According to Head of Trinity Sport and Recreation Michelle Tanner, this year’s cohort of sports scholars are among the highest calibre of athletes Trinity has ever boasted – a fact that is both ironic and slightly depressing in a year in which all sport on campus has been halted.
But among the most notable of those top-tier sports scholars is the paralympic rower who will be representing the USA in Tokyo this Summer, John Tanguay. For now, however, Tanguay is a rower for Dublin University Boat Club (DUBC) as he studies for his master’s degree in operations and supply chain management at the Trinity Business School.
“I was born with bilateral club feet and that’s a connective tissue disorder in the feet”, Tanguay tells me when I ask him about his disability.
“My feet were born looking like golf clubs and because of that my ability to basically run, walk for a while is drastically reduced because of the strength of my feet.”
Tanguay tells me this in a very matter-of-fact tone, as if it’s no big deal. Multiple surgeries when he was born were needed to reconstruct his feet. Growing up, despite his clubbed feet, Tanguay was a stellar all-round athlete and played baseball, basketball and lacrosse. But his disability remained an obstacle in sports that required a lot of running. Despite the willpower and talent, there would always be a ceiling with how far he could go with them.
My feet were born looking like golf clubs and because of that my ability to basically run, walk for a while is drastically reduced because of the strength of my feet
But for Tanguay, his disability would open more doors in his life than it would close. That soon became clear when at the start of high school, after being forced to quit his previous sports due to the toll they put on his feet, he discovered what would turn out to be his calling: rowing.
“The fact that you’re sitting the whole time is attractive to someone like me because you’re not running”, Tanguay tells me.
“So I started rowing and just stuck with it. I guess you could say I was hooked.”
While rowing for his club in Princeton, New Jersey, Tanguay explains that it was his fellow rowers that drove his desire to continue to improve. That feeling of being part of a unit all focused toward the same goal and not wanting to be the weak link is, for Tanguay, a massive motivator to work hard.
The comradery that comes with rowing is what Tanguay finds most appealing about the sport: “I think the camaraderie is the greatest part of the sport of rowing. It’s a sport that requires real teamwork and as a result every team is extremely close. We’d hang out with each other all the time.”
“You need that if you’re going to get up for a 7am training session in the dead of winter. There’s no way I could do that alone”, Tanguay adds.
The hard work paid off as Tanguay was in a position to row for any number of top sporting colleges in America by the time he finished high school. Tanguay chose to commit to Columbia University even though Ivy League schools don’t hand out sports scholarships.
“For me the academics is just as important as the rowing”, says Tanguay explaining why he forewent a full sports scholarship to row for Columbia instead.
It’s a sport that requires real teamwork and as a result every team is extremely close. We’d hang out with each other all the time
“I was able to get an academic scholarship which was a big help with that €70k a year price tag”, laughs Tanguay.
Another reason for choosing Columbia, however, is that the Ivy League involves the most competitive rowing in the world with annual regattas competing against boats from the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge. Columbia alone has produced 46 Olympic rowers.
It’s clear that Tanguay’s disability has not restrained him from performing at the highest ranks of the sport. He says so himself: “My disability doesn’t inhibit me from rowing really all that much at all. I mean I was rowing in the Ivy League national championships which is the most competitive in the world.”
“Some of the best rowing athletes from all over the world come to Ivy League schools so it’s probably the most competitive league. Like a lot of rowers from Great Britain would come here. We had a lot of international guys in Columbia.”
Tanguay rowed in the fifth seat for the first and second varsity team throughout his collegiate years at Columbia.
I ask Tanguay about the experience of being a rowing athlete at Columbia.
Far from the preppiness and pretension one may associate with rowing culture in American Ivy League schools, Tanguay describes how being centred in the middle of New York meant this wasn’t really the case.
“I think just being in New York all the time with the competitive and down-to-earth culture of New Yorkers, it’s more rugged – like we took the subway to training everyday.”
Tanguay’s final two years in Columbia were riddled with bad luck. In his third year he protruded a disc in his back, an injury which cost him the bulk of the winter season.
I think just being in New York all the time with the competitive and down-to-earth culture of New Yorkers, it’s more rugged – like we took the subway to training everyday
“It was especially mentally tough just not being able to do anything. Missing a lot of the winter training season and having to watch the rest of the guys train without you was the toughest part.”
But by that summer Tanguay had recovered and it was then when a paralympic opportunity came knocking. A call came from a coach who told him one of the rowers on the pr3+ squad, a four person mixed gendered boat, pulled out – Tanguay was the perfect fit to take his place.
After getting approved for paralympic status, Tanguay competed in the 2019 National World Championships in Linz, Austria placing second behind Great Britain and with that qualification for Tokyo 2020 representing the USA.
Of course, the coronavirus pandemic meant Tokyo 2020 couldn’t happen. When I ask Tanguay about how much of a disappointment the cancellation was, he tells me it was losing his last few months of college that stung the most.
“What was the biggest shame was missing out on my last season at Columbia, especially because that year’s squad had the best shot at competing in the national championships”, Tanguay says. “The olympics being cancelled wasn’t the worst part. I knew they would happen eventually.”
Tanguay is remarkably positive about how things turned out, explaining that by coming to Trinity he can train for Tokyo rowing for DUBC while earning his master’s degree at the same time.
Missing a lot of the winter training season and having to watch the rest of the guys train without you was the toughest part
But there’s no doubt that the pandemic has been a challenge, especially the recent six week lockdown when Islandbridge Boathouse was shut.
“It was tough being in lockdown for six weeks especially because I need to be training for Tokyo next summer. But as my old coach used to say: ‘Adapt or die’, and that might sound harsh but it kind of makes sense in this situation”, Tanguay tells me.
Tanguay also expresses gratitude to Trinity Sport who were generous enough to open up the Sports Centre for him over lockdown to use the rowing machine. Indeed, the Sports Centre was accessible to all high performance sports scholars during lockdown.
As for how Tanguay feels about the upcoming paralympics next summer? “I have high aspirations for it, representing my country. It’s going to be pretty surreal.”
“Right now I’m not extremely focused on it because it still seems kind of far away but I know that it’s going to come sooner than I expect”, Tanguay continues.
“I’m committed to Trinity now but once the second term finishes around May I’ll fly back to Boston and join the camp with my crew to start preparing for the paralympics.”