To embark on a master’s degree in Dublin a mere two days after competing at the Paralympic Games in Tokyo is not a transition of the smooth variety.
However, for Charley Nordin – a man who has had to make a habit of adapting between dramatically dichotomous circumstances – this was one of the more benign adjustments he has encountered.
“I love it. It’s been awesome. Everyone, the people are great. I love my studies. The team has been awesome. It’s like really no complaints.”
As responses go, most would likely place Nordin’s in the positive category. He is not content with parking the optimism there either. A penchant for cheer which I increasingly discover is not so much an exception, but rather a hallmark of his.
“Honestly, and I don’t know if this is like a hot take, but the people here are so nice. And maybe it’s just because I’m coming from America where everyone’s kind of an asshole.”
I asked my coach before I came here: ‘Are there any kind of unknown financial things that I should be prepared for?’ The first thing he said, no hesitation: ‘The Guinness gets expensive’
“I think everyone’s been so nice. And like there’s so many times I’ve been like the clueless, like, I don’t know what’s going on. And everyone’s usually willing to lend a helping hand”.
Whilst his reflections on Guinness were similarly ebullient, it was ambivalence which reigned in his analysis of the fiscal element of the beverage.
“I was talking to my coach before I came here and was like: ‘Are there any kind of unknown financial things that I should be prepared for?’ The first thing he said, no hesitation: ‘The Guinness gets expensive.’”
“It’s been a bit of a learning curve but other than that it’s been good.”
I counselled adding blackcurrant in an attempt to enhance the worthiness of his expenditure: like most recipients of this recommendation, he unpromisingly stated that he might give it a try.
As well as benevolently financing the Guinness dynasty in the midst of a pandemic, Nordin assures me he is also dedicating the occasional hour here to his studies.
“The master’s programme I’m doing is comparative social change. It’s like a dual programme between UCD and Trinity. So it’s like half a UCD, half a Trinity. But I kind of identify more with Trinity – I live here and then I also row with the squad”.
“I am on [UCD] campus twice a week but Trinity has such a unique feel to it and the location is awesome. UCD – you’re not in the middle of nowhere, but there’s not a lot around. It seems like it could be any college campus”, he notes, exhibiting a sharp awareness of his audience in the process.
Rowing for Trinity, just being in the top eight with like all the other guys, it’s been a lot of fun. And I’ve very quickly gotten close as well with a lot of guys on the squad
The challenges associated with potentially rowing for two universities – between whom little love is lost – is a predicament to which Nordin sees the amusing side.
“I’m rowing with Trinity which is kind of funny because like there’s the big colours race between Trinity and UCD which is like the big rivalry and I kind of have a foot in both camps.”
At this juncture, a questioning look arises from my end of the Zoom call: it was greeted with an effortless display of diplomatic acumen, as Nordin again recognises his audience and discerns the right answer from the wrong one.
“Now allegiances to Trinity for sure. Rowing for Trinity, just being in the top eight with like all the other guys, it’s been a lot of fun. And I’ve very quickly gotten close as well with a lot of guys on the squad, it’s been great.”
This setup is markedly different to his undergraduate alma mater, Gonzaga University in Washington state: “One of the best parts about rowing for me [was that] Gonzaga didn’t have some sort of like, para rowing team, it was just the normal squad. So that helped me mentality wise, because it meant I just worked hard to be on a team of able-bodied guys and not make any excuses. And it really made me push myself to levels that I didn’t know were possible at the time”.
“And it’s cool because, within the sport of rowing, a lot of guys have never met a para rower or an adaptive athlete, so I’m kind of their first exposure to it. So I’m coming out working really hard, faster than a lot of the guys, so it’s like, alright, this is what Paralympic sport is all about, like, this guy’s legit.”
Being in the Championship VIII is an impressive feat for any rower. In Nordin’s case, it is all the more impressive considering he only has one fully functioning leg – let alone the fact that there was a stage in his life when it was uncertain whether he was going to ever walk again.
