Gliding down the Schuylkill River at last year’s Jefferson Dad Vail Regatta was not a lifelong dream for para-rower Taylor Roberts. In fact, it was only two years ago that the junior at Virginia Commonwealth University paddled down any stream.

But, at the urging of her club coach, Tim Nesselrodt, Roberts entered the Dad Vail’s inaugural para-rowing event — she was the lone rower — and she left a lasting impression on the regatta’s organizers.

So this year, Roberts is the Dad Vail director of para-rowing, and, while she will not compete, she is in charge of two exhibition races Saturday that feature 20 para-rowers from nine clubs and colleges.

“It has allowed me to take a new approach to para-rowing off of the water, which has been interesting and very rewarding,” Roberts, 22, said of her new job.

Regatta president Jim Hanna said the Dad Vail is eager to include para-rowers because college crew teams are recruiting more para-rowers to their programs.

“We are grateful to entrust to Taylor the leadership responsibilities attendant to initiating a new Jefferson Dad Vail Regatta endeavor,” Hanna said in a statement.

Regatta organizers said they plan on including para-rowers in future official races (and not exhibitions) because they “are striving to create equality for all rowers, regardless of how they take their strokes.”

Roberts wants to compete in the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo.
Taylor Roberts
Roberts wants to compete in the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo.

Saturday’s races will include 13 boats and feature rowers from Washington’s Capital Adaptive Rowing, Row New York, Lake Braddock (Va.) Crew, Washington College, George Mason University, Cleveland State University, Gordon College, Georgetown University and Seattle University. Each rower’s boat is tailored to his or her needs.

“I can’t take all the credit for recruiting these athletes,” said Roberts, who rows for Richmond (Va.) Community Rowing. “It’s been a lot of communication with other coaches and clubs up and down the East Coast.”

Roberts got involved in para-rowing after her life was turned upside down on Feb. 3, 2015. She was driving from school to her parents’ house when a driver ran a stop sign and hit her car on the side. Her car smashed into a telephone pole, and she suffered broken ribs and fractured vertebrae and was paralyzed from the waist down.

She then took time off from school to recover and is still getting acclimated to her new life.

“It has made me a lot stronger, and it has made me a lot more independent,” Roberts said of rowing after her injury. “It has changed my perspective on my injury because it’s allowed me to embrace my disability instead of letting it hold me back, which is kind of how it feels sometimes outside of my sport.

"It’s strengthened me mentally and physically.”

Roberts said she wants to compete in the 2020 Summer Paralympics in Tokyo. She recently raced in the National Selection Regatta in Worcester, Mass., and is raising money for supplies and travel to the U.S. Paralympic Rowing trials in August through a GoFundMe page. As of early Thursday afternoon, she had raised $8,775 of her $15,000 goal.

Roberts said rowing has helped her regain some mobility, and she is enrolled in a Richmond (Va.) study for a device that might help her stand and walk again.

“Graduate and then get settled in a job I’m really passionate about and just regain a sense of normalcy," Roberts said of her long-term goal, “which I’m not sure will really be attainable, which I’m OK with. But just trying to get to that new normal.”