Even if you don’t know Fernando Fernandes personally, you’re sure to know who he is. A former male model and reality television star, the toned, photogenic and very personable Brazilian was already a household name in his native country before spinal injuries sustained in a car accident almost five years ago changed his life and set him off in pursuit of different equally high-profile life goals.
Paralysed from the waist down, Fernandes accepted that life would have to be different. But having always defined himself as a winner, he was not prepared to allow his injuries to define him as a person.
Just weeks after his first surgery Fernandes took part in a wheelchair marathon and then went off to try out a range of Paralympic sports before settling on paracanoeing. Powered by a highly muscular frame and dynamic approach to his sport, Fernandes has transformed perceptions of his new sport, winning four world titles and setting out his stall for medal success in Rio 2016 – when the sport makes its debut at the Paralympic Games. For this athlete it’s not about putting demons to rest but more about showing what he and others with perceived disabilities can achieve, given half a chance.
“I regained my freedom through paracanoe,” says Fernandes, whose busy training schedule which would severely test any able-bodied athlete. “There is nothing an able-bodied person can do in their boat that I cannot do in mine. After the accident, I thought I had lost. But once I was in a boat I realized I would be on equal terms with everyone.”
Despite similarly intense training regimes paracanoeists endure a few inevitable differences from their able-bodied counterparts. For Fernandes this is not an obstacle, just a small problem to be overcome in the search for the right tools to do the job properly.
The main challenge is coping with safety considerations which can restrict paracanoeists from training by themselves. The time and difficulty involved in carrying boats to the water and then mounting them without capsizing can be time consuming. When assistance is not available alternative methods of getting sessions done have to be considered.
“For me, it’s all about ergometers,” says Fernandes, whose machine of choice is the KayakPro SpeedStroke Kayak version.
Brazil, he says, is investing heavily in canoeing and paracanoeing ahead of the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games, and these tools have become a vital part of preparations.
It’s not just in day-to-day training but also at competitions where preparations can soak up time – at regattas, where event programmes often run to tight schedules, this can restrict the time available for paracanoeists to warm up adequately.
Many teams do take kayaking ergometers to regattas to help their athletes warm up adequately and safely. The International Canoe Federation also relies on ergometers (especially the single paddle Va’a and the double bladed kayaking model) so it can determine the level of disability of each would-be paracanoeist, and from that their ‘classification’ for competition.
“My paralysis means I need assistance to get on the water and because this is not always available ergometers can fulfil an important role in my training and preparation,” Fernandes says, as he outlines his key experiences with the devices.
Q: So, Fernando, how often do you use an ergometer?
A: Once or twice a week, every week. It’s not just out of season when it’s colder but even during the racing season. When I’m on the water I can practice balancing the boat very well but I need special supports on the ergometer that’s adapted to my personal needs
Q: To what extent do paracanoeists use an off-the-shelf ergometer or does yours require special modifications?
A: Well, to an extent it depends on the classification of the athlete. In my case, as I have no feeling in my legs, I need lumbar and hip support, which is really important for me to paddle properly.
Q: Do you use your ergometer just to reinforce your on-water training or does it serve any other purpose?
A: My ergometer is a really important part of my training. It helps me with my balance training but I rely on it when I don’t have the chance to go out of the water. It’s also a key part of my physical conditioning regime out of season.
Q: What sessions do you use your ergometer for most? Short intervals or longer paddling sessions – or both?
A: It’s not for one specific part of my training. I use it for resistance training and endurance sessions. It’s also very realistic for training my starts so I can say there’s no aspect of my training where it hasn’t been useful.
Q: Does the ergometer reinforce or replace part of your on-water training?
A: Well, actually I find it particularly good for working on my core. I’m able to work really hard on specific parts of my body, probably much harder than I can on the water. The reason for this is that when I’m on the ergo I’m not scared about going a little beyond my limit whereas when I’m on the water in my kayak there’s always that little thought in the back of my mind that I could fall in if I’m pushing too hard.
Q: So you’d describe it as an important training tool?
A: No, it’s much more than that. I’ve used it for two years and it has been absolutely fundamental for my training. I see its potential as going beyond kayaking, however. I’ve talked to a number of other Paralympic athletes because I think it’s a brilliant training aid for people who have any type of major injury. When you think that many people who live in cities lack decent access to training facilities or even professional coaches, the ergometer means there is no reason why they cannot still train intensively.
Q: How important is paracanoeing in the development of perceptions of disabled sport?
A: The growth of Paralympic sport has been incredible – London was sensational because it meant Paralympians were seen in the same light as Olympians and this has meant people stop seeing disability but rather they see someone with a disability doing sport at elite level. I see myself not just as a kayaker but as an ambassador. When I sat in the kayak, I had the sensation of regaining an ability I thought I had lost. I saw that I was on equal terms with everyone and I could see I have a responsibility to spread this message and to contribute to the sport’s growth.
This article was written by us for Grayson Bourne and a KayakPro promotion on Sportscene.tv. Other canoeing ergometers are available!