Gonzaga didn’t have some sort of like, para rowing team, it was just the normal squad. So that helped me mentality wise, because it meant I just worked hard to be on a team of able-bodied guys and not make any excuses
“I fell off a rope swing, it broke before I was out over the water so I fell about 40 feet onto kind of like a rocky shore.”
“I ended up having burst fractures on my L3, L4and L5 vertebrae which resulted in permanent nerve damage. The bones cracked outwards which then partially severed my spinal cord. So I can’t feel my right leg at all. And my right calf doesn’t work at all. And then my right glute operates at like 30 to 40 per cent.”
To sustain an injury so severe at just 16 is devastating – devastation almost certainly exacerbated by the fact that this was a time when Nordin’s athletics career was about to really take off.
“I was a track-and-field runner. I was looking to hopefully run in college track and field. It was my junior year that I got injured – [the year of] all the recruiting process. I was talking to some coaches – and yeah, then I had that injury. So that’s kind of where the track and field career ended.”
The prospect of running with only one functioning leg appears, to the neutral, an arduous task.
His corroboration with this assessment was an unambiguous one.
It was really tough facing that reality as a 16 year old – I’m gonna have this permanent disability for the rest of my life
“It’s pretty hard”, he affirms, chuckling – a remarkably light sense of humour given the gravity of the topic.
“That was, in all seriousness, a really tough time in my life. Facing that reality as a 16 year old, it’s like, I’m gonna have this permanent disability for the rest of my life.”
“I couldn’t really walk at all, I couldn’t really use either leg very well. I was in a wheelchair for a couple months. And that whole time, it was like, I just wanted the doctor to say: “You’re fine, you’re gonna walk again.’”
“They didn’t want to tell me something that they didn’t know, which I appreciate. But they’re like, ‘Well, we’ll see’. And it’s like, don’t tell me we’ll see, you tell me I’m gonna walk! So that was a really tough, tough couple months.The whole senior year of high school was just tough.”
“It takes a while to kind of come to terms with and change your perspective on it, and try to see it in a positive light”.
So how does one come to terms with an accident like that? How does one manage to see an accident plagued with such misfortune in a positive light?
“It took me a while to get but now that I have, I’m thankful because people have fallen from lower and died, you know. Or if the bones [had] shattered in a different way, you know, it could have been like a full paralysis. So, although I did lose some things, it’s like, whoa, could have been a lot worse.”
Sport – so prominent a segment of Nordin’s life before his injury and so greatly jeopardised by his injury – has since proved to be a source of respite and focus. It was only in College – a mere two years before he rowed for the USA in the World Championships – that Nordin discovered rowing.
“I got to college and I really wanted to try something new. I kind of wanted to push myself out of my comfort zone
And, if recent form is anything to go by, he did so with a splash.
“I got to college and I really wanted to try something new. I kind of wanted to push myself out of my comfort zone.”
“The assistant coach to the team just by chance saw me one day, and he’s like: ‘You’re really tall.’”
“Fast forward like two weeks later, I was like, in love with the sport and didn’t really look back.”
On the off chance Nordin were to look back – having competed at two World Championships and a Paralympic games in the intervening six years – the path he would be looking back on would be a densely vegetated one.
“Being a part of the Paralympic sport movement and going to the Paralympics was like a huge thing for me because you just meet so many incredible people with so many different stories and different ability levels”, he reflects.
“And it was just crazy being in a village with a couple thousand people that are like missing legs, missing arms, fully paralysed [or] quadriplegics – and that was like the coolest thing to be a part of.”
The Olympic village – with its plethora of nationalities and sportspeople – is often cited by athletes as the highlight of the Games. In this regard, Nordin is no different.
