Nothing stops a Spider, and Cole Sydnor, ’17, is proof of our legendary grit and determination. He’s also on the forefront of making adaptive rowing a collegiate club sport.

Sydnor is new to rowing, and joining the crew team this year put him in the James River for the first time since he was 16. In 2011, Sydnor dove into the James and crashed into a rock hidden just below the surface. He shattered his C5 vertebrae and was paralyzed from the chest down

Experiencing that setback only left him hungry for the thrill of competitive sports. He’s already coached a wheelchair basketball team to a national championship, and now he’s back in competition himself. As Sydnor pushed past the finish line at last Saturday’s regatta, the senior rower felt a swell of emotions. It wasn’t the rush of adrenaline that comes with competition, or the sadness of finishing his last race on the team.

“That butterfly feeling in your stomach in the moments before a race was something I had forgotten,” says Sydnor, ’17, who was a fierce lacrosse and basketball competitor in high school. “It was a sickeningly nice sensation.”

So how did Sydnor end up back on the river?

He got into coaching a wheelchair basketball team through Sportable, an organization that provides athletic opportunities for disabled athletes. That’s where assistant rowing coach Tim Nesselrodt found him and pitched his idea for a college-level adaptive rowing program.

“Tim had been going to other colleges to get it going,” Sydnor says. “They said, ‘It’s a great idea, but we’ll let somebody else work out the kinks, figure it out, and then we’ll jump on board.’ Tim just needed someone who would do it.”

Sydnor is the first adaptive rower to take part in a college regatta as a member of a school team. That means he and his able-bodied rowing partner, Jenn Wicks, ’20, weren’t competing against any other teams. For him, the race was more about proving what’s possible — to other college rowing teams, and to himself.

“I can get on the water and know I’m not going to be overwhelmed with my past coming up and swallowing me again,” he says. “There was this sense of triumph and, in a way, giving the river the finger. It’s like, I’m still here, and I don’t really care what you’ve done to me.”