During her career, Jan Richards Whitaker won over 30 United States Canoe Association national championships and numerous other awards and honors including an Empire Games gold medal, induction into the Canoeing Hall of Fame and selection as USCA Canoeist of the Year for 1994 and 2003.
However, according to Robert Barlow, she is most proud of her efforts to create innovative ways to share her passion for canoeing with people challenged by physical, and intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Whitaker has worked to develop national and international outrigger canoe programs, events and competitions for disabled men, women and children. According to Barlow, she has modified every aspect of the canoe, from the seat to the paddle, to accommodate people’s disabilities with the goal of making those disabilities seem to disappear.
Whitaker became inspired to teach canoeing to people with disabilities after meeting a 9-year-old girl named Jessica Jones. Jessica was unable to walk without the use of leg braces. However, Whitaker discovered that “When Jessica steeped into the boat, her disability disappeared. For the 50 minutes she was in the boat, she shrieked with joy, and instead of me being her teacher, she ended up being teaching me lessons in life.
“On land Jessica could not keep up with her peers, but in the water we went at the same speed and we saw everything at the same time. It was a remarkable experience and from that moment on I knew what I had to do.”
Not long after her first lesson with Jessica, Whitaker started straining paddlers with disabilities at the Rochester Rehabilitation Center.
She created the Rochester River Challenge, which is the largest outrigger canoe race on the East Coast. Rochester, NY became the birthplace of outrigger canoe racing for people with disabilities.
In 2005, Whitaker founded Cape Ability Outrigger Ohana, Inc., a chapter of the Disabled Sports USA. CAOO provides recreational programs and competitive training for people with physical disabilities, and intellectual and developmental disabilities.
In conjunction with Disabled Sports USA, United States Canoe Association and Cape Ability, Whitaker established training programs throughout the United States, Canada, England, New Zealand and the Cook Islands
Whitaker also, according to The Bulletin from State University of New York, extended her efforts to help wounded soldiers establish outrigger canoe rehabilitation at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
The Non-Commissioned Officers Association’s National Defense Fund honored her with an American Patriot Award in 2008.
When the State University of New York awarded Jan Richards Whitaker an honorary doctoral degree on Saturday, May 21, 2011, President Erik Bitterbaum said, ‘Jan Whitaker, one of the nation’s top competitive canoeists, created innovative ways to share her passion with people challenged by physical disabilities. Her efforts, and the non-profit organization she created, opened a new world of activity for thousands of people.’
However, Dr. Whitaker’s ultimate dream will come true when the sport she helped pioneer makes its inaugural appearance at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
When asked for a response about the announcement she remarked that, “It’s almost hard to comprehend that you can make such a difference in the world. I immediately started calling all my pioneer paddlers, therapists, friends and supporters who were instrumental in bringing out the decision and thanked them for their involvement and support for making our vision become a reality.”
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