A Laurentian researcher’s journey to the Invictus Games

Thomas Merritt, Invictus Games, Laurentian University, adaptive rowing, parasport, accessible sport, accessibility, war, military, injury, PTSD, military injury, servicemen, soldiers, veterans

Laurentian University researcher Thomas Merritt (second from right) stands with the other indoor rowing volunteers at the Invictus Games.


Researcher Thomas Merritt arrived at Laurentian University to study genes. He knew little—nor did he need to know—about parasports, accessibility, and adaptive rowing.

That was a little over 10 years ago. This week, Merritt is in Toronto for the 2017 Invictus Games, due to his expertise in rigging and positioning adaptive athletes. He has also co-published two research papers on para-rowing.

As a sport crew volunteer with the indoor rowing teams, Merritt will be working with the athletes leading up to their competitions Tuesday (Sept. 26) to help adapt the machines for their unique needs. He’s one of more than 1,800 volunteers coaching and helping out with the games.

“I’m excited to be at the games and helping out,” he says. “The rowing lead, Susan Kitchen, has assembled an incredible group of expert volunteers from across Canada and the U.S. to make sure this event is a fantastic experience for all the amazing athletes that will be competing.”

Established by Prince Harry in 2014 in London, the Invictus Games is a sporting event for wounded and injured soldiers and veterans around the world. From Sept. 23-30, competitions for the third Invictus Games will take place across Toronto, including at York and Ryerson universities.

The games use the power of sport to inspire recovery, help overcome injury and trauma, support rehabilitation, and raise awareness for what military personnel endure, while helping them physically, psychologically, and socially.

“Our research in adaptive sport directly came out of the problems we were seeing and being presented with through coaching,” says Merritt. “We started asking the questions because of the injuries we saw developing out of parasport in Canada. There were some clear commonalities and trends, so we thought, ‘How can we make this better?’”

Training for the Paralympics

Merritt’s journey into adaptive rowing started when he got involved with the Sudbury Rowing Club in 2006. He had been a varsity rower during his undergrad at the University of North Carolina and rekindled his passion for rowing when he moved to Sudbury to accept a faculty position at Laurentian.

Shortly after he began volunteering at the club, he was approached by a wheelchair athlete and active member of the Sudbury community, Minna Mettinen-Kekalainen, who wanted to row and had dreams of competing in the Paralympics.

Thomas Merritt, Invictus Games, Laurentian University, adaptive rowing, parasport, accessible sport, accessibility, war, military, injury, PTSD, military injury, servicemen, soldiers, veterans

Laurentian researcher Thomas Merritt

“What she was saying really resonated with me,” he says. “I admired her passion and enthusiasm. I came into sport super late when I was 19 and had spent most of my childhood being told I couldn’t do it because I was just a horrible athlete.

“But rowing was a way I was able to make that happen and I wanted to do the same for her.”

Together, the two worked on a successful grant application to initiate an adaptive rowing program in Sudbury—now an active and well-respected program in Canada.

Merritt began coaching Mettinen-Kekalainen and she was eventually invited to the national team tryouts. Although her Paralympic dream was never realized, she was keen on making sure others had the same opportunity. She helped with the programming and would refer prospective athletes to Merritt.

One such athlete was Sudbury’s Steve Daniel. With Merritt’s coaching, Daniel—who was partially paralyzed after a hard free fall parachute landing—was able to compete in the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing. Daniel will be competing in this year’s Invictus Games after winning a silver medal for rowing in the Orlando games last year.

Bringing the challenges back to the lab

Much of Merritt’s research in biomechanics and adaptive rowing came out of his early coaching experiences with athletes like Mettinen-Kekalainen and Daniel. He studies how to rig the boats in order to make them fast, while keeping the athletes safe and healthy.

“When I was working with Steve, we realized he was stressing his core by really pushing hard to get into Beijing,” says Merritt, who wears both a researcher hat and coaching hat when it comes to para-rowing . “So we started discussing whether it was possible to identify where the stress points were in athletes and how the boats could be rigged to not exacerbate these points.”

Due to his experience coaching Daniel, he was invited to take part in a research project led by fellow Laurentian researcher Alison Godwin, where they studied athletes from the university’s rowing program and developed biomechanical models to examine these stress points.

Merritt’s work continues to focus on the technical aspects of the equipment, taking the strengths and challenges of the athletes and adapting the machines accordingly. This means some athletes are able to row in an unmodified machine, while others have fixed seats and other adjustments.

“It can be tricky figuring out that strategy,” says Merritt. “Every athlete is unique. We have to do things like take an athlete with a spinal cord injury and figure out how to strap them in to get maximum power and protection.

“There’s always going to be somebody who will push the envelope of what we can do. But we generally find a way to adapt the machine and get them rowing. We’ve worked with some fairly compromised physical abilities and are able to make it work.”

Each unique athlete comes with a unique motivation for why they want to row. These motivations are also taken into consideration when developing an adaptive rowing program for them, according to Merritt.

Whether someone wants to row for the next 30 years, or row competitively for a short period of time, affects what type of programming and training they receive, as does their time outside the boat and how much of it they’re able to devote to other strengthening exercises.

To leading expert status

Now one of the country’s leading experts in adaptive rowing, Merritt’s initial lack of experience proved an easy obstacle to overcome.

“The fact that I didn’t know what I was doing didn’t hugely disadvantage me because we were all learning together,” he says. “There’s not a huge amount of research into para-rowing in Canada, yet. I basically took my own experiences as a rower, my experiences as a coach, and worked with people who were part of the program in Canada. It really encouraged me to try and learn more and completely immerse myself in the research.”

Merritt remains active across Canada, researching, training coaches, and raising awareness about accessibility in sport. At a recent series of talks for the Ontario Accessibility Directorate, he discussed the importance of promoting accessibility and its role in fostering healthy communities.

“The Invictus Games is a very unique situation,” says Merritt. “Some of the athletes racing Tuesday afternoon will never have been in an adaptive rowing machine before they arrive. We’re going to work with them, strap them in, and see what happens. It’s going to be very exciting.”

This post is part of our series on the Invictus Games. Read the first post of the series about the power of music in veterans’ health, as examined by a Queen’s University researcher. Follow Merritt on Twitter for live updates from the Invictus Games @tjsmerritt.

Tagged: Building Community, Health & Wellbeing

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