Six years ago, Blake Haxton was an accomplished teenage rower in Columbus, Ohio, recruited by the best U.S. college teams. Then doctors told him the soreness in his leg was necrotizing fasciitis, commonly known as “flesh-eating disease.”
The disease nearly took his life and led to the amputation of both legs. He spent a month in a coma and endured 20 surgeries before the infection was contained.
Haxton assumed he was done with rowing, a sport in which an athlete’s seat slides, allowing him to push down on footplates and drive the oars through the water using the power of his legs.
But his family didn’t let him give up. “You didn’t choose this,” Haxton recalls his brother saying, “but that doesn’t matter.” For Haxton, his brother’s comment was a turning point. He began experimenting with a rowing machine and para-rowing. It felt like a completely new sport, but it was also “sort of freeing,” he said.
The rowing community also rallied around him. During the 100 days he spent in the hospital, he was visited by former coaches, teammates and even a member of the 2004 U.S. men’s rowing team, Jason Read.
— U.S. Paralympics (@USParalympics) August 27, 2015
With this support behind him, Haxton kept working and kept getting better. Now, instead of an eight-person sweep boat, he trains in a lighter, faster single-person sculling shell, equipped with pontoons to keep him steady as he powers the boat completely with his arms and upper body. He qualified for Team USA less than 12 months after getting back into training.
Clearly, he has rediscovered the grit that the sport of rowing lent him as a teenager: “Just about everything can go wrong, and you can always make the situation better by just pulling harder. You might not win, you might not make the finish line come any quicker, but it will make you better than you were before.”
In 2015, Haxton placed fifth at the World Rowing Championships, before learning he had competed with a broken rib.
In between training, Haxton spent the past year finishing up a law degree at Ohio State University. On Fridays, he found time to work as a financial analyst at a Columbus firm.
The camaraderie of Team USA has motivated him to train hard for the Paralympics. He wishes everyone could see the support that his teammates, coaches and his brother give him. “I may be the only one in this boat, but I got a lot of people pulling for me,” he said.