Photographs by Jamie Betts
Photographs by Jamie Betts

On a warm summer afternoon in August 2011, Cole Sydnor, ’17, was out on the James River with three friends. He was 16 years old, enjoying the newfound freedom that came with the driver’s license he got the day before.

The friends crossed the river at one of their favorite spots, the pipeline near 14th Street.

“It’s kind of isolated,” Sydnor said, “and there are a couple of rock features that are a lot of fun.”

“Don’t people get hurt out on the rocks?” Sydnor’s mom, Kelly, had asked that morning. “Haven’t people died down there?”

Sydnor, full of teenage swagger, reassured her. “Mom, I’m a great swimmer. I’m gonna be fine,” he told her before he left.

After lounging in the sun, the group started to make its way back toward downtown. Sydnor dove into the water, hoping to get enough momentum to push through the swirling rapids. Instead, he struck his head on a submerged rock.

He knew a set of rapids were swirling just a few yards downriver. He started kicking his legs to swim out of its path. Only his body didn’t respond.

Sydnor was a lifelong swimmer, completely at ease in the water. Confusion set in. He opened his eyes — something he never did in the murky waters of the James. He saw his arms floating in front of him and the water surrounding him quickly turning a cloudy red.

His only friend who hadn’t yet crossed the river saw Sydnor drifting downstream toward the rapids and snapped into action. A Boy Scout with water safety training, he jumped in and pulled Sydnor from the water. Another friend grabbed his cell phone — something the boys almost never brought to the river — and called 911. The third, a high school track star, raced to meet the paramedics at the road, feet bare and bloodied from running on the pipeline grates.

All Sydnor could think was, “Damn it. Mom was right.”

His friends called his mom, trying to downplay the gravity of the situation. He has a gash over his eyebrow, and the paramedics are on their way, they told her, but we don’t know if they’ll take him to the hospital. In the background, Sydnor said over and over, “Please tell my mom I’m sorry.”

Kelly Sydnor knew something was wrong. She asked if he could move his arms or legs. When his friends responded with no, she hung up the phone, grabbed her keys to meet them at the hospital, and called her office.

“My boy’s paralyzed,” she told them. “I’m not sure when I’ll be back.”

She never returned.

Later in the emergency room waiting area, Sydnor’s dad, Clement, said to Kelly, “This could be a life changer.”

“Could be?” she said. “Clement, look at me. He’s paralyzed.”

“I think it’s more devastating for fathers,” she said, reflecting on that night. “To see such a great athletic career gone in one split second. But I knew that all this athleticism only lasts for so long. Our bodies can break at any time. What matters is what you have upstairs, what you have in your soul. Your body’s just a vessel.”

Once at the hospital, Sydnor learned he had a 9-inch laceration in his head. He’d fractured his C4, C6, and T1 vertebtrae, and obliterated the C5.

Through tubes and wires, he mouthed the words to his mom, “I’m paralyzed, right?”

She responded affirmatively, but Sydnor still didn’t understand the scope of his injury. He pictured himself with full hand function. He imagined himself in a wheelchair with a huge upper body and “jacked” arms.

He didn’t yet realize he’d never pick up a lacrosse stick or shoot a basketball or play an Xbox without assistance.

“I think that’s probably a good thing,” he says now. “If that hit me all at once, then I would’ve been in an even worse place than I already was.”

Only after Sydnor transferred to the Shepherd Center, a spinal cord rehabilitation facility, did he understand he would have no function from the chest down. He can’t use his legs, his hands, or his triceps. He can use his biceps and, to some degree, his forearms, which gives him some motion in his wrist. His power and strength come from his shoulders.

The Shepherd Center is one of top spinal cord injury facilities in the country, but it is in Atlanta, which meant Sydnor and his parents spent the next 122 days 530 miles from home.

“While it’s great to have something like that on the East Coast,” Sydnor said, “it was terrible to have to be stripped from my support system — all my friends and people who cared about me, and I cared about as well — and have to be eight hours away.”

Even with the familial drive to move forward, Sydnor — a promising lacrosse player and competitive athlete — often struggled with his new reality.

