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A Paralympic rower from Oakland making waves beyond the water

Charley Nordin with his teammates, wearing a Justice for Oscar Grant t-shirt
Ed Moran
Charley Nordin, surrounded by his US Paralympic rowing teammates, after winning silver in the PR3 mixed coxed four finals at the Tokyo Paralympic Games in 2021.
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Ask any sports fan from Oakland which homegrown athletes best exemplify the Town’s rebel spirit, and you’re almost sure to hear the names of several revered legends from the hardwood, diamond, or gridiron: Bill Russell, the late hoops great and civil rights hero; Rickey Henderson, the A’s “Man of Steal,” a baseball titan with a trickster’s flair; or Marshawn Lynch, AKA “Beast Mode,” the recently retired running back, as known for being “’bout that action” on the football field, as for his style, swagger, and efforts to elevate his hometown.

What you certainly won’t hear referenced is the unrenowned sport of rowing.

But Bay Area native Charley Nordin, who happened on the oars by accident, is steadily making a name for himself, both on and off the water.

I met with Charley on the banks of Lake Merritt to talk about his athletic career, and the unlikely journey that led him to the Paralympic Games in Tokyo three summers ago.

“I always loved running,” Charley tells me. “It's just the most pure form of competition, in my opinion. You don't need anything, just go out and run and whoever's faster is who's going to win. I was always drawn to it, and had dreams of running in college, potentially Division 1.”

Then, on the last day of his junior year at Bishop O’Dowd High School, the unthinkable happened.

“We were out at a lake and I was on a rope swing,” he recounts. “And before I made it out over the cliff, over the water, the rope snapped and I fell. And instead of falling into the water, I fell on the shore. I had burst fractures in my L3, L4, and L5 vertebrae. And as they burst out, it partially severed my spinal cord. So I had pretty severe nerve damage to my right leg. I can't really feel much of it at all."

He’d fallen 40 feet. And would remain fully paralyzed for nearly four months.

“The injury was so severe,” Charley states, “that my whole sport just became recovery. I was in physical therapy three to four times a week over at Children's Hospital in Oakland. Life-changing, life-saving work they did with me that whole year.”

Able to walk again after an arduous rehabilitation, and now graduated from high school, Charley departed for Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington. His fledgling athletic career was behind him, or so he thought.

“My second or third day of freshman year, the assistant coach of the rowing team, his name's Mark Voorhees, he saw me from across the room at this big freshmen orientation. And he's 6’10”, I'm 6’8”, and he just pointed to me over this literal sea of students.”

“Ever thought about rowing?,” Coach Voorhees asked.

Charley’s response: “Honestly, nah. It seems kind of weird.”

But the coach said Charley’s height would help him excel in the sport, that he should give it a try.

“I wasn't convinced,” Charley admits, “but—I don't know why—I did go to the first practice.”

There, his hopes for a competitive sporting life were kindled anew.

“My whole dream growing up was to be a D-1 athlete,” he emphasizes. “Having that taken away in the sport I wanted to do it in, when the opportunity presented itself in rowing, I was like, ‘Let's see what happens.’ And I was drawn to it, just how hard it is, the aerobic tax and that burn in your lungs, stuff that I really love. But, I tell you what, I was so bad!”

It didn’t happen overnight. But by the end of year one, Charley’s love for the sport had bloomed, and he began to see improvement in his form and speed. The “working together” thing, that took a little longer.

“Honestly, it was a big struggle,” Charley confesses. “It took a lot to shift that, because with rowing, it really is all about unison. And that was something that as a runner, if I want to go faster, I'm gonna’ just move my legs. So it was a very personal thing. And that just couldn't be further from the truth for rowing. It was one of the reasons I was so bad, because I didn't have that understanding and that teamwork.”

Coming back for his second year after a summer of tough training, ready to make a significant contribution to the crew, fate had something else in store.

“I want to say it was the second or third week into sophomore year,” Charley recalls. “I had rods put into my back. Took a stroke, and just felt something really odd, kind of a snap. Went to a doctor, got x-rays, and saw that I’d actually snapped one of the rods in my back! Recovery from that surgery, and just all the trauma to it, put me out all of sophomore year.”

Undeterred, Charley returned to the water following another rehabilitation. He grew increasingly engrossed in the sport.

“I was watching a bunch of races. I was really studying it, really trying to master the craft.”

Charley Nordin started rowing his freshman year at Gonzaga University as a walk-on. He ended up competing on multiple medal-winning para teams with US Rowing.
US Rowing
Charley Nordin started rowing his freshman year at Gonzaga University as a walk-on. He ended up competing on multiple medal-winning para teams with US Rowing.

