An indelible spirit: A conversation with para-rower Blake Haxton
After contracting necrotizing fasciitis and losing both of his legs, Blake Haxton had to make new plans for his future. He found his starting point at Ohio State.
Blake Haxton had a lot to look forward to the spring of his senior year at Upper Arlington High School.
In addition to a spring break trip to plan and graduation on the horizon, he was a standout on the school’s rowing team and was being recruited by big college programs, including the U.S. Naval Academy, Harvard, Cornell and Columbia.
But those dreams wouldn’t be realized after Haxton contracted necrotizing fasciitis, more commonly known as “flesh-eating disease.” The infection and subsequent complications required surgeons to amputate his legs in multiple surgeries over the course of weeks.
He had to make new plans for his future, and found his starting point at Ohio State.
The Fisher College of Business graduate is now in his second year at the Moritz College of Law — often considered the most rigorous year in a law student’s three-year journey. Yet, he carves out hours every day to work toward another goal: maintaining his spot on the U.S. Para-rowing national team.
After placing fourth in a world championship in August, Haxton’s eyes are firmly fixed on graduating with his law degree and competing in the Paralympic Games in 2016.
Can you take us back to your senior year of high school and getting sick?
It all really started on a Saturday night in March 2009. I was a senior in high school. I just played in a basketball game, an intramural rec league game. I went home, and my right calf felt kind of sore — just muscle soreness like every athlete gets from time to time. Didn’t think much about it. …
As Sunday went along, it kind of got worse and worse. And then, on Monday, I woke up and needed to go to the doctor. It was painful enough that I needed to get checked. By that point it was starting to swell up and get red and all those things. …
My pediatrician immediately sent me to the ER (at Riverside Methodist Hospital). I started to lose memory a couple of hours after I got to the ER. … Aside from a few snapshots of the ICU and things, I can’t remember much until almost a month and a half later, when I was in the Ross Heart Hospital, waking up and … getting filled back in on what had gone on.
And what did happen?
I had contracted necrotizing fasciitis, more commonly called “flesh-eating disease.” I had gotten it in my right calf, and it had started to spread. It had gotten so bad that they had to amputate my right calf that (Tuesday).
Then they discovered that it had gotten into my blood stream and moved up to my right arm. They took me back to surgery, took everything off my right arm that was doing so much damage and my heart stopped on the table. … (The surgeon) immediately put me on the bypass machine and then went out and told my parents what the situation was.
He immediately called his contact at Ohio State … because he knew Ohio State had a life-support machine that they could keep me on for a much longer period of time. During that time, he got all the paperwork done, filled out, signed in 20 minutes. …
They didn’t think I was going to make it. (They did it) to get my brother, who was in college in New Jersey at the time, time to get back and say goodbye. That was kind of it. They thought that was going to be all she wrote.
Every day or two, I was back in surgery, getting more taken off. The heart machine that I was on — and the full organ failure of heart, lungs, kidneys, liver, everything stopped working — really caused so much blood-flow loss to my lower extremities that little by little, my legs were dying — now on both sides, not just the right.
Those lost weeks — do you even know how many surgeries you went through?
I think I went into surgery 20 or 22 times in all. Not all were amputations though. One was on my hand. One was on my arm. A couple of them were just revisions — stitching things back together differently.
Do you know how you contracted the disease?
They say you can get necrotizing fasciitis through any break in the skin — paper cut, scrape, whatever. Funny thing is I don’t remember having any of those on my right leg. I certainly could’ve and not paid attention to it. To this day, we don’t know how I got it.
You had big dreams before you got sick. What were you thinking about after waking up in the hospital after that month?
There are so many things going through your mind at once. Your plans change instantly. Any college plans — I had been recruited to row at a few places, I’d gotten the ROTC scholarship from the Army, those were my two big things. Obviously, those were gone immediately. … All of the other schools I had applied to, I knew I wasn’t going to be physically in good enough shape to go to them, at least not that soon. So that was gone.
Really, just imagine everything that you need your legs to do — just off the table, just like that. ( Snaps his fingers.)
Needless to say, that was a big day.
But you know, I had a lot of great people around me — my family, doctors, nurses, friends, you name it — who really helped through that whole process.
I really wish I could show people what I saw — not to scare them or anything — but to show them the kind of people I had around and the kind of people who were getting me through those hard times. If people could see that, then they could really see, for lack of a better word, how easy it was to get out of it and to keep moving forward and to keep setting goals. …
Once I got sick, I was in such bad shape, I knew I needed to live at home. I didn’t even have my driver’s license back yet. Someone once asked me, “Are you a little bitter that you ended up at OSU?” Not in the least. OSU was a perfect fit — loved it.
You’ve said you never thought you would get back to the sport of rowing as an athlete, but you did after four years. What prompted you to try?
During my first year of law school, I needed something to get back into shape — something to do when my mind was exhausted.
I needed something I could do all-weather. I bought the seat that you need for the rowing machine, an erg, which locks down into it. You get strapped into it. The seat is about $450.
I started working out. Within a few weeks, I thought, “I’m doing better than I thought.” The U.S. team publishes standards for the rowing machine on times. … If you’re faster than the elite standard, they say you can probably race for the U.S. team and not embarrass yourself or us. …
My first race was in February in Boston. They call it the CRASH-B World Indoor Rowing Championship. They get a bunch of rowing machines, and they take USB cords, link them all together and project you up on a screen, and you can actually race each other. They have it in (Boston University’s) arena, and you’re down on the floor racing. It was pretty cool.
I went to Boston with a buddy of mine who also was a 2013 Fisher grad. We drove out there and entered the race and won, luckily. I had a pretty good row. I actually broke the American record in my event that day.
