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Read Time 12 min

Stroke of Genius

An early-onset Parkinson’s diagnosis was a life-changing experience for 45-year-old Todd Vogt, but it didn’t stop this elite athlete from representing the U.S. at the 2019 World Rowing Championships.

One of the biggest highlights this year for Todd Vogt was when he placed sixth in the PR3 Men’s Pair category with rowing partner, Andy Wigren, at the 2019 World Rowing Championships, held from Aug. 25 to Sept. 1 in Austria.

Over the years, Vogt has brought home handfuls of medals while competing at national rowing championships. Representing the U.S. at the World Rowing Championships was the culmination of a decades-long rowing career that began in 1992 when Vogt was a freshman biochemistry major at the University of Buffalo in Buffalo, New York.

Naturally athletic, Vogt had excelled at baseball, soccer, tennis and other sports in high school but never considered rowing until he saw a flyer at his dormitory offering a fun, new way to “get fit and make friends.” So, he went to an informational meeting. There, the coach played a video that had Vogt instantly awestruck.

“I watched all these boats they raced, and after they crossed the finish line, they were slumped over their rows exhausted. I thought, ‘I could do that for myself.’ A big part of being successful at rowing is pushing yourself hard. That is what hooked me right off the bat – the physical and mental challenge,” he said.

In 2001, Vogt and his wife, Heather, relocated to Portland, Oregon, where he began working in various labs at Oregon Health & Science University. In 2005, he started coaching rowing part-time at the Lake Oswego Community Rowing Club in Lake Oswego, Oregon. In 2009, he stepped away from his career in science to coach rowing full time.

Ten years later, at the age of 45, Vogt found himself slumped over his row exhausted after crossing the finish line during the 2019 World Rowing Championships. Not only was this his first time representing the U.S. on a global scale, it was also Vogt’s most ambitious and challenging competition since his Parkinson’s diagnosis one year earlier.

Tokyo or bust

Vogt first noticed something was wrong with his health in the fall of 2017. “Rowing is engrained in my brain like a golf swing or a tennis swing. I practiced for 20 years how to row exactly as you should row. Suddenly, I couldn’t do that anymore. I felt weak, but in a weird way,” he said. “At first I thought I was just getting older and needed to train more.”

But then he noticed that his arms no longer swung naturally as he walked; his left arm just sort of hung there. Then came a subtle tremor in his left hand. With his health continuing to worsen, Vogt knew by the spring of 2018 that it was time to get to the bottom of it.

“I knew something was wrong with me, but I didn’t know what,” he said. “Everything seemed to come back normal with blood, hormones, electrolyte levels – and that’s when I knew something was very wrong. Finally, after months of diagnostic testing and eliminating all other possibilities, they determined it was Parkinson’s.

Anxiety and depression set in, which is common for many people with Parkinson’s who are newly diagnosed and unsure of what the future will entail. “It didn’t seem like my life was over, but it definitely felt like my life would become significantly diminished,” Vogt said.

“One of the things I’ve always prided myself on being able to push my body hard. Before I was like a car that has six gears. I could get to the sixth gear and go really fast. Now I feel like a car that only has three or four gears. I lost that ability to push myself to the edge. My brain felt like I couldn’t do that to myself anymore.”

One of the most frustrating things that happened post-diagnosis was having to recreate his rowing stroke. “I felt like I had to relearn how to row, which was frustrating because I had rowed for 20 years and developed a good mastery of how to do it. Then to suddenly have to start over and relearn from scratch? That was a depressing challenge and something that still drives me crazy sometimes,” Vogt admitted.

Fortunately, exercise is one of the best ways to combat Parkinson’s symptoms, and it happens to be one of Vogt’s favorite pastimes. “My Parkinson’s-induced anxiety goes away and my body just seems to work a lot better after I work out. I do feel more stiff and rigid, so I have to spend a lot more time working on my flexibility than I had before,” he noted.

Vogt, who said he has been training harder than he ever has before, now has his sights set on a new goal: landing a spot on the U.S. Paralympics Team and competing in Tokyo next summer. “The competition is pretty good, but I think I have a real chance,” he said.

“The most important thing I’ve come to realize is there are still good things out there for me. There are still things that I enjoy doing. I can still work out, I can still row, and I can still get a lot of enjoyment out of life for a long time.”

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