On YouTube one day, he stumbled upon a race whose name gave him pause.

“PR 3, mixed four. And I was like, ‘Huh?’ I feel like I know every boat.”

But this was something new. “PR”? Para rowing?

“I had no idea about Paralympics at all,” Charley tells me. “So I clicked on it and I was like, ‘Oh, this is interesting.’ One thing with my injury and disability, I've always taken the approach of, ‘I don't want to let this limit me. I'm still going to just live life and push through any struggle that this might be.’ So I never really saw myself as ‘disabled,’ so to speak. It never crossed my mind that I could potentially classify for the Paralympics.”

The Paralympics, of course, are the top-level international sporting competitions for athletes with physical disabilities, organized in similar fashion as the Olympics. Since 1988, they’ve been held almost immediately after, in the same host city.

Charley began to do more research on the various classification for para rowing. With PR 3, he found out, one of the primary requirements was significant muscle atrophy due to traumatic injury.

“It was like a lightbulb,” Charley tells me, remembering the moment. “That's—that's me. I have that!”

Charley quickly got in contact with US Rowing, who sent him to Seattle for a national talent identification camp. It went real well. And soon enough, he was working his way up the ranks, from the US developmental team—and his first international race in Italy—to qualifying for the senior team, and racing at the World Championships in 2018.

Charley was now immersed in the para rowing community—meeting and forging meaningful relationships with rowers dealing with a wide range of disabilities.

“PR 1, PR 2, PR 3 are the three sub-classifications of Paralympic rowing, with PR 1 kind of being the ‘most disabled.’ So you’d see a lot of paraplegics, double amputees, stuff like that. PR 2 is kind of that middle ground. Sometimes you'll see single-leg amputees, above the knee amputees, much more significant nerve damage, potentially. And then PR 3 is a lot bigger of an umbrella.”

That classification encompasses athletes with a permanent disability who have functional use of their legs, trunk, and arms, and who can utilize the sliding seat in rowing; it’s also a class that may include up to two rowers with a visual impairment.

Having gotten a taste of competing on the international stage in 2018, Charley committed himself even more to the sport, convinced that a spot on the national team for the upcoming Paralympic Games was within his reach. At the Selection Camp in Boston, he endured what he calls “the most stressful two weeks of my life.”

Between uncertainty about when he’d be called to race, creeping doubts about his individual speed, and the nightly insomnia that ensued, the camp proved to be a powder keg of anxiety. But when he found out he made the squad...

“The first thing I did was call my family. We were all crying—it's just such a surreal moment.”

Delayed a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Games of the 16th Summer Paralympics took place in Tokyo in 2021. Charley spent months training rigorously with his teammates in the mixed coxed fours. That’s a crew comprised of four rowers — two women, two men, each using one oar, right or left side — plus their coxswain, the person responsible for steering the boat. Following a final tune-up camp in Hawai’i, the team departed for Japan.

“That was really the most incredible experience of my life,” Charley tells me. “So rarely can you look around and say ‘I am living my dream right now.’ Especially at the Paralympics, it felt utopian-esque: you have people from literally every country in the world with every sort of ability level coming together in this kind of harmonious state. Everyone was so friendly, everyone was so happy to be there.”

I wonder aloud whether that sense of camaraderie may have compromised the athletes’ competitive edge.

“I mean, people were focused, don't get me wrong,” Charley replies. “We were there to do a job and everyone had that energy. But walking around the dining hall the first day, you'd see every disability you could imagine. What was incredible was that there was just such a communal understanding—no one stared at each other. There was no sort of judgment. And especially in a world where that can be kind of hard to find if you have much more visible disabilities, it was incredibly impactful, and I'll never forget that first morning.”

"I felt a deep sense of duty, if I got the chance to be on the podium, to speak up for the community back home. With the history of Oscar Grant, and how much that means to this city, it just felt like it was the right thing to do."

Charley says being part of a community that understood what he’d gone through wasn’t something he realized he was missing, until he had access to it.

“With my disability, I have a little bit of a limp, and over the years I've gotten pretty good at hiding it, just because—people mean well when they ask, ‘Why are you limping?’ You're not ready to go on this life story: ‘When I was 16, I broke my back, severed my spinal cord.’ So I've gotten really good at hiding it. But, again,” he emphasizes, “walking in that first morning, I was like, I don't have to hide anything. I can just be myself. And that was one of the most freeing feelings. I really felt like I belonged, like I found my people.”

While deeply moved by the “para” community of which he was now a part, Charley’s heart and mind remained with his friends and loved ones back in Oakland.

He knew his team was in strong contention to medal, and he’d long thought to join the upsurge in athletes speaking out for social change, by using his momentary spotlight to raise awareness of an issue dear to him and his hometown: the 2009 police killing of 22 year-old Oscar Grant at the Fruitvale BART station.

