Boatload of support
Friends, family help Blake Haxton realize goal of rowing in the Paralympics.
Blake Haxton will be alone in his boat when he races in the 2016 Paralympic Games in September — a fierce competitor chasing a medal for the United States. But his journey to Rio de Janeiro has been anything but solitary.
In fact, his friends and family are a big reason he is a para-rowing champion, Haxton said. They did so much to help him recover from a devastating illness to which he lost his legs, from carrying his boat at every practice and competition to keeping him sane while he juggled law school and athletic training.
He’ll be joined in Brazil by a “whole cast of characters” who will cheer him on as he competes in the men’s arms and shoulders single sculls event.
One is his best friend and current roommate, Stephen Barthelmas ’13, whom he met when both were students at Hastings Middle School in Upper Arlington. It was there that Barthelmas first saw Haxton’s competitive spirit during football and basketball games.
“Blake definitely liked to win, and he had that drive and motivation to get stronger,” said Barthelmas, who rowed with Haxton at Upper Arlington High School. “The will to win was always with him.”
In March 2009, the two were high school seniors and planning a spring break trip to Florida. But without warning, Haxton contracted a bacterial infection that nearly killed him and forced doctors to amputate his legs. He endured 25 surgeries at Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center.
That’s when Haxton learned the importance of family.
“There is no way to exaggerate their role. In every time and every way, they were huge,” Haxton said. “Ever since I was a child, more specifically since I got sick, they’ve done everything they can to set me up to be successful.”
His mother, Heather, learned to change his bandages, and his father, Steve, made difficult medical decisions. When Haxton moved to a rehabilitation center, his older brother, Anderson, often slept there to keep him company. And once he returned home, his younger sister, Haley, fetched whatever he needed as he adjusted to life as an amputee.
Miraculously, he recovered in time to start his freshman year in fall 2009 at Ohio State, where his buddy Barthelmas also had enrolled. They studied and hung out together, graduating in 2013. Rowing wasn’t part of their story anymore, but their friendship remained.
It wasn’t until 2014 that Haxton dipped back into rowing. Enrolled in the Moritz College of Law, he turned to exercise to alleviate the stress of the intense academics. He got a modified rowing machine and started working out.
Haxton soon discovered that his times and speed were good. But he didn’t expect to get back into a boat and compete as a para-rower. For one thing, para-rowing is still in its infancy; it didn’t premiere at the Paralympics until 2008.