted for him. He gets to enjoy something he loves. There are kids all over the country that find a passion, whether it’s dance or it’s a sport, and he was fortunate to find his. Knowing that he loved doing it, to see him get to continue to do it and be on the water, it’s very, very gratifying.

“Having been there when he was so sick and so emaciated, we didn’t know what life was going to have for him and to see him out on the water – he was out the other night, I was watching him practicing – it’s just so wonderful.”

To see a video of Haxton participating in a Ted Talk go here.

Editor's Note: Haxton finished fourth in the men's arms and shoulders single sculls event at the 2014 World Rowing Championships.

Ed Moran, ed@usrowing.org

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