Adaptive sports like kayaking are great therapy for the injured brain ... and injured spirit. Hear from a few veterans who found hope, friendship, and renewed confidence from being out on the water.
Team River Runner
[Joe Mornini] Team River Runner is an adventure paddling program. We take disabled veterans and their family members out boating or kayaking. "Yeah." High school teacher Joe Mornini and a friend started Team River Runner in 2004 in the pool of the Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington D.C. "You can never keep up with me." "Oh really. You want to find out today?" Today the program has over 34 chapters across the country. [Joe Mornini] I think wounded warriors or disabled individuals that have a traumatic brain injury can use kayaking in a therapeutic manner almost more than any other sport. Focus, sequential memory, multitasking. "That's the white water. That's the guy with a TBI, and that's a blind paddler guiding him. He's giving him directions. I want this to be you." "Excellent." [Ryan Major] I love getting out and paddling. The thing that I don't think most people understand about kayaking is the therapeutic side. It's coming out into nature. Just trying to get back into, get the feeling for it again. Won't take me long though. I get to interact with kayakers with similar disabilities as mine, such as TBI. And the physical aspect of being injured. Army Sergeant Ryan Major came close to losing his life when he stepped on and IED near Ramadi, Iraq, in 2006. He spent months at Walter Reed Hospital recovering from multiple injuries including traumatic brain injury, or TBI. [Ryan] I was diagnosed with TBI. Initially it was very severe. My vocabulary was very small. "You ready?"[Ryan] "Yep." "All right." [Ryan] I heard about Team River Runner when I was still in the hospital. They were reaching out to soldiers letting them know about the benefits of kayaking and getting out into nature, and it's very therapeutic. [Joe Mornini] When we met Ryan 4 years ago his injuries were so severe that he hardly remembered who we were from the previous time he saw us. His being able to be involved in adaptive sports has given him an opportunity to build self-confidence, to feel stronger, to feel more capable, and you start to feel like you can do things again. I think it helps with healing. [Ryan] When I first came down a kayak I didn't know what to expect. I was a little nervous. Through kayaking continuously I built up confidence enough that I could help others overcome their fears of kayaking and teach them how to kayak. [Dr. Harman] Recreation therapy really is essential to getting service members out into the community and reintegrated into socialization again. Kayaking is an excellent therapy for an injured brain. Think how many skills it takes. First you have to get into the kayak, so you have planning to do. You have to be able to sequence your movements. You have to balance. You need to be able to judge timing, distance. And when you're out in the open in a kayak you have distractions. You have to remember where you're going. It's really integrative in combining the physical and the mental aspects. [Brandon Huff] I got involved with Team River Runner in 2005 when I was still a patient at Walter Reed. I kept getting harassed by one of the physical therapists, "Just go check out this program. Go try and paddle for these guys a little bit." And so just to make him leave me alone I showed up, and I didn't quite learn how to roll my first night in the pool, but I came back the next week and got it pretty quickly and never stopped. I was in the infantry in the Army. I served in Northern Iraq from 2004 to 2005. It was my 10th close proximity explosion that took my leg. After the program helped him recover from a stroke and severe TBI, Brandon Huff joined the staff at Team River Runner as a leader and mentor. [Brandon] I think Team River Runner is really helpful to people with traumatic brain injuries just to get them active and engaged. Kayaking does require a certain amount of coordination which is imperative you know, in recovering from brain injuries. [Joe Mornini] I really don't know enough about brain therapy, but I know that the brain is a very plastic kind of organ, and that there's a lot of healing that can go on, but you've got to give it stimuli. You've got to give it information so that it can reconnect and readapt to the injured areas that they lost ability to use. [Ryan] When I'm on the water it's easier for me to talk with other people. It's as if we're all on the same level. [Brandon] One great thing about not just Team River Runner but the kayaking community as a whole, is just that they're so welcoming and helpful, and they don't care if you're missing an arm or 2 legs or whatever. I mean they're just there to help, and once you put a skirt on if you're missing a leg or 2 legs or have a spinal cord injury you're just the same as every other person on the water. You add into that equation wounded veterans who have been doing it for several years, and it's like you're back with your military unit. It's just a really tight sense of family. And it's a good sense of belonging. [Ryan] For anyone who loved the water before they were injured, this is the perfect, perfect sport to try and get in to. [Joe Morini] I would encourage any wounded warrior or disabled veteran who has any kind of a disabling injury to get busy with adaptive sports. Whatever it is. Don't allow life to beat you down because you have a traumatic brain injury. Get out and do something. Your brain is going to heal. The more you do, the more you're going to be able to do in the future. The road to recovery for us is a river.
Posted on BrainLine April 8, 2013. Reviewed May 7, 2019.