“One of my earliest memories was Oscar Grant getting killed,” Charley explains. “And that shaped me so much. And seeing the city turn out for that and protest for that was one of the most developmentally impactful things that happened to me growing up.”

Protesters in downtown Oakland rally for Oscar Grant in 2010.
Thomas Hawk
Flickr / Creative Commons
Protesters in downtown Oakland rally for Oscar Grant in 2010.

The California Department of Justice had opened an independent investigation weeks before the start of the Paralympics, at the behest of the Grant family and the Justice 4 Oscar Grant Coalition, who’d long advocated for charges to be brought against a second BART cop involved in the events leading to Grant’s shooting death. Charley hoped to heighten this renewed attention on the case, and on anti-Black police violence more broadly.

I asked him to take me back to 2009, to speak on his connection to the site of Grant’s killing, and what kind of awareness he had of racial injustice at that young an age.

“I've been around Fruitvale my whole life. I don't know, at 11, especially in Oakland, being in a position of privilege as a white guy, you're aware of it, but it never really impacts you at that young of an age. So that was the first time my eyes were really open to it. And it definitely shook my worldview and changed it permanently.”

“Even at 11, I had a deep love for this city,” Charley continues. “So to see it just hurting, you know, and see people that I cared about in pain from that—I remember that a lot too. Just the raw emotion of all of it.”

But with a California courtroom ground zero for the next phase of the struggle waged by Oscar Grant’s family and supporters, what made Charley plan to use the Paralympics, in specific, as a site of protest?

“So much of it was because of Oakland, just the history of activism,” he replies. “So many of my friends’ parents were big in that scene. So hearing their stories from a very young age instilled in me a sense of responsibility to speak up, and against, social injustices.”

“I wanted to find a way to do it respectfully, because it is such an honor to represent Team USA,” Charley declares. “But I also feel like it's my responsibility to represent all of the US. For so many people, this idyllic image of the flag waving and Team USA—red, white, and blue—isn't something that they can take pride in, and isn’t something that they feel a connection to, which I completely understand, just through growing up in Oakland, being around so many of my friends and family who are Black and brown. So I felt a deep sense of duty, if I got the chance to be on the podium, to speak up for the community back home. With the history of Oscar Grant, and how much that means to this city, it just felt like it was the right thing to do.”

A mural at 17th Street and Telegraph Avenue in downtown Oakland memorializes Oscar Grant in 2010.
Thomas Hawk
Flickr / Creative Commons
A mural at 17th Street and Telegraph Avenue in downtown Oakland memorializes Oscar Grant in 2010.

Before he could take a publicly visible stance of the stature he hoped to, Charley still had to help his team make it to the medal stand. There was still a race to row.

The PR3 mixed coxed four finals pitted Team USA against five other nations. But perennial gold medal-winning Great Britain were the overwhelming favorites.

“Yeah. Those are the big dogs,” Charley confirms. “And I want to hate them, but they're so cool. Very nice, very humble. They're so fast. All love and respect to those guys because they really are incredibly talented. So we kinda’ knew—because for so long it's for the most part been us two duking it out for first and second.”

Charley Nordin and Team USA compete in the PR3 mixed coxed four finals at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games.
Danny Chin
Charley Nordin and Team USA compete in the PR3 mixed coxed four finals at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games.

The 2,000 meter race remained tight for the first half, with the two usual suspects leading the pack. Then, Britain began to pull away. They brought home another gold, while the US came in second once again.

Asked about the outcome, and how tough it was to fall short of the ultimate prize, Charley matter-of-factly states, “It's something you could stay up at night about. But I really believe we went out there and put our best foot forward, had one of the best races we could. And in talking to my teammates, they'd say similarly.”

The race was over; the victors revealed. But Charley’s opportunity for a principled protest on the Paralympic podium was still a few moments away.

“I tell you what, I was nervous as f——!”

Angelo Cozzi (Mondadori Publishers)
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Gold- and bronze-medal winning US sprinters Tommie Smith, center, and John Carlos, right, raise their black-gloved fists on the medal stand following the 200 meters finals at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.

It had been more than 50 years since the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, perhaps best remembered for US sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their clenched, black-gloved fists on the medal stand in a defining gesture of defiance to racial oppression. They paid dearly for it too, not just by getting expelled from the Games, but in facing mockery, marginalization, and even death threats back home, for many years that followed.

