Paralympian Augustas Navickas: 'I’m happier than I was before the trauma'

“Same time tomorrow,” says Augustas to his assistants, who are carefully putting his oars on the metal holders. There are dozens of boats around the athlete, their thin boards absorb his voice softly. The boats are waiting for other sportspeople in Klaipėda Rowers’ Base, a huge place dimly lit by fading summer sun.

Augustas’ exceptional boat is also amongst them. Just as its oars, which were gliding the Danė River but an hour ago, the boat is heavier and shorter. Augustas’ boat is adjusted to his disability: he has not been able to move his legs for more than three years now.

Augustas Navickas is the first and only Lithuanian Paralympian rower. He grew up with the sport and had been training a lot before the spine trauma. His dedication to sport and the support of the people closest to him helped Augustas overcome the hardships that life threw at him. At the end of May, 2016, he got a wild card to Rio de Janeiro Paralympics.

This is a part of a documentary multimedia project "Will to Win". You can explore all stories about Lithuanian paralympic team here.

To challenge oneself

“It’s a really hard sport, it’s a sport of endurance. And pain,” smiles Augustas while calmly talking about the strains he has to go through. The 26 year old athlete does not seem to have ever encountered anything that would break him psychologically. His reaction to all his troubles is cold and composed: this trait of his shows up at the very moment of meeting. In the training sessions he is always concentrated, of few words, and answers all the questions in a calm tone.

To prepare for the Rio Paralympics, Augustas trained twice a day. If the weather is good, he drives his disability-adjusted car to the Klaipėda Rowers’ Base, waits patiently for the assistants to bring out his boat, and, using his arms, transfers himself to it from the wheelchair. If the weather is bad, you can always find him in the gym, training his muscles enthusiastically on the machine that mimics rowing. Augustas’ training sessions rely a lot on the previously mentioned assistants, who do not get paid and help him out of their own good will. No money is officially assigned to assistance like that: the two people who help him get out of and into the wheelchair, carry his boat and oars, and meet him after his rowing practice, are the janitor and one other worker of Klaipėda Rowers’ Base.

“It’s a challenge; I want to reach my goals, improve my times, get stronger. I want to reach my limit and push it, further and further,” comments Augustas on his wish to constantly progress. During 2016 he tried to pass the Paralympic qualification bar on his own, but failed due to exhaustion and overstraining. “Rowing teaches you discipline. I was a lazy person, and I still think of myself as one, sometimes it is hard for me to find motivation, but the discipline remains. I know that things can be better, I can do more.”

To change one’s life

Currently Augustas and his girlfriend Ema live in Klaipėda, in their apartment, quite comically located on the Irklų (Oar) Street. However ironic that may sound, this is but another proof of his life revolving around sport. It is hard to find a spot in his home which is not somehow marked by rowing: in one corner, there are pictures of Augustas smiling in his boat, in another, there is a compact rowing machine, similar to the one he uses in the gym. But there was a time when sport was not such a big part of his life, when this lack of it led Augustas to look for changes: changes that cost him the ability to walk.

Four years ago, Augustas had a sedentary job and noticed that he put on some weight. Looking for solutions, he eventually decided to move to his grandmother’s in the countryside, where he could exercise more. One day, he went for a bike ride on a mountain-bike trail, failed to hold on to his bike during a jump and fell on the handlebars. “I lost my consciousness for a moment, and, when I woke up, I realised that I can’t move my legs. I was in shock, but it all was clear to me,” he says. Ambulance took him to Šiauliai hospital where he spent a night before the operation in Kaunas clinics. The doctors diagnosed spinal fracture.

“I went there to change my life – and it did change. And even though I cannot walk anymore and I sit in a wheelchair, I’m actually happier than I was before the trauma,” says Augustas surely, and throws a glance at his girlfriend. He met Ema right after the trauma: she was his physical therapist. Together, they have already travelled a lot, moved in together, and established an association of disabled athletes called EJNA. Augustas says that this relationship has helped him find the right way of life, not only healthier, but also the one that makes him happier: “I now have goals in life, I have returned to sport, and I have a significant other. We’re happy and healthy. Everything has changed, including my attitude towards and understanding of life.”

When you hear Augustas and Ema talk about their travel adventures, it is immediately clear how dear they are to each other. It seems like this not only helps Augustas feel more sure about his decision to take up rowing, but lets him retain his humorous side, too. They joke while reminiscing of one of their funniest travels, when, after Ema graduated, they went to volunteer to Slovakia together. The Tatra Mountains were a true challenge. “We had to stay in a small house on a mountain and there was no path leading to it. It was hard to push the wheelchair up, so I would simply get out of it, they’d hold my legs and I’d crawl up on my hands,” remembers Augustas.

Such serene and jolly attitude towards life and its problems helps Augustas achieve better results in sport, as well as take his disability more optimistically. When Ema mentions their neighbour, who once looked at Augustas and said “Oh you poor thing”, Augustas replies that physical impairment is not such a big burden. “Everything is possible as long as you want to do it. Maybe you can’t go somewhere, or there are stairs in your way, but that’s what friends are for, you ask them to carry you there. There’s a solution to every problem.”