“It was a lot of up and down emotionally,” he said. “I was 16 years old, so in a sense, I was emotionally fragile, but there’s also a certain hardening that comes from a situation like this.”

Our bodies can break at any time. What matters is what you have upstairs, what you have in your soul. Your body's just a vessel.

Each day, Sydnor found a bit more independence. He regained his ability to feed himself, and learned personal hygiene care. He sometimes left his parents behind and took off in his wheelchair to visit new friends at the Shepherd Center.

After four months, Sydnor returned home. He seamlessly transitioned back to Atlee High School and graduated on time before enrolling at the University of Richmond.

As he continued his studies, Sydnor also began outpatient rehabilitation at Sheltering Arms Hospital, a nonprofit physical rehabilitation hospital in Richmond. His treatment included physical and occupational therapy, as well as an exercise program designed to help improve muscular strength, endurance, range of motion, central nervous system stimulation, balance, and functional movement.

He also joined up with Sportable, a Sheltering Arms community partner that offers adaptive sports and recreation opportunities for people with physical and visual disabilities. He coached their youth wheelchair basketball team, the Spokes.

One day, during his junior year, he had lunch with Kelly Merricks, vice president of philanthropy at Sheltering Arms. The two talked about summer plans and the internships his friends had secured. Sydnor mentioned he planned to apply for a UR Summer Fellowship, a University program that provides up to $4,000 for a summer internship or research project, but he hadn’t found the right internship.

That’s when Merricks offered an idea: Come work for Sheltering Arms.

Sydnor was immediately drawn to the idea, but he’d never worked a 9-to-5 job. He wasn’t sure what he’d need to navigate day-to-day work in an office — even one at a facility designed for spinal cord injury patients.

So he countered with his own proposal.

“It would be cool if I had someone to do it with me, who could also help me with things,” he said.

He thought immediately of Ethan Rappaport, ’17.

Sydnor and Rappaport met in a yearlong intensive Italian class where the two students landed in the same small working group. Homework assignments led to watching football games and, eventually, a friendship.

Rappaport, a business major and anthropology minor, had spent the summer after his sophomore year working for a small wealth management firm but wanted to explore marketing, particularly in a health care setting.

“I’m really interested in looking at cultures and how we can make better business decisions once we understand people and their motivations for doing things,” Rappaport said.

He also liked the small office environment of his prior internship and thought Sheltering Arms could offer a similar experience.

So Sydnor and Rappaport sat down with Merricks and Anne Chan, director of business development, to map out the summer and the types of projects they might assist with.

Their first day on the job, Sheltering Arms made an announcement. It was partnering with Virginia Commonwealth University to build a physical rehabilitation hospital — much like Atlanta’s Shepherd Center where Sydnor went after his accident.

As Sheltering Arms began working with an architectural firm, it asked Sydnor and Rappaport to research the Shepherd Center and other leading rehabilitation hospitals. High-quality medical care is a given; the Sheltering Arms staff wanted to know what else it needed to offer to become one of the best centers in the country.

They searched websites and spoke to development and operations staff at the hospitals around the country. Over and over, they learned about therapeutic recreation programs that allowed patients to go bowling, fish with a custom rod, and participate in adaptive sports. These programs, which can be therapeutic or competitive, parallel sports played by able-bodied athletes but with modifications to equipment or rules to meet the needs of participants.

“The idea behind the whole thing is reinforcing to people who have just suffered this traumatic event and realize that their life has changed forever, that there are still a lot of possibilities out there,” Rappaport said. “What’s more important than bowling a frame is knowing that you can bowl a frame.

“It’s restoring hope for life that may not come strictly from therapy or counseling.”

John “Mac” McElroy III, president of the Sheltering Arms Foundation, said the focus on sports and recreation is in line with Sheltering Arms’ approach and the reason for its partnership with organizations like Sportable.

“Young spinal cord patients need to see that there is a future out there where they can be active and they can engage in sports,” he said.

