Just say row: Blindness is no handicap for Petaluma hall-of-famer

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When Aerial Gilbert first learned to row, her college coaches often advised her to close her eyes, shut out the distractions of the outside world and soak in the feel of the boat.

She never could have realized how important the advice would turn out to be.

Decades later, when a bottle of tainted eyedrops robbed Gilbert of her sight in 1988, it changed every aspect of her life. But one.

“Being blind, you’re on an equal playing field in the boat as a sighted person. You’re rowing backwards, anyway,” said Gilbert, the director of volunteers at Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael.

“As long as you have someone to guide the boat down the river, you’re on an equal field.”

Come Sunday, March 28, Gilbert will be inducted into the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame on eastern Long Island, N.Y., where a plaque in her name will be on permanent display. Gilbert was nominated for the honor by a fellow U.S. national team rower.

Rowing has been a huge part of her life ever since she was first transfixed by the awesome power and effortless synchronicity of sculls gliding across the surface of the water.

But, following her accident — which police believe was the result of a disgruntled factory worker filling the eyedrop bottle Gilbert would eventually buy with lye — rowing has become the 49-year-old’s catharsis and refuge.

The sudden, painful blinding left Gilbert, a busy pediatric nurse and an athlete since age 2, unable to even walk safely around her own house.

“The first six months, I didn’t handle it well. I didn’t go anywhere or do anything. But a friend from the boathouse said, ‘I’m taking you out rowing. You don’t have to see in order to row; we’ll take out a double,'” recalled Gilbert, who lives in Petaluma and now rows in two- and four-person boats.

“It was like getting onto a bike after you learned how to ride when you were a kid. It was instantaneous. There were no problems. I just jumped in the boat and started rowing. Getting into the boat and moving through the world feeling strong and safe was an amazing opportunity for me. … I have to say, between rowing and getting my guide dog, those were the pivotal factors that allowed me to put my life together.”

Gilbert immediately laid her own doubts to rest, but the rest of the world took some convincing. More than a few boathouse owners were reluctant to allow a blind rower out onto the waves for fear she would run into something and ruin the expensive boat. They sang a different tune, however, once they saw her out on the water.

That’s not to say there haven’t been dicey moments out there.

While competing in a race in the last Petaluma River Regatta, a stray eight-man boat crossed Gilbert’s path. She was smacked across the back by an oar and propelled into the water. Gilbert had the wind knocked out of her, but quickly found her way back into the boat, kept rowing, and her two-person boat finished second in the race.

In addition to rowing in Master’s Division tournaments, Gilbert has helped to start up an “adaptive division” U.S. national team boat, featuring a pair of blind rowers and a pair of above-the-knee amputees. Competing in the 2002 World Rowing Championships in Milan, Gilbert’s adaptive boat took home the bronze medal.

Her inauguration in the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame — yes, she says with a laugh, there is such a thing — is a double victory. Not only is it a win for disabled athletes, it’s also a big step for an athlete in a non-major sport.

But Gilbert’s biggest thrill will come when more young people hop into boats and prove that blindness may be a disability, but it’s no handicap.

“There are sports where blind kids can participate with other blind kids, but there are no other sports where blind youth can participate equally with sighted kids,” she said.

“Since I’ve lost my sight, rowing is the only time during my waking hours when I can forget I’m blind. Other times, I’m really aware of it. But I put all my power into it and I don’t have to worry about running into everything. I can just row.”

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.