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The Interview Issue: Paralympic Rower Blake Haxton

Linda Lee Baird

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Each January, we feature the movers and shakers of the city in in-depth, in-person interviews that dig into their backgrounds, their plans, and what ties them to the capital city. While our interview issue subjects are all Columbus-based, their stories are universal. So settle in, cozy up, and give yourself some you-time. You’ll want to read every word.

As a senior and the captain of the crew team at Upper Arlington High School in 2009, Blake Haxton was making plans for the future. Then came a moment he couldn’t have planned for. In March, he developed a cramp in his leg that quickly turned far more severe; Haxton had contracted the flesh-eating disease necrotizing fasciitis. Within days, the illness led to organ failure, and Haxton was in danger of losing his life. To save him, doctors made the decision to amputate both of his legs. Ultimately, it took more than 20 surgeries and three months in the hospital before Haxton returned home.

Haxton shared his worries during his long recovery. “I remember being in the ICU still. […] I was starting to project forward, ‘well, what’s life going to be like now?’” He worried about what he would be able to do, and what he would miss.

Although many of his hospital visitors encouraged him to try para-rowing, he was reluctant. “I knew what the process would be; I just had no desire to do it,” he said. His resistance to rowing stayed with him when he was discharged, and throughout his undergraduate years as a Finance major at Ohio State.

His attitude began to change as he prepared to start law school. “I really haven’t been that active for four years. I need to be an adult and figure out, you know, just a way to work out and train and be healthy,” he said. So he returned to the ergometer—known as “the erg”—an indoor rowing machine. Still, it wasn’t what he was used to, and he didn’t enjoy it at first. “It felt so abbreviated and cramped,” he said.

Photos: Brian Kaiser

It took a shift in his mindset to change his relationship with the erg. Haxton began thinking of para-rowing as “an entirely different sport” from what he’d done at Upper Arlington.

When he let go of those expectations, Haxton discovered that he was good. Really good.

“They publish time standards on the ergs… and if you’re under this time, you can try out for the national team; if you’re under this time, you can probably make it. […] Well I got under those times for my event.”

Haxton signed up for a competition called the Indoor World Championships, where rowers competed on ergs in the same room, pulling as fast as they could.

He won.

Then the U.S. National Team approached him about trying out. “That’s what got me back in the boat,” Haxton said. He calls returning to the water “one of the best decisions I ever made.”

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In 2016, Haxton qualified for the Paralympic Games in Rio. He said that life in the Olympic Village isn’t as glamorous as it might look from the outside. “You’re pretty isolated,” he explained. Getting sick would be detrimental in races where tenths-of-seconds matter, so athletes keep to themselves and try to stay focused. “You don’t really get out of that loop of just training, sleep, compete. And you don’t really want to,” Haxton said. He ultimately placed fourth, “which was about as good as I could have done.”

Now 28 years old, Haxton is in his prime

years by rowing standards (male rowers are generally considered to peak between ages 28-32). He finished seventh in the 2019 World Championships, qualifying the U.S. Men’s team for a spot in the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics. Under the rules of U.S. Men’s Rowing, however, there’s still an individual qualifying race to determine who will compete. Haxton is spending his winter training for the race—and what he hopes will be his second Paralympics— with weights and on the erg. When the weather warms, he’ll return to practicing in the boat.

In addition to rowing, Haxton works full- time as an Investment Research Associate at Diamond Hill Capital Management. “We divide up the market of publicly traded stocks by industry,” he explained, investing in opportunities that may have been overlooked or undervalued elsewhere. Haxton specializes in airlines and oil and gas, and calls the work “a ton of fun.”

Unsurprisingly, Haxton is a busy man. With a twice-a-day, six-day-per-week training regime on top of his job, his schedule doesn’t leave him with much wiggle room or social time. “There’s some wedding invitations you have to turn down,” he said.

On the other hand, Haxton is thrilled with how he gets to spend his days. “A lot of people don’t get to say they like any job they have. I have two jobs I really like—rowing and investing—and I get to do both of them every day. What could be better than that?”

Even so, he becomes introspective when asked about the moment he knew that his path, as an athlete and businessman, was the right one for him to follow. “I’m not really sure it is,” he said. “I couldn’t answer honestly saying, like, I think that ‘Blake Haxton’s purpose on this planet is rowing or investing.’ I don’t know the answer to that question. And I do think we all have a purpose… and I think that the talents we all have are hints about what that purpose is.”

Haxton, someone who has been through— and accomplished—so much in his 28 years, expresses tremendous gratitude for the way he gets to spend his life. He’s grateful for his friends who have made his path as an athlete

possible. “I can’t carry my boat on my own, can’t do a lot of travel on my own,” he said. “There’s a really core group that’s around that enables me to do all these things.”

Haxton has a true village of friends in Columbus and across the country who are intrinsic pieces in the puzzