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Fifty-one-year-old Mills alumna rows toward Paralympics

Photo courtesy of Aerial Gilbert

Mills alumna Aerial Gilbert, a first-class athlete in the sport of rowing, is training hard in hopes of qualifying for the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing, China. If she qualifies, she will be among the first to compete – 2008 will mark the first year that the sport is recognized in the competition.

Gilbert, according to the World Rowing Web site, began rowing in 1976, years before an accident destroyed her eyesight. She continued to row while attending Mills College, where she graduated in 1982 with a degree in biology.

The 51-year-old Gilbert is at an age when many individuals believe that they are past their prime, but this isn't stopping her from rowing towards her dream. She pointed out that experience and strategy are some advantages of being an older rower.

Gilbert said she's always been a water person. For the past four years, she rowed for the U.S. National Adaptive Team, the national rowing team for individuals with disabilities. According to Gilbert, an individual needs to make this team in order to participate in the Paralympics. The Paralympics are "elite sport events for athletes from six different disability groups," according to the International Paralympic Committee's Web site. Gilbert also rows in the master's division of the Marin Rowing Association.

Her experiences as a Cyclone have helped her balance a full-time job with the full-time training of an Olympic athlete, she said.

According to Gilbert, the Rowing Federation took action to have rowing made into a Paralympic sport four years ago. In order to do so, a minimum of 25 countries had to participate in the World Rowing Championships, which Gilbert has participated in multiple times. The efforts of the rowing world were not in vain. In a statement released this spring by the International Paralympic Committee, it was announced that for the first time, the sport of rowing would be included in the Paralympic games. The games are scheduled for Sept. 6-17, 2008.

Gilbert has overcome a lot to be in her position today. Seventeen years ago, dry-eyed from a long day of work as a nurse at Marin General Hospital, a 34-year-old Gilbert purchased an eye drop solution at a local drugstore on her way home. Unbeknownst to her, the solution had been tampered with and filled with lye, she said. The result was the loss of her eyesight.

For the first six months following the incident, Gilbert went into a "tailspin."

"Everything I had been accustomed to dealing with as a sighted person suddenly was foreign to me," she said. "It was like being a toddler all over again."

Gilbert attended the state school for the blind in Albany for six months following the incident, which helped her heal. "I needed to go through rehabilitation and learn how to deal with being blind," she said of her experience.

Two weeks after returning home, she acquired her first guide dog. "It was such a profound thing for me," she said.

Gilbert now works for Guide Dogs for the Blind as an outreach manager. The program provides guide dogs for visually impaired individuals in Canada and the United States and helps them learn to work together. Gilbert's job is to make sure that anyone who qualifies for a guide dog knows the benefits and is able to obtain one.

Gilbert, having gone through the process of losing her eyesight herself, knows the advantages of having a guide dog. She said that after she lost her eyesight, "Whatever I wanted to accomplish in my life, I could do it with my dog by my side." This confidence has bubbled over into her rowing as she works toward the day that she will compete in the Paralympics.