SPOKANE, La. — To most people, Gonzaga senior rower Charley Nordin looks like your typical college student.
He gets up in the wee hours every morning to row, goes to class, does his homework and then repeats the process.
However, when he graduates in a few weeks, he’ll get to continue his rowing career unlike the majority of his peers.
The reason? An accident that he thought ended his athletic career six years ago.
“We were out at a lake and I was on a rope swing,” Nordin said. “It was a rope swing I’d gone on 100 times before. It was something I’d always done. Before I made it out over the cliff, like over the water, the rope snapped and I fell, and instead of falling into the water, I fell onto the shore. I had burst fractures in my L3, L4, and L5 vertebrae. As they burst out it partially severed my spinal cord so I have pretty severe nerve damage to my right leg.”
Some people believed Nordin would never walk again.
“I remember vividly at one point a bike rode past my hospital window and I thought, ‘Wow, I might never ride a bike again.’ I don’t even like riding bikes," he said. "It was just tough because all those things I had lost. It wasn’t a question of can you be an athlete again. It was like, ‘Hey, can you walk?’"
Nordin, who was an aspiring Division I track and cross country runner, spent three months in the hospital.
He lost his calf muscle in the accident.
“Running with only one calf, it doesn’t really work. You can’t really make it work. So that was something that was really hard to come to terms with," he said. "Something I had been working hard for the last couple of years was gone. I had no control over it and there was nothing else I could do to fix it.”
Nordin eventually returned to high school and decided to go to Gonzaga for college, where he had absolutely zero intentions of continuing his athletic career.
“I think it was my second day walking around campus and just by chance our assistant coach saw me,” Nordin said. “He saw me over the crowd and walked over to me. I had no idea who he was. He shook my hand and was talking to me and he’s like, ‘Have you ever thought about rowing?’ Never in a million years did I think I would row.”
But Nordin decided to give it the old college try.
“I came out for my first practice on the water and I just immediately fell in love it. It was really special. It was awesome," he said.
Rowing helped fill an athletic void for Nordin, even if a few parts of his body weren’t as strong as before.
“The main ones are the glute and calf. In day-to-day walking and average activities, it doesn’t present itself that much, but when I’m in a boat and I’m rowing, that’s when the deficiency comes out because so much of rowing is through your legs and your glutes," he said.
"Not being able to squat and push off, that’s where I lose a lot of power and that’s where the disability probably shows the most. I think my right leg as a whole operates at about 35 to 40 percent of my left leg so it’s significant," he continued.
Regardless, Nordin rose through the rowing ranks at Gonzaga until another moment of fate.
“My academic athletic adviser Amanda Flores, I was in her office just kind of talking. She was like, ‘Hey Charley I was looking at rowing and I noticed that there’s this whole para category of rowing,’ which is nothing I’d ever thought of because I try to live my life as if I’m not disabled at all. I try to not let anything hold me back. We started looking at it and I was like, ‘Wow this is incredible. I think I classify for this,'" he said.
The realization set in motion a whirlwind year, where Nordin eventually ended up on the USA’s Paralympic World Rowing team.
His squad took silver in the World Championships this past fall.
“It was incredible. It was one of the biggest honors of my life. Being able to put on that United States of America uniform and being surrounded by other top notch athletes that are all working really hard," he said.
That experience pushed Nordin towards a new goal: The 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games.
“It’s something I dream about and think about every single day. It’s why I get up in the morning. It’s why I work as hard as I can every workout, every weight lift. To represent your country, it’s incredible. To be able to do that on the Paralympic stage? Words can’t describe it… It’s the dream.”
And the dream all came from an event that originally felt like a nightmare.
“It’s one of those things looking back on it now, I don’t think I would change anything which is kind of crazy. I never thought I would say that. It really makes me realize that everything happens for a reason," he said.