To do someone else’s work

Even though Augustas is the only Paralympian rower, he, like every other Lithuanian Paralympian, faces financial problems. This is one of the reasons why he and Ema established EJNA. Unlike in other countries, where Paralympians and their achievements are appreciated more, athletes with disability in Lithuania lack the care and attention that the abled sportspeople get. Although some money from the Lithuanian Paralympic Committee reaches athletes with disability, it is far from enough to get the right equipment or create proper training conditions. The goal of Augustas and Ema’s association is not only to bring active people with physical impairments into public attention, but also to inspire the people who closed themselves in their homes to do sports. “All we want is that there would be more people doing sports. Probably not everyone wants to, but those who do, they face various problems. I know that from my personal experience and we want to help them,” says Augustas.

Asked about the amount of attention he gets, Augustas says he surely lacks it, and that he has to try and get it on his own. “I work on that personally. You have to go public and create your own name. When you are a bit famous, you get sponsors more easily, but if you are not, it’s hard.” Searching for sponsors and dealing with lack of financing is the everyday life of every Lithuanian Paralympian. But Augustas forgets it all when he gets into his boat: “At first you have thoughts in your head that you brought from home, thoughts that aren’t about sport, but later they disappear.”

Augustas’ financial problems are visible in his training sessions. Firstly, Augustas has to row alone as there is no coach who could be with him at all times. All one can see when watching him row is an old motorboat passing by every once in a while: the coach in it is observing the progress of the young rowers of the Klaipėda Rowers’ Base. When Augustas was still a young boy and could walk, coach Liudvikas Mileška invited him to come to the base and take up rowing, but today Liudvikas cannot afford to dedicate more time to Augustas’ training. All that he can supply him with are technical suggestions and knowledge, but not more. And when one gets to know that Liudvikas also works as the manager of the whole Klaipėda Rowers’ Base, it becomes very clear that it is not easy for Augustas to get a coach.

Meditation on the boat

When Augustas came back to rowing after his trauma, he had to deal with several changes. Previously he would row in team boats, which he really enjoyed; now he had to get used to rowing alone. This step required not only physical struggle, but also more dedication and motivation. In team boats, athletes would support each other during the hard moments, but now Augustas has to push his limits on his own, as well as to deal with the pain and tension. Psychological preparation, in his opinion, plays a huge role here.

He and his girlfriend started meditating: “I think it’s necessary. I believe that you have to train not only physically, but psychologically, too. Meditation helps me clear my mind and reduce the tension before every game.” Even though there is less and less time for meditation due to more intense training sessions, Augustas finds time for himself while in a boat. “This sport to me is like meditation,” he adds.

Just like any other athlete, Augustas remembers all the pre-start emotions vividly: “I get nervous. I sweat even when sitting still.” Before every start, Augustas plans his moves and spends a lot of time thinking where he should save energy and where he should go full throttle. He follows the example of other great athletes who try to visualise themselves rowing, but admits that it is sometimes exhausting: “When in the World Championships, I spent the whole night visualising myself rowing. That was too much. It was exhausting, I didn’t get much sleep and did not recover after my first start.”

Paralympic rowing, according to Augustas, is not much different from the Olympic rowing. The only difference is that the boat and the oars are shorter: everything must be done with the upper body muscles. “Well, maybe it’s a bit harder because the same upper body muscles work all the time. Before, I could distribute the load between my legs and my arms. It was painful back then, it is still painful now,” explains Augustas.

All this pain during the training sessions and tournaments has its purpose: it paves the way for rower to learn to save their strength for the next session, to work out one’s technique. Augustas’ goal is to block the pain even when he is psychologically tired, not to shorten his stroke, but to repeat the perfect one, which is long, but quick: “You hook your oars onto the water, give them a strong pull, and get ready for the next stroke quickly. All must be done neatly, no bouncing around the boat.”

Every time you meet Augustas and converse with him, you are surprised by how relaxed he is. Talking about his victories and achievements is as easy as analysing his traumas and failures. Sometimes one might get an impression that this guy is unbreakable. A tattoo on his right leg, which reminds of something from a sci-fi movie, tells a similar story. The tattoo depicts the inside of the leg: muscles, bones, and arteries; but, interestingly, they are made of metal. When you notice that, it does not surprise you at all to hear about his emotions when he found out that he got a wild card to Rio: “There was no joy. I reacted very calmly, I’d even say, coldly. Others were really happier about it than I was.” But, after a short moment of silence, Augustas admits that the chance to be in the Paralympics actually brings him joy. “Now I’m happy. This is not just a game. It’s the biggest sporting event in the world. I must prepare as well as possible, achieve as much as possible.”

Update after Rio 2016 Paralympic Games

During the 1000 metre row Augustas finished fourth out six and managed to get into B finals. There he finished the distance in 5 minutes and 10.24 seconds, thus beating his own record. In Rio Augustas was tenth overall and he‘s certain that he‘ll do even better in his second paralympic games.

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This is a part of a documentary multimedia project "Will to Win". You can explore all stories about Lithuanian paralympic team here.