Rower overcomes debilitating condition in her quest for glory

IN THE annals of athletes overcoming hardship, Ballarat rower Narelle Burnside’s journey to the world rowing stage sits at the top of that list.

Ballarat rower Narelle Burnside is targeting a berth in the 2016 Rio Paralympics. PICTURE: JUSTIN WHITELOCK

Ballarat rower Narelle Burnside is targeting a berth in the 2016 Rio Paralympics. PICTURE: JUSTIN WHITELOCK

The 41-year-old multiple sclerosis bearer has made the Australian LTA (legs, trunks, arms) Para-Rowing crew for the Head of Charles Regatta in Boston.

Burnside is in the midst of a heavy training regime as she strives for excellence at the world’s largest two-day rowing event down the Charles River in October, when she will compete under the Balmain Rowing Club banner. 

Her return to the sport is the latest chapter in a remarkable 20-year story of persistence.

Burnside’s tale begins with a successful and promising junior rowing career at Loreto College.

She coached Loreto’s rowing outfit during her first year out of school, before a myriad of unexplained health issues took over her day-to-day life.

At the age of 32, after many years suffering severe fatigue, she was finally diagnosed with MS.

In a statement indicative of her strength of character, Burnside’s immediate reaction was to tell her neurologist that she would dedicate her life to proving the diagnoswas wrong.

“My neurologist told me ‘you won’t walk’ and I stood up to him and said ‘thanks for your opinion, but I’ll prove you wrong by running back in here one day’,” Burnside said.

“I’m quite stubborn – I don’t really like to be told that I can’t do things – I suppose that’s what gives me the extra drive to get out there and do these things.”

It’s that stubbornness that has guided Burnside to the edge of achieving her own Cinderella story, but these days she is more circumspect when talking about her condition.

“It was good to be diagnosed with MS because I knew there was something wrong,” she said.

“It probably took five years to find out that I had it, so I was happy to find out a diagnosis and I’d say more positives have come out of it than negatives.”

While she is only just starting to realise her potential as a rower, Burnside has still spent the better part of the past three years trying for a stint in the Paralympics.

Her original aim to make the cut for the 2012 London edition was cut tragically short with a serious neck injury at the age of 38.

Three screws and a metal plate insertion later, she found the confidence to walk into a new rowing shed, meet new people and train under a new coach in Kevin O’Brien at the Wendouree-Ballarat Rowing Club.

Ironically, after all she had been through, the rowing aspect came the easiest.

“It (getting back in the boat) was like yesterday,” Burnside admitted.

“When I get in a boat I forget that I have MS. It’s good until I go to get out and fall over,” she quipped.

“I found it difficult to get back into rowing because I didn’t have the confidence to come into a new shed with new people and I think (during the away years) that I forgot how much I really loved the sport.”

Her resurrection is strongly linked to coach O’Brien.

The veteran is well known in Ballarat rowing circles and revered among disabled athletes, who he describes as “hero-abled”.

It’s been three years since master and apprentice met at an adaptive camp in Tasmania, and since then they have created a formidable partnership that culminated in a string of successful performances at the trials for Balmain held in Sydney earlier this year.

“When she was trying out in Sydney, there were about five people who tried against her and they (selectors) were very happy with what they saw from Narelle,” O’Brien said.

“I think that anyone who’s got a disability and goes in for a sport of any description is a hero (and) Narelle’s a credit to herself and to Ballarat.

“This (the Head of Boston) will be looked at as a selection criteria and, even though it has nothing to do with Rowing Australia, the selectors will still be looking at it.

“There’s every chance that she will go further.”

However, the ruthlessness of the Charles River and the races held along its shores will test Burnside in ways she has never been challenged before.

The regatta course  spans five kilometres and contains six bridges, with sharp turns that even the most experienced of crews struggle to negotiate.

Then there is the sheer size and popularity of the race, first held in 1965.

With more than 9000 athletes, 300,000 spectators and 1900 boats present, Burnside’s best will be tested against the best, and shown for all the world to see.

For her, it is the race of truth.

It is a far cry from the woman who had her life stripped to its bare essentials by a debilitating condition she now controls through sheer force of will.

Looking back, she says, “is pretty empowering”.

“It’s all a bit overwhelming. I can’t quite get my head around it,” she added.

Neither can a lot of other people.

Just getting there, let alone performing well, or even winning, makes Burnside the standardised definition of “hero-abled” and a beacon for those around her.

Then again, some might say the definition of ‘hero’ wouldn’t even do her justice.


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