“Being a part of the Paralympic sport movement and going to the Paralympics was like a huge thing for me because you just meet so many incredible people with so many different stories and different ability levels
“My girlfriend was in the Women’s Four at the Olympics so that’s [with whom] I was most tight knit … but once you get to the village it is really cool because all of a sudden you’re like teammates with like all of your country’s teams.:
“I got to know a bunch of the wheelchair basketball players, some of the swimmers, a bunch of the track and field athletes and that was honestly one of the highlights. You just meet so many really cool, really interesting people in such a short amount of time.”
When pushed on which sport possessed the most affable athletes, Nordin discarded all previous exhibitions of diplomacy and replied with little hesitation: “Honestly, the wheelchair basketball guys were class, they were awesome. I met them on the second day. And they were so just like, welcoming and cause a lot of the guys they’re like veterans, it’s like their third or fourth Paralympics, you know, multiple time gold medalists. I’m still in contact with a couple of them. “
“But yeah”, he laughs, “don’t tell the track and field athletes”.
To go from such a utopian arena to being charged seven euro for a Guinness was then a somewhat violent return to reality.
A lot of Olympians have a really hard time post games, because they don’t really have anything to do … But for me, I didn’t really have time to think about that because like, two days later, I was moving here
“Yeah, it was a quick turnaround. I was a bit nervous about it because I graduated from undergrad in 2019 and basically just solely focused on training up until the Games. So now to have that kind of shift back into like school, studying and stuff, it’s been a little tough.”
“But I’m really grateful for it. A lot of Olympians have a really hard time post games, because they don’t really have anything to do. You dream about it, and you finally achieve it. And then it’s like, that’s it, you know? But for me, I didn’t really have time to think about that because like, two days later, I was moving here.”
There was much for Nordin to dwell on too: for the Paralympic medal race itself was a tightly contested affair.
“Great Britain is who ended up winning the gold. But France [who won bronze] was kind of right on our tail … there was a decent amount of back and forth between us and them. And GB weren’t like super super far off, but it was like they’re the faster crew, like they deserved to win.”
The silvers collected by Nordin and his crew was the sole podium appearance by the US in rowing – for both Olympics and Paralympics.
Whilst perhaps this makes their success all the more impressive from a personal perspective, it also points to a worrying decline in the state of American rowing in general. Not least because Tokyo 2020 was the first Olympics ever in which a US crew has not medaled.
“I mean, some people are kind of pointing the finger at the pandemic and like the US was just such a shit show for like, COVID response so we couldn’t train together for a really long time.
Like a lack of leadership, I think, played a large role in it … and yeah, some days, it’s just not your day.”
“I mean, we sent some really, really, really talented crews. A lot of boats are like really, really close to the race and you know, just got edged out or, you know, took a bad stroke here there.”
The US was just such a shit show for like, COVID response so we couldn’t train together for a really long time
When asked what the future holds for him personally, Charley’s response offered a portal into what must be a congenital relentless focus forged in the DNA of an Olympic athlete.
“Got practice, got class, got more practice”, he replies. The possibility of me referring to anything beyond placing his next foot forward simply did not even cross the man’s mind.
That is not, however, to say that longer-term ambitions do not exist.
“So there’s like some smaller races in between that. Obviously want to win but colours and national championship are like the two big ones that I’m really focused [on]. Henley would be super cool. I’ve never raced but I’ve always always wanted to go … Trinity didn’t go last year but there’s a rumour that we might be taking the top four so there’s motivation again.”
Nordin’s intentions on the international rowing front are similarly pellucid.
“Definitely I’m going to be training for the Paris Games in 2024. I would like to hopefully be working part time going into that just because I’ve found personally that I do a little bit better when there’s a bit more balance.”
“The last two years, all I did was row, just professionally, which was really cool and I’m grateful for that opportunity, but it just got almost a little too intense. And that’s what I’ve loved about being here, is having a little bit more of balance.”
“Within my degree I’m focused on inner city youth development, so kind of wherever I end up I want to hopefully like working with a community centre or nonprofit like working with kids.”
With a role model of Nordin’s stature in their lives, it is difficult to imagine those children being uninspired by this remarkable individual.