COLUMBUS, Ohio – His alarm goes off around 5:30am. That’s when Blake Haxton shakes off the drowsiness, gets in his car and drives to Griggs Reservoir on the Scioto River. When he gets there… they’re waiting for him.
Michael Caliguri and Stephen Barthelmas grew up with Blake in Upper Arlington and they’re part of a large group of friends going back ten years. When Blake arrives, Michael and Stephen go to work. They carry his oars and his boat down a hill from their storage yard and put in the river. Blake follows them down the hill, joking with them as they carry the heavy load.
And then Blake uses his hands to nimbly move from his wheel chair into a specially crafted seat in the boat. From there he straps two three harnesses and pushes off to practice.
How Haxton and his friends got here… it’s a stunning story. It’s been nearly seven years since Blake, then 18 and a senior rower at Upper Arlington, contracted a rare flesh-eating bacterial disease and became deathly ill. Haxton survived frequent surgeries and 100 days in local hospitals, but both of his legs were amputated. Blake recovered well enough to attend and finish college, all through the support of his large network of friends. Two years ago Blake learned about adaptive rowing and decided with his arms and hands intact he’d give it a try. At first it was just for fun… for fitness. But Blake quickly realized those rowing skills he’d put to use for many years were not lost. He started training for adaptive rowing competitions and soon enough was the US adaptive rowing champion at 500 meters. In June, he won the U.S. Paralympic Trials and qualified for the Paralympic Games in Rio. That same week, he completed his finals for law school at Ohio State.
And that’s how Michael and Stephen find their motivation to set the alarm at 5:30am… to witness a miracle in-person. Haxton needs at least a couple of friends for every training session to help carry the boat and watch him on the water. But they’re more than a support team. Haxton’s friends are just as invested as Blake is to see him row for gold in Rio. They’ve rented a house near the rowing venue in Brazil where eight of Blake’s friends (could be more added soon) will spend 10 days to make sure they see all of his races and soak up their friend’s big Olympic moment.