At the end of the summer, Sydnor and Rappaport took their research on therapeutic recreation programs and presented the business case to board members, clinical staff, the architectural firm responsible for designing the new facility, community stakeholders, and leaders of nonprofit organizations whose work connects with Sheltering Arms.

Merricks described Sydnor and Rappaport’s work as “integral to the process” of identifying valuable programs that would help distinguish the center as a leader in spinal cord injury treatment. Still, for Sydnor, one of the biggest accomplishments was realizing that he could get up every day and go to work.

“I was just glad to find out that I could make it through and not be exhausted,” he said. “I knew there was a good chance I was going to have fun, I might meet some cool people, or I might be able to figure out something we could add to our regimen program that would amplify what we’re offering our patients. And also, just being taken seriously, even though I’m young.

“I felt like, if I went out into the world, I could really accomplish something.”

In room 214 of Lakeview Hall, Sydnor’s room for all four years at Richmond, assistant crew coach Tim Nesselrodt took a seat in front of him. He had a proposal for Sydnor.

For a few years, Nesselrodt had searched for a Virginia college willing to invest in an adaptive rowing program. One day, when he was volunteering with Sportable’s rowing program, he mentioned his goal of starting a collegiate program. They suggested Sydnor.

The sport is starting to catch on, Nesselrodt told Sydnor, with a few scattered programs at universities and independent organizations around the country, but he struggled to find a local athlete and school willing to put in the time and resources to start a program without a model to follow.

Sydnor had no experience with rowing, but it wasn’t a hard sell.

Cole Sydnor and his adaptive rowing seatFirst, he needed the gear. Nesselrodt worked with Sportable to get a scull with adaptations specific to Sydnor’s needs.

“In adaptive rowing, the athletes may have a whole range of injuries — spinal cord injury, maybe they’re an amputee, a lot of people have had car accidents, they’re blind, deaf,” Nesselrodt said. “We use special equipment to help them with the motions and get them out on the water so they can just go row.”

While able-bodied rowers draw their strength from their legs, back, and arms, Sydnor’s power comes almost exclusively from his shoulders, with support from his neck and biceps.

He uses a full-size seat with a back and straps that hold his chest in place to accommodate his lack of upper body balance control. The seat is also locked in place, unlike the standard seats that slide forward and backward with the rower’s movements.

Sydnor also has no grip in his hands, so he instead uses custom gloves that are strapped to the oar handles, creating a nearly unbreakable grip. The oars are locked in place and can’t be feathered — the twisting motion that allows the oars to go flat as they glide across the surface of the water. Instead, Sydnor uses a wide rectangular motion.

Finally, stabilizing pontoons were mounted below the oars to prevent the boat from tipping over.

Cole's race

With the equipment logistics worked out, Nesselrodt brought in the rest of the team. It’s not easy for anyone to step into an established, tight-knit group like the Richmond crew team, and it could have been especially challenging for a soon-to-be-graduating senior. But when Nesselrodt asked if two teammates could come to an extra practice each week to help out, a dozen athletes showed up.

Sydnor needed a rowing partner. A team member had agreed to work with Sydnor but wasn’t dressed to row the first time Sydnor came to practice. When Nesselrodt asked who else had sculling experience, meaning they had rowed with two oars rather than the standard one in crew, Jenn Wicks, ’20, then a first-year student, raised her hand.

Wicks had been rowing for four years since her freshman year of high school. She showed up that day expecting to help out in some small way and was dressed to row. The pair clicked and quickly developed a strong partnership.

As Sydnor’s partner, Wicks would steer the boat and give commands — and sometimes encouragement — during practice runs and races.

“Sometimes, when I’m doing something competitive, if I mess up, I’ll sort of chastise myself, like ‘Come on Cole! Gah!’” Sydnor said. “And then Jenn’s behind me like, ‘It’s OK. You’re good.’”

For two months, Sydnor practiced with Nesselrodt, Wicks, and the rowing team.

“He had the mentality you want in an athlete,” Nesselrodt said. “I don’t think he ever once said, ‘I can’t do it.’ Most of the time, he’s like, ‘What else can I do?’ That’s the attitude you want.”