Charley was no stranger to the iconic image of Smith and Carlos, nor to the solidarity that Peter Norman, the white Australian sprinter who finished second in the 200 meters, expressed for his Black American counterparts. In fact, Charley was galvanized by that history. Like his activist forebears, he had brought along some unauthorized wears of his own: in his case, a plain black t-shirt with the words “Justice For Oscar Grant” printed in bold white lettering. Now, officially a silver medalist, he’d have a chance to sport that shirt, and share that message, for all the world to see.

“Nike gives you the podium outfit,” Charley recounts. “They put it in the changing rooms. And I had slipped in the Justice For Oscar Grant shirt. My teammates knew I was going to do it because I wanted to make sure that they were okay with it, because that's just as much their moment as it is mine. And they were supportive. But I was more worried about officials and stuff because it was very much against the rules. The podium ceremony was probably like 15 minutes after the race ended. So I’m still sweaty, kind of out of it a little bit. And I put the shirt on. All of a sudden it became really real, because for years I've been talking about doing it, but then it was like, ‘Yo, this is go time. You finna’ be out there in five minutes; are you going to do it or not?’”

And did doubt threaten to derail his plan when he finally did make it up to the medal stand, I ask, what with his zipped warm-up jacket still hiding the outcry emblazoned across his chest?

“The whole time!,” Charley responds. “I'm not trying to cap. I kind of always knew I was going to do it, but I was second-guessing myself the whole time. You're in front of all the cameras. And you have the medal around your neck. And it would have been so much simpler to just not.”

After a brief pause, he continues, “I just knew whatever potential repercussions that would come of protesting on the podium would kind of pale in comparison to the regret and, honestly, guilt that I would feel having not utilized my platform. When I was out there, that last moment before I unzipped it, I was really nervous in the moment, but I’m really, really glad that I went through with it.”

The International Paralympic Committee, or IPC, immediately launched an investigation into whether Charley had violated a rule in its handbook, which states that “no kind of demonstration or political, religious, or racial propaganda is permitted” at the Games—thus raising the specter of a possible suspension or even expulsion. US Rowing quickly came out in Charley’s defense. Perhaps even more important to him, though, was waking up the morning after the race to a message of appreciation from the Oscar Grant Foundation, and Grant’s mother, Wanda Johnson.

“That was truly incredible, seeing the impact that it had on them,” Charley reflects. “It's such a deep history of racial injustice, especially with minorities dying at the hands of police. It's unfortunate, but Oscar Grant is just one name on a long list. And it's very easy to forget about. And I didn't want to let that happen. You know, I wanted to make sure that there would be some level of understanding and appreciation for who Oscar Grant was. That's what I was telling his mom: ‘I didn't want your baby's name to be forgotten.’”  

In the days that followed, more expressions of gratitude flowed forth—from fellow white athletes grappling with their own questions about how to show up as allies to the Black community, to rowers of color, who felt seen and validated by Charley’s anti-racist protest in an overwhelmingly white sport.

Ultimately, the wellspring of public support for Charley, and the strong backing he received from Bahati VanPelt, then chief of athlete services at the US Olympic & Paralympic Committee, helped stem any significant retaliation from the IPC.

As for the ripple effect his actions might stir going forward, Charley plainly states, “I hope that maybe through my case and kind of setting a little bit of a precedent here that other people would feel empowered to do it. We can't just rely on minorities for social justice because, unfortunately, so many of the systems in place are being controlled by white people. And if they don't start feeling pressured by other white people, it's not going to change.”

Upon return from Tokyo, Charley enrolled in a graduate school program that continued to stoke his passion for attacking injustice. Pursuing a master’s degree in sociology, with a focus on comparative social change, he wrote his dissertation on the positive developmental effects that exposure to the arts in afterschool settings has on under-resourced youth in California. 

“I talked to just some incredible people, some incredible organizations throughout the Bay Area, throughout Los Angeles, and hearing their stories and the impact they're having, I'm just like, ‘that's what I want to do!’”

And while competitive rowing wasn’t yet in the rearview when Charley and I spoke — in fact, he was still eyeing another crack at the mixed coxed fours with Team USA at this summer’s Paralympics, and finally capturing the crown from Great Britain — he recently made the tough decision to retire from the sport, and bring his passion for social change, not to the classroom, but to the electoral politics arena. He said he couldn’t stay on the sidelines while the US was in such upheaval. So he’s living in DC now, working for the House Majority PAC, hoping to steer the country towards victories far more meaningful than medals.

Charley Nordin may have hung up his oars, but this rebel rower’s sure to keep making waves for a more just and equitable world.

The 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Paris begin on August 28 and you can watch the Paralympics on NBC or YouTube.

Crosscurrents Crosscurrents
Raphael Cohen was part of KALW's Summer Journalism Training Program in 2022. He produces news spots and work for Crosscurrents.