Todd VogtNewsPara-Rowing

Parkinson’s Changed Todd Vogt’s Course Into Para-Rowing, And Now He’s Going To Paris

by Stuart Lieberman

(L-R) Todd Vogt and Gemma Wollenschlaeger compete during the PR3 mixed double sculls finals at the 2023 World Rowing Championships in Belgrade, Serbia. (Photo by row2k)

At this point during the last Paralympic Games cycle, para-rower Todd Vogt was in arguably the least coveted spot on Team USA — the role of the alternate.

“My joke about that was I was the alternate, and all I got was a T-shirt,” he still says to this day, laughing.

But last month, the tide shifted, as Vogt, along with Saige Harper, was named to the PR3 mixed double sculls crew that will represent the U.S. at the Paralympic Games Paris 2024. The four-time national team member was part of the crew that won silver in the event at the 2023 world championships in Belgrade, Serbia, earning an automatic qualification spot for Paris. Vogt’s participation in Paris was then confirmed coming out of a U.S. selection camp in January.

“The whole thing is a little surreal,” Vogt said, reflecting back on his journey from being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2018 to today. “I was lucky enough to have the support system of my wife and have been immersed in the sport of rowing at that time. I was lucky enough that I was still fit and rowing enough where I could make the transition back to being competitive.”

A native of Rochester, New York, Vogt first took up rowing in 1992 when he saw a poster outside his freshman dorm room at the University of Buffalo that read: “Meet friends and get fit.” He didn’t know anything about rowing but was persuaded enough by the sign to attend the first meeting, where he was shown an inspiring video of a collegiate race.

“I remember watching the rowers crossing the finish line and they were all slumped over their oars,” he said. “I remember thinking to myself that I can do that. I can exert myself. And as soon as I got on the water I was hooked immediately.”

Vogt went on to row competitively throughout college and for the next 20 years, including in senior masters competitions, while also coaching rowers of all ages for the last 15 years. He said he “never lost the bug,” but while training for the 2017 Head of the Charles race, his rowing technique that he had spent years perfecting, felt off. He was unusually tired and weak. At first, he shrugged it off. But ultimately that fatigue turned into a tremor in his left hand, and his left arm no longer swung while he walked.

Vogt was diagnosed with Early-Onset Parkinson’s Disease the following year, just prior to his 44th birthday.

(L-R) Gemma Wollenschlaeger and Todd Vogt celebrate with their silver medals after the PR3 mixed double sculls finals at the 2023 World Rowing Championships in Belgrade, Serbia. (Photo by row2k)

“It’s kind of frustrating and demotivating at times,” Vogt said. “It almost feels like my left side is encased in lead. It’s slow and uncoordinated compared to my right side.

“When I first got diagnosed, I thought I was going to be done being a competitive rower. But I had another thing working for me and a confluence of factors fell into place. I got diagnosed with Parkinson’s, which wasn’t great obviously, but it opened an opportunity for me with para-rowing.”

Luckily Vogt, who now lives in Portland, Oregon, was already informed about para-rowing, having been around the sport for so long as an athlete and a coach, and a couple of months after his diagnoses started researching erg scores and speeds of top U.S. and international para-rowers. His fitness was not far off from their marks, so he contacted Ellen Minzner, U.S. Rowing Director of Para High Performance, to get classified and invited to a selection camp in early 2019.

He worked creatively to mitigate how his Parkinson’s would impact his rowing technique as best he could, and months later, he ended up in a two-person boat racing at the 2019 world championships in Austria, finishing in sixth place. He’d go on to finish fifth at the 2022 world championships before earning a silver medal at the event last year. He also won gold at both the 2021 and 2022 U.S. championships.

Vogt is a self-proclaimed coffee snob — he owns several accoutrements from a French press and a grinder to a siphon and a scale — now looking to buzz his way to Paris, downing caffeine before every training session and race. Six days a week, he’s on the water for approximately 90 minutes each morning, followed by a weight session and cardio training as he prepares for the Paris 2024 Games.

In addition to the PR3 mixed double sculls, Team USA has also qualified the PR3 mixed four with coxswain for Paris. The three remaining U.S. boats will compete at the 2024 U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Team Trials — Rowing scheduled for April 2-7 in Sarasota, Florida. The winners in Sarasota will then race at the 2024 World Rowing Final Olympic & Paralympic Regatta in May in Lucerne, Switzerland, to try to earn their spots.