Veterans learn kayaking on flat waters of UChicago pool

Ratner Athletics Center hosts Team River Runner program for veterans, UChicago community

As a former U.S. Navy sailor and cancer survivor, Lane Bradley doesn’t shy away from a challenge. So when offered the opportunity to take a kayaking class, he said yes, seeing a new way to test himself.

Twice a month, Bradley joins fellow veterans at the University of Chicago for training. In the swimming pool at the Ratner Athletics Center, they learn the basics of kayaking—from how to launch a kayak to paddling techniques to the safest way to exit a tip over.

“You’re purposefully overturning your kayak—and your brain wants to panic. It would have been really terrifying to learn that in the river. Learning in the pool was essential because it’s an enclosed safe area that you know and understand,” Bradley said.

The kayaking class is led by Team River Runner, a nonprofit adaptive sports program for veterans. It launched a partnership with the University earlier this year when Team River Runner was looking for a place to practice. While offering paddling sessions in more than 60 locations across the country, Team River Runner struggled to find a practice spot in Chicago.

Aaron Eisner, coordinator for the Chicago chapter of Team River Runner, said he heard a lot of no’s as he sought a venue. Then he connected with UChicago’s Office for Military-Affiliated Communities, which serves as a central home for the University’s military-affiliated work, helping to coordinate and advance varied programs and partnerships across UChicago.

“In an effort to find a home for our pool sessions, I contacted numerous schools, as well as public and private entities, in the Chicago area without success. It was not until I got in touch with the University’s Office for Military-Affiliated Communities that I found support,” Eisner said. “It’s encouraging to work with people who see value in what Team River Runner provides and put a priority on facilitating a pathway to healing for veterans.”

In May 2019, Team River Runner held its first session at Ratner’s 50-meter Myers-McLoraine Swimming Pool. The sessions are open to veterans in the community and their families as well as UChicago faculty and staff.

Finding ways to bring together veterans and the University community and serve them is critical to the strategy of the Office for Military-Affiliated Communities, said Terrell Odom, associate director of the office. Other activities underway include re-establishing the UChicago Student Veterans of America chapter, increasing recruitment, enrollment and support of veterans and their dependents across campus, and conducting a needs-assessment of student-veterans.

“We’re committed to not only serve student veterans, but also faculty and staff, and the veterans community and their families,” Odom said. “We’re providing activities to support veterans and bring groups together as part of the UChicago community.”

Tracey Ladner, who served in the U.S. Army and the Navy, described physical and emotional benefits to learning to kayak. She has increased her core strength and lost weight while also breaking out of her comfort zone.

“I’m pretty introverted, so kayaking is good because you’re with a group,” she said. “You get to meet new people, but it’s more like a personal challenge.”

In June, the group ventured outside the pool for the first time, taking their kayaks to the Fox River. For Bradley, more than facing the currents, he was facing his own fears.

“I tend to build walls around myself, to not ever seek help, to isolate myself,” he said. “So this was purposeful in knowing that I would be interacting more with people I didn’t know and learning new skills right along with them.”