Meredith Yarbrough: A new vision
Typically, opportunity does not follow disability. However, for the kids at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (TSVBI), former Texas rower Meredith Yarbrough has helped give a special group of children something back after losing their vision. Yarbrough has created a rowing club unique to Austin -- a club for students who are either close to or entirely blind.
The 23-year old UT grad has gained hands-on experience with this disability for much of her life, as two of her cousins suffer from a juvenile form of macular degeneration called Stargardts Disease. Both boys, who are 11 and 16 years old, started showing symptoms of the disease around age eight and are likely be completely blind in the coming years. Her cousins live in Houston and are not involved in the program, but Yarbrough cites them as her direct source of inspiration.
Yarbrough's rowing career began in the fall of 2002 when she walked onto the UT Novice Rowing team and instantly fell in love with the sport. During her sophomore season, Yarbrough earned a place on the varsity team where she rowed for the first Varsity eight boat for the remainder of her career.
After graduating from Texas, Yarbrough began to miss the thrill of competition that she had in college, and she began thinking about her cousins and their disability.
"I just began to wonder how much they are going to miss out on because of this disease," explained Yarbrough. "They are extremely athletic, but because of their disease, they had to drop out of sports as their vision got worse. They couldn't even do track anymore because their vision wouldn't allow them to see well enough to run. I started thinking about rowing and remembered how you don't really need to see at all to row. You're not even facing the direction you are going."
Every morning on her way home from rowing practice, Yarbrough passed by the school for the blind, which got her thinking about the possibilities for individuals with visual impairments. After Yarbrough finished rowing for UT in May, she started doing some research and drafted a letter to Gloria Bennett, the community resources director at TSBVI, and proposed a new after-school activity for the school's students.
"I told her I was completely willing to get the team and resources together, and I would coach the team if she would be interested," stated Yarbrough. "She got back to me within a week and we worked out a time, signed up some kids, borrowed equipment and started the program at the beginning of the [spring] semester."
Before she could have the kids go out and row on the water though, Yarbrough needed some coaching reinforcements.
"I harassed everyone I knew and sent e-mails to every rowing listserv that I could find," said Yarbrough. "When I was trying to plan this I knew I'd need a lot of help, especially since I have never coached rowing. I even sent an e-mail to my old novice team listserv, which included people I hadn't seen in almost five years."
Yarbrough's program currently includes three students and three staff from the TSBVI who attend an afternoon practice every Monday. Yarbrough serves as head coach of the group, while rowing colleagues and friends assist with coaching.
Melissa Polka, the team's assistant coach, was ecstatic when she was invited by Yarbrough to help with the program.
"It was an awesome idea and I really wanted to help," said Polka. "She [Yarbrough] did all the ground work, contacted the school, made sure everything was setup and she organized all of the meetings. All I had to do was show up."
During the very first practice with the kids and TSVBI staff, Yarbrough introduced them to all the different aspects of rowing.
"We brought them in, introduced them to all the coaches and let them hear each of the coaches' voices," explained Yarbrough. "The coaches walked the kids down the length of the boat, placed their hands on the shoes and the seats and explained how the seat slides."
"During the first practice we focused on general rowing techniques," explained Yarbrough. "Then we put them on the 'erg' (indoor rowing machine) and did one-on-one training to get them through the motions of rowing."
Soon thereafter, Yarbrough and her staff took the group out on the water for their first actual rowing experience.
"They were so eager, but they were only able to row two at a time because they were still in the early stages of learning," explained Polka. "However, being out on the water was really exciting for them and it motivated them to come back the next week."
The program and its rowers continue to make great strides, which has sparked an increased demand by other TSVBI students. For now Yarbrough wants to keep the group small, but she does hope the program will continue to grow and possibly attract sponsors that could help provide equipment for the group.
As the team continues to improve, it is beginning to prepare for its first race. Yarbrough has taken it upon herself to create her own regatta for her crew, a 4K race on Saturday, May 5.
The crew will take on some formidable teams at the race, however, Yarbrough's crew has been overcoming challenges for years and they are confident about showing the Austin rowing community what they can do on the water.