John Cage receives instructions on proper technique at the Adaptive Rowing Program at the White Rock Boathouse on White Rock Lake in Dallas on July 31, 2013. The program helps people with physical disabilites to learn rowing.

Dallas Morning News/Sarah Hoffman

DALLAS — John Cage grew up around White Rock Lake in Dallas. He learned to ride his bike there, his strong young legs keeping rhythm with waves steadily slapping the shore.

He’s 32 now, still synchronizing his movements to the water. This time, though, he’s in a boat on top of it, and he relies on his arms more than his legs to propel him along. A bout with West Nile virus has hindered his walking, his movement and his balance. But he has found grace in rowing.

On this summer afternoon, with its cloud-filled blue sky almost beautiful enough to offset the heat, Cage is on the lake as a rower for the second time.

“It’s amazing how quickly you can glide through the water,” said Cage, who learned the skill through White Rock Boathouse’s adaptive rowing program. “When you’re out, you forget your speed without a reference point. Then you get close to the dock, and you realize you’re really sailing.”

For those who rely on something obvious — a wheelchair, a walker, a prosthetic device, a scooter — for help moving on land, gliding through the water on their own strength and fortitude is a godsend. They’re unencumbered, smooth, confident — looking from all vantage points like any other person out for an afternoon on the lake.

“It’s a sense of accomplishment, a sense of freedom, a newfound ability,” said Mary Condon, the boathouse member and physical therapist who combined her two passions to start the program last summer. “Everyone does it within their own capacity. We try not to let them think about limitations.”

On this Monday in late July, while Cage rows on the water with Condon close by, three women learn the sport on ergometers (rowing machines) outside the boathouse.

They’ll do these hourlong sessions at least eight times, then they must pass a float test in a swimming pool before Condon allows them to row on the lake.

Sarah Perry and Pam Schreiber are amputees. Paige Mosley had a tumor removed from her brain a year ago. Before that, starting with a childhood of soccer playing and horseback riding, the Frisco mother of three had always been active.

“It’s been really tough,” said Mosley’s brother, Brad Hickerson, who drives his younger sister here twice a week. Theirs is a close family, brought even closer since Mosley’s illness.

So when he happened upon an open house at the boathouse, close to his home, and heard about the rowing program, he was excited to tell her about it, optimistic she might benefit from this new activity.

“After the first day, I asked her how it went,” Hickerson recalled. “She said, ‘I’ll be back.’ You want to engage anything so she’ll feel she accomplishes something. It gives connection. It’s something to be involved in.”

After Mosley, 39, was released from rehab after her surgery, Hickerson said their family felt a bit at a loss as to what came next.

“It’s hard to find activities that people with disabilities can engage in,” he said. “What better way than this — to be on the lake?”

Mosley’s making progress, he said. She’s building stamina, using rowing as a motivational tool.

“She loves it,” he said. “She’s motivated to improve herself.”

He turns to Condon, who is standing nearby: “Do you see this as a ministry?” he asked. “We call it a ministry.”

He elaborates on that thought later, in an email: “When I think of ministry, I think of an act of selfless service. Mary has a passion and professional training for the two things that intersect at the Boathouse: rehab and rowing.

“I can tell that Mary and all the people we’ve met so far care about the individuals. She’s meeting a need for these people to re-engage in a way they probably never considered or thought possible.”

Condon said simply: “This is a population I love. I’m doing something I love.”

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