Still, in the days before an April regatta against 10 other universities, the nerves set in. This wasn’t just Sydnor’s first race. Sydnor was also set to become the first rower with arm and shoulder adaptations to compete with his collegiate team in a regatta.

He felt the pressure to perform. Beyond his inherent competitive drive, he said he didn’t want the race to leave people thinking it was a pity party, a pat on the back to the school for letting a disabled person participate.

“That’s not the point,” he said. “Disabled athletes are just as competitive, just as willing to work hard and compete as anybody else. We’re normal people, and we want to do normal things. We just have to do it in an abnormal way.”

Sydnor wanted other universities to see him compete and realize it’s possible to include adaptive rowers on their teams. He wanted them to leave inspired to launch their own programs.

As Wicks and Sydnor’s parents lowered him into his seat in the scull, a familiar sense of competitiveness and athleticism began to wash over him — a feeling he hadn’t experienced in more than six years.

“Since my accident, I’ve only coached sports,” he said. “That butterfly feeling in my stomach moments before a race was something I had forgotten.”

“It was a sickeningly nice sensation.”

Syndor and Wicks launched their boat for a 1,000-meter race against expectations. Adrenaline coursed through Sydnor’s body. He pushed himself to move faster and stronger — so much so that he nearly burned out in the first 250 meters.

“Halfway through the race,” he said, “I literally couldn’t pick my head up.”

After seven minutes and 52 seconds, Sydnor and Wicks pushed the scull across the finish line.

“The whole experience was otherworldly,” Sydnor said. “I don’t know if it was all the hype building up to the race, or maybe just being proud of myself for doing something challenging, or even straight-up exhaustion, but I choked up a little bit at the finish line. It was a really cool moment, one that I realize I may never experience again.”

It wasn’t the finish time Sydnor had hoped for. But this race was never just about times and rankings and personal bests. It was about proving — to himself and to the athletes and coaches on the banks of the river — that this race was even possible.

“I’m literally in a league of my own,” Sydnor said. “People had no choice but to watch me get on the river. Even if this is my last semester, and I’m about to graduate, and I may not be part of the team for a long time, at least people coming behind me in my situation might have that in place as an option.”

Organizations like Sportable currently host competitions for adaptive rowers, but they’re independent events. Nesselrodt wants to see more adaptive student-athletes competing as full members of their university rowing teams.

Thanks to Sydnor’s race, that might now happen in Virginia. While no student-athletes are immediately in line to follow him at Richmond, coaches from VCU and Old Dominion University who attended the regatta approached Nesselrodt about building their own adaptive rowing program. The University of Virginia also expressed an interest in following Richmond’s lead.

“To see Cole go out there, someone that most people are going to look at and be like, ‘Oh he’ll never be able to compete again’ — that’s why I do it,” Nesselrodt said. “I want to see these people come out there that have something to prove and tell everyone that doubts them, that writes them off, ‘Hey, I can do this, too.’”

The biggest barrier to starting a team is investing in the equipment before a school knows it has an interested athlete. Nesselrodt is working with the local organization Richmond Community Rowing to acquire a suite of adaptive rowing equipment that university athletes could use. With that in hand, he hopes to more easily equip universities interested in facilitating an adaptive rowing program.

The regatta marked a step forward for collegiate adaptive rowing in Virginia and in Sydnor’s physical rehabilitation. But in a sense that he kept to himself until just before the race, it was, emotionally, a monumental milestone.

“I’ve had this goal in my head that one day, if there’s ever a cure for me and I’m able-bodied again, or at least less disabled, I want to swim across the river where I broke my neck,” he said. “Obviously that’s a big goal, and that’s still far in the future, but this is a natural step in that direction.”

And so, as Sydnor and Wicks pulled the oars through the water for the last time and glided across the finish line, just a mile upriver from the rapids where he nearly lost his life, Sydnor felt an overwhelming sense of triumph.

“In a way, it’s like giving the river the finger,” he said, “I’m saying, ‘I don’t really care what you’ve done to me. I’m still here.’”

Kim Catley is a senior writer in University Communications.