After Boston, you had to attend qualifying trials make the national team. So what did you do next?
We bought a boat that they actually build in China. It costs about $4,500, which is not actually bad as far as boats go. It has pontoons on it, and it’s a three-month lead time. …
I had been using a different boat — with a different hull and attachments and rigging — in Louisville for a month. We got in it 12 times before we went to New Jersey for the trials. It wasn’t the right boat. It was really unsteady. We didn’t know how off it was until we got the new one (two days before trials). …
Changing boats is like changing golf clubs, I suppose. A 7-iron is a 7-iron and a driver is a driver, but it’s going to take a couple of rounds until you get used to it. The morning of the trials, that boat was held together with hopes and bubble gum. We did not have a good launch.
The rule is that both pontoons have to be touching the water when you’re sitting still. You don’t want them too low, or you create drag. A guy launches me off the dock and says, “Yeah, you’re fine.” But by the time I got to the start platform, the umpire points out that Lane 2’s pontoons aren’t legal. I had to drop them down. …
I had a horrible start. I almost stopped three or four strokes in. There was a really bad tailwind, and I was so off to one side. The pontoon we just lowered was completely underwater. So I was in danger of really, really screwing it up.
I just got resituated and came off the line dead last. … I was getting smoked, but it’s like the first hit in football. Once you’ve gone through it, you’re fine. Twenty strokes into it, I settled down and the adrenaline rush kicked in. … A small amount was going through my mind. You’re kind of just repeating to yourself: “Catch a fish. Catch a fish.”
You came from dead last to win the entire qualifier. What was going through your mind after you reached the finish?
There’s not anyone around. You’re in the middle of the lake, and I had this very solitary moment out there. I finished rowing the course and cooled down. I was very much alone for the next five or six minutes. I just kept telling myself: “Man, you made the U.S. team. You made the U.S. team! No way.”
Then you were off to Amsterdam for the world championships with your friends, right?
Two of my (high school) coaches actually went to Amsterdam, too. The one who traveled with me was the varsity assistant, and he was the first person I saw when I first came to and realized I lost my legs. …
If we said it to each other once, we must have said it 20 times on the plane ride over there: “Hey, do you know what we’re doing right now? We’re going to the world championships!”
Really, it still hasn’t sunk in.
You placed fourth in the world, but that can split two ways: It’s an incredible feat after such a short time back on the water, but you were so close to earning a spot on the medal stand, too. How do you feel about it?
Going into the race, my goal was to make it to the finals — in the top six. In any race, if you make it in the top six, that’s a good regatta, especially for your first time. I was the youngest guy in the field, period. …
Fourth by a second isn’t what anybody goes to bed dreaming about, but it’ll make you get out of bed the next morning. That’s for sure.
How does it feel to have that competitive fire burning you up inside again? It’s a different kind of race, so is it the same?
It is. It manifests a little bit differently, but it’s good. It’s something I missed for the last four or five years.
Competition was always there in some fashion … and then after I got sick, it all kind of went away. There are so few outlets to really physically compete and really push yourself and try and win. Getting that back was just fantastic.
It’s being purpose-driven. I’ve always been OK with exercise, but it gets boring after a while. My training schedule is I spend an hour and a half to two hours a day on a rowing machine four or five days a week. It’s not so much painful as much as it’s mind-numbingly boring.
Now that I feel like I have a context for that training, I can look back on Amsterdam in those boring moments and get a second wind. It’s a huge difference, and I’m so glad I got to have that experience.
The coolest moment for me, really since I got sick, on a personal level … at the start at all of the international races, they pull the crews. … It’s a fair warning that the race is about to start. They go lane by lane, but they don’t say your name. They say your country. I was in Lane 6, and I’ll never forget it, in my first race.
They got to Lane 6, and it was “the United States of America,” and they were talking about me. That was one of the proudest moments of my life. When you get it once, you really don’t want to give it back.
Do you have any lingering health issues that are a concern right now?
Believe it or not, I’m as healthy as a horse. I don’t have a single prescription in my name. I really lucked out for all the things that did go wrong — heart, kidney and liver failure — and could have gone wrong. There could have been a lot of complications from all of that, but everything just sort of picked back up and started ticking again.
Now, I’m told I have above average health for a person. I just don’t have my legs.
You’re pretty positive about your experiences at Ohio State. What’s been special about this place?
It’s amazing how much time I’ve spent on this campus the last six years between getting sick and recovering here and going to school.
The university is incredibly friendly to disabled students. No question. And that’s been great. But on a personal level, it’s the people at Ohio State who have made this experience tremendous.
All my doctors keep checking up on me. At the race, the med center gave me permission to put their decals on the back of my boat. I coach our rowing team in Upper Arlington, and they’ve sponsored our fundraisers the last couple of years and volunteer medical staff.
As a student, it’s really been the people who have stepped up across the board and asked, “How can we help? How can we make this feasible?” The professors here at Moritz, the advisors at Fisher — all have been great.
What’s it like to be juggling the demands of being a law student and a world-class athlete?
I don’t think I’m ever going to get used to being called a world-class athlete, you know? It doesn’t feel real. You’re looking over your shoulder, thinking they’re talking about someone else. …
The two things I want to be doing in my life right now are school and rowing, and I get to do both for my two favorite institutions in the world: The Ohio State University and the United States of America. It doesn’t get any better than that.
I’m wildly fortunate to be where I’m at, and I’m grateful for all the people who got me here.
It’s inspiring to hear a guy who’s gone through as much adversity as you have say that he feels “wildly fortunate.”
If you could see all that I’ve been through, through my eyes, it’s amazing how things have worked out. Talk about inspiring — I wish people could watch tape of what I’ve seen over the last five years and what people were willing to do for me.