Team River Runner, affectionately called TRR among the
kayakers who belong to the group, was established in 2004 in response to the
growing number of injured soldiers returning from current military conflicts.
Founders Joe Mornini and Mike McCormick designed the
program on the banks of the Potomac River, Mornini explained.
Founding the program “was a way of giving back and being
involved,” Mornini told O&P Business News. “I think
we both felt very frustrated. It seemed like all the weight of the war was
falling on just the military and it seemed important to us to do something for
the returning soldiers and their families.”
With a stroke of luck and the right connections, TRR became affiliated
with Walter Reed Army Medical Center (WRAMC) and now aims to, according to
their mission statement, “help veterans recuperating at WRAMC and other
military and veterans hospitals around the country find health, healing, and
new challenges through whitewater boating.”
Since the 2004 inception of TRR, therapeutic kayaking
programs have been adopted in nine different military medical facilities
throughout the United States. Nine additional Veterans Affairs centers have
expressed interest in bringing therapeutic kayaking into their rehabilitation
Additionally, TRR has worked with more than 300 veterans and their
families at Walter Reed since inception, with the other centers reporting
approximately 100 veterans each in 2007.
TRR is also recognized as a chapter of Disabled Sports USA and a partner
in the Wounded Warrior Project.
Outfitting traditional kayaks for people with
disabilities — many of them amputees — was a challenge that Mornini
felt ready to handle.
“Because we’d spent so much time kayaking and had connections
to the industry we knew we could get the materials and the types of
boats,” Mornini said. “We focus on ways to adapt kayaks so that
people with disabilities can sit in the kayak and achieve at a high
Creativity is only one ingredient in the process of adapting a boat for
a kayaker with different needs. The key is finding equipment that is both
secure and stable enough to anchor someone into the boat, but also allows the
kayaker to exit the boat safely.
Using minicell foam and parts of plastic trash cans, they are able to
build socket systems specifically for lower limb amputees inside the whitewater
“It’s like a sleeve that we build into the boat depending on
the size of the individual and the type of injury they have,” Mornini
Former Army Sgt. Kevin Pannell was injured in a grenade ambush on July
12, 2004, which resulted in left transfemoral and right transtibial
amputations. He joined TRR while rehabilitating at WRAMC and quickly became
savvy in the adaptations necessary to participate.
Pannell does not wear prostheses when he kayaks, citing the danger level
of the activity. He built a rotating socket and attached it to the right side
wall of the kayak so he can slip his right residual limb into place easily.
“For my left side I’ve stuffed the bow full of closed cell
foam so when I get in the boat with my socket on … I can crank the seat
forward and it’ll push me into the foam in the front of the bow itself so
I am locked in there before I get in.”
For upper limb amputees, TRR uses a connective device with a universal
mount that attaches to the paddle.
“One of them ran the Grand Canyon,” Mornini said of one upper
limb amputee with whom he has worked. “He’s missing his arm above the
elbow and developed his own socket system and came and paddled with us and
worked out with us for a week and then he ran the Grand Canyon.”
There are no universal systems available now, both Mornini and Pannell
explained. A properly adapted kayak depends on each person’s individual
injuries and preferences.
The psychological and physical effects of participating
in a non-traditional rehabilitative program such as TRR are innumerable.
“From a physical standpoint it is really the best core training
that you can do,” Pannell said. “Especially for lower limb amputees,
core strength is … key for balance and everything else that you do. It is
hard to go to a gym and get a good core workout.”
Mornini agrees, expressing that kayaking is adventure and exercise
rolled into one activity.
Psychologically, kayaking builds confidence by allowing participants to
return to a high activity level.
“It gets them back into the game,” Mornini said.
“Therapeutically it’s allowing someone who may have lost the ability
to do something that was important to them — a sport or an activity —
and it gives them the opportunity to do something very physical and have a good
Pannell appreciates that kayaking levels the playing field for people
with injuries below the waist.
“You are strapped in the boat pretty tight,” Pannell said.
“Once you are in there, you are pretty much the same as everyone else on
Pannell knows other returning soldiers who have difficulty adapting to a
new lifestyle and he has seen their attitudes shift as a result of
participating in TRR.
“It really boosts their morale to realize that they can be
productive along with other able-bodied people and they don’t have to
depend on disability-related sports anymore,” Pannell said.
Kayaking also returns a certain thrill to the life of military personnel
who have become accustomed to life on the edge.
“There is a danger element and an adrenaline element that you
really miss when you are not in the military environment anymore,” Pannell
said. “It is hard to find something to get that thrill back. Kayaking
really does it.”
Family is important to TRR. Incorporating family into
the program has been on their priority list since the organization began. They
allow family members to come to the training pool as well as on river trips.
“[Kayaking] is something they can do with their kids or their
[spouses] and they can also…get involved in a really
supportive…community of boaters,” Mornini said.
TRR has developed programming designed to bring people together who are
going through the same challenges with the same disability levels.
“The goal is to talk about barriers and mobility and how to get
through both emotional and physical barriers,” Mornini said. “Also,
the [spouses] get together to talk about the changes in their lives when their
husbands or wives came back with this new challenge.”
For more information:
Jennifer Hoydicz is a staff writer for O&P Business News.