It was a routine day in the life of Army Spc. Rob Sanchas.
He was getting prepared for maneuvers at Fort Bragg and standing over his equipment when the canvas on his pack ripped and a hook used to secure equipment let loose.
he remembers. Sanchas suffered a lacerated eye, hit his head against a nearby desk and lost consciousness.
The initial injury caused a permanent blind spot, but the fall caused more significant and lasting damage.
“It somehow jolted or bruised the area of my brain called my visual cortex, where my brain and my eyes connect at the back of my head,” Sanchas says. “Now my eyes and my brain speak different languages. I have a slight delay. I see four of everything and they’re all on top of each other, so it’s real confusing and it takes a while for me to decipher what I am actually seeing.”
Not being able to see clearly doesn’t stop Sanchas from living, however. After leaving the Army, he’s gone back to school and is about to complete a master’s degree at age 53. He fishes, skis, runs marathons, and four weeks ago he became a gold-medal-winning rower in international competition.
A new challenge
His adventure began with a trip to the Providence VA Medical Center.
“In 2016 I was meeting with Adele Geringer, a VA specialist for the visually impaired, and she was telling me that they had a program for blind and visually impaired veterans and they were meeting in Warren, right around the corner from my house, so I had no excuse,” remembers Sanchas.
The exercise group gathered at 426 Fitness in a renovated mill building a few blocks from the center of town.
Paul-Stephen Varszegi, founder of U.S. Veterans’ Rowing & Kayaking, was expanding his program into Rhode Island with funding from the Rhode Island Lions Sight Foundation. The group was small but the rowers were dedicated.
Sanchas had never used a rowing machine, but he received a lot of encouragement. During the initial workouts, he was told that the group was going to Boston in a few weeks to compete in the World Indoor Rowing Championship — commonly referred to as the “C.R.A.S.H.-B.’s” by rowers. Sanchas was invited to join them.
He said, “Why not?”
It was at Fitness 426 that Sanchas was first introduced to another member of the team, James Killingham. The former airman first class had lost his sight due to diabetes. He is 14 years older than Sanchas and about six inches taller. He was also faster.
“I was always 15 or 30 seconds behind him,” says Sanchas. “It was fun, but he had a target on his back. Whenever we were rowing, training to stay in shape and doing 100 or 200 meters, whatever it was, I wanted to beat him.”
The veterans had a successful run at their first C.R.A.S.H.-B’s.
“First time I went there I got a gold [medal],” says Killingham.
Sanchas remembers “He was always seconds ahead of me,” even with equipment failure. “They didn’t put the rowing machine together correctly and he literally fell off and he still beat me by 10 seconds.”
Sanchas came home with gold medals in his age division but he was hungry for more and eager to beat his teammate’s times.
“I love James, except when he beats me and then I hate him for at least 10 seconds … but then I really don’t hate him, I just dislike him for 10 seconds. That’s my rule,” says Sanchas with a chuckle.
Sanchas started jogging to strengthen his legs, then began running marathons. Even when he was running, however, he found himself talking about rowing.
Next, the pair started training together on the water. At first, in 2018, it was at Narragansett Boat Club. They rowed together on an unsinkable barge under the watchful eye of legendary rower and director of rowing Albin Moser.
They got on single sculls twice, then Moser retired and the duo transitioned to kayaking on Brickyard Pond in Barrington.
Coronavirus brings frustrations
COVID-19 hit last year, closing gyms across the state, including the one where the team trained. Killingham and Sanchas didn’t give up.
“I have two to three guides that can run with me every week and so I was doing 10 to 14 miles,” Sanchas says. He was also using an ab wheel, doing pushups, using resistance bands and doing curls and body lifts while he was studying.
“As I was listening to my textbooks with a computer voice, I’d be doing chairlifts or something.”
He was frustratingly close to being able to continue to train during the pandemic. “I actually had a rower,” however, it arrived disassembled. “I couldn’t read the instructions,” he says with a sigh.
He adds, “it’s together now and it works.”
The U.S. Veterans’ Rowing & Kayaking’s Varszegi was putting together an international race last year and both men wanted the opportunity to participate. COVID postponed the Inaugural Military World Indoor Rowing & Kayaking Championship, but by early spring 2021 it was clear that the event was going to happen this year.
On to Hungary
Killingham and Sanchas were two of five athletes invited to represent the United States at the Olympic Village in Gyor, Hungary, in May.
“Paul contacted us and said, ‘We’ve got your plane tickets and everything’s squared away. We just need James to get a passport,” recalls Sanchas. Killingham had never ventured beyond North America and was ready for “the trip of a lifetime.”
Getting a passport wouldn’t be easy, however. Killingham submitted his application the first week of April. He doesn’t own a computer or a smartphone so he just waited patiently. By week three, however, he started getting nervous and reached out to Ken Barthelemy of the Lions Club Sight Foundation for help.
When Barthelemy looked online and saw that there was “no status available” he acted quickly, reaching out to Sen. Jack Reed’s office. “They were very responsive,” recalls Barthelemy. After some prodding and repeated inquiries, Killingham received a phone call from the post office saying that he would receive his passport just two days before he was scheduled to depart.
Luckily, the pair took off from Logan Airport and arrived in Hungary, unaccompanied, without a hitch. Killingham was unsure of what to expect but says, “It was a big comfort having someone to go over there with me. We’re bonded,” he says, referring to Sanchas.
It would be a quick trip to Europe for them both. “We left on Wednesday night on an 11 p.m. flight from Boston, and we arrived in Austria at 6 p.m. on Thursday and came back Monday,” says Sanchas. “Because of all of the COVID restrictions we couldn’t stay longer. We were both fully vaccinated so we had permission to go in, but we were limited and restricted as to what we could or couldn’t do.“
The experience, although brief, was a memorable one. When they entered Olympic Park, the two Rhode Island veterans were surrounded by military participants from Poland and Hungary. “I was in awe. They all came in military uniforms,” remembers Killingham.
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“For indoor rowing in the visually impaired category, there were three races,” recounts Sanchas. “One-minute sprint, four-minute sprint and then a 2K race. We get to the 2k and I’m rowing, rowing and finally someone said, ‘You can stop now.’ I found out that the person who was supposed to stop me was talking to a girl. I thought I had lost, but I actually won by a minute and forty,” he says proudly.
“When they called the awards and our division I said, ‘Okay, James, go get your medal.’ When they said my name first, my chair almost hit the floor. It was a shocker,” remembers Sanchas. It was a memorable race over a formidable opponent, his teammate Killingham, who took home the silver.
The last event, a 1,000-meter kayak race, was held outdoors. Killingham and Sanchas were anxious because they hadn’t kayaked together in almost a year. “One of the gentlemen from Poland who was an Olympic kayak trainer told us to make sure that we stay to the right when we go down and stay to the right when we come back up because the current was so strong in the middle,” recalls Sanchas. “He said, if you don’t stay on the edges, it’s just going to take you.”
The race started and the pair decided to take the trainer’s advice. Thankfully, his calculations were correct. “When you can’t see, you have to learn how to trust people,” says Killingham. “The current was really, really strong that day and it was really rough,” he remembers. They stayed to the right as they had been told and, in the end, the Killingham-Sanchas team prevailed, winning first place.
A tangled trip home
As they departed Olympic Park, the exhausted, winning athletes thought their adventures were over.
The duo left with another American competitor in the middle of the night to get an early flight back to the States. After falling asleep in the car they awoke to learn that the driver had brought them to the airport in Budapest. Unfortunately, they were scheduled to depart from Vienna. They tried to correct the mistake and cross the border in a hurry, only to be told that they couldn’t cross at the spot the driver had chosen. After explaining their situation to border patrol, however, they eventually got permission to pass.
When the three athletes arrived at the airport, the two veterans from Rhode Island were stopped. Their fellow American competitor was allowed to board. Somehow they had been booked for the same flight on the next day and, unfortunately, their COVID test results were valid through the end of the day.
There they were, in a foreign country, visually impaired, in need of a COVID test, a hotel room and some food. To their delight, the two managed everything and count the logistical mishap as part of their proud achievements. “Even the chaos made it memorable,” says Sanchas.
It took several days after their return for the impact of their accomplishments to set it. “It finally dawned on me what exactly happened. I was still in shock. It was a whirlwind. I was there and back so quickly and then I realize, ‘Oh my goodness, I actually won four gold medals,’“ recalls Sanchas.
Barthelemy from the Lions Club remembers talking to Killingham the week of the pair’s return and recalls, “I’ve never heard him so energized or enthusiastic.” The normally reserved Killingham was thrilled by what he had accomplished.
“I had never won anything in my life and now I have gold medals and hammers [from the C.R.A.S.H.B.’s] for being one of the best at what I do,” says Killingham, gratefully. “It’s a big change for me. It’s really, really been a blessing.”
As for Sanchas, he says, “Life is an adventure. I am so glad that I met Adele [at the VA] and she introduced me to Paul [at the U.S. Veterans’ Rowing & Kayaking foundation] which got me to know Ken [at the Lions Club Sight Foundation].” He believes rowing “literally realigned my life,” and, most importantly, “it showed me that there are still things that you can do, even if you can’t see what you’re doing.”
Next year the Second Military World Indoor Rowing & Kayaking Championship is scheduled to be held in Krakow. Both veterans were invited to defend their title in Poland and there’s no question that they intend to be there. The once reluctant traveler, Killingham now says, “I got a passport and I’m ready to go.”
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Do you know a living veteran who would be willing to share their story? Do you offer a program or service focused on serving retired military? Are you planning for veterans or their families? Email information to Mary K. Talbot at ThoseWhoServedAmerica@gmail.com
Calendar of events
All meetings are in person unless noted. Please wear masks and practice social distancing
◘· June 9, meeting of the Chapter 273 Vietnam Veterans of America, 12 p.m., Kelley-Gazzerro VFW Post, 1418 Plainfield Pike, Cranston.
◘· June 9, monthly meeting of the Marine Corps League Kent County Detachment, 6:30 p.m., Post 9404, 29 S. Main St., Coventry.