Susan Ongirski is 59 years old. Ever since she was 25 she’s been disabled, but that hasn’t slowed her down. In fact, Ongirski, born and raised in Port Richmond, just won first place in the 2019 Bayada Regatta, the nation’s oldest and largest all-adaptive rowing competition for athletes with disabilities. The event took place at St. Joseph’s University Boathouse on the Schuylkill River on Saturday, Aug. 17.
“It’s amazing,” Ongirski, whose been competing in the regatta for 15 years, said. “Every time we win – even when we don’t win – it’s amazing. You go down there and you see people you haven’t seen for a while.”
In fact, Ongirski is somewhat of a powerhouse competitor in the regatta. Every year of the 15 total years she has competed in the regatta, she’s taken either first or second place in her category, which is women’s 500-meter mixed doubles. The “mixed doubles” refers to the fact that Ongirski is part of a two-person team featuring both an adaptive rower and an able-bodied rower. The 500-meter race is the shorter of the two lengths. The other is 1,000 meters, according to Ongirski.
“Even after 15 years, I still get knots in my stomach,” said Ongirski. “Win or lose, everybody’s a winner down there. It’s amazing. I love it.”
Over the years, Ongirski has been in and out of rehabilitation for various health reasons. While at Magee Rehabilitation Hospital, Ongirski made a point to try out some of the organization’s sports programs. She tried adaptive skiing and handcycling before she was introduced to the rowing program.
“They invited me down and said to try it out,” she said. “I had never ridden in a boat before so I tried it out and I was hooked. I loved it. That was 15 years ago, and I do it every year.”
In addition to being a rower, Ongirski is very involved in the neighborhood, especially with Friends of Campbell Square. She also works a seasonal job in November and December at the Salvation Army and goes to school at the Sierra Group Academy three days a week.
“It’s a school that teaches physically and mentally disabled office skills,” she said. “They’re teaching us how to use Microsoft software and stuff like that, so it’s really good.”
But she’s especially busy throughout the summer because that’s when she trains for the regatta. Every Monday from May until race day in August, Ongirski will practice for the regatta. She also spends time lifting hand weights to get her arms in shape for rowing. Like most other years in her 15-year rowing career, the hard work paid off.
“Everybody looks forward to it every year,” she said. “You form new friendships from it, and it’s amazing. It makes people and athletes with disabilities really excited.”