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Competitive rowing helps Portland Paralympian manage Parkinson's Disease

Todd Vogt, 46, was selected to be an alternate for the U.S. Para-Rowing team at this summer's Paralympic Games in Tokyo.

PORTLAND, Ore. — As the Olympics come to a close, Paralympic athletes are prepping for Tokyo where the games kick off August 24.  

A Portland man with Parkinson's is an alternate for the para-rowing team.

When Todd Vogt is in the boat, all you can see is a powerful elite athlete. When he steps off the boat you can see some of the signs.

"My balance is a little bit affected," Vogt said. "Fine coordination in my left hand isn't as good as my right hand so that's the challenge."

Three years ago, at just 43 years old, Vogt was diagnosed with Parkinson's. It's referred to as early onset, or young onset, Parkinson's.

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As a competitive rower for decades, he struggled processing it.

"I didn't know if I'd be able to have a career as a coach. I certainly thought my competitive rowing days were over because I felt weak," Vogt said.

But he wasn't ready to give up. Vogt eventually got classified as a Paralympic athlete. He tried out for the National Para-rowing Team and made it. He competed in the World Championship in Austria in 2019, then set his sights on Tokyo.

There's only one boat for someone with his level of disability, and there are only two seats for men. The event is called the PR3 Mixed Four with Coxswain. While he didn't make that team, he was selected to be an alternate.

"Ideally I would like to try to go to Paris in 2024. So that'd be my goal," Vogt said.

His goal is in reach. Through exercise, he's slowed the progression of his Parkinson's. 

He says he can row almost as well as he could before his diagnosis, but it's taken plenty of time and work to get to that point.

"Rowing this boat requires so much dexterity that it sort of forces my left wrist to at least do it somewhat well, or else I end up in the river," he said. "While I'm out there my body is just like doing its old thing again."

"In a lot of ways he's just like any other athlete striving for the Olympic dream," his rowing coach Susan Wood said. "His work ethic is never-ending going after the golden ring. I'd say he has Parkinson's Disease but I just see Todd."

His neurologist at OHSU says Vogt is a unique Parkinson's patient, but shows how exercise can be used as medicine.

"I'm inspired every time I see him," Dr. Lauren Talman said. "A lot of people do report that when they're active and exercising that's when they feel best and that's when their Parkinson's symptoms are under the best control." 

"Knowing that's the most important tool you have to keep things stable over time, it almost empowers people and allows them to take back some of that control," Dr. Talman added.

While he knows the disease gets worse over time, Vogt doesn't plan to give up on rowing - or himself. It's helped his mental health and connected him with others who are disabled or are living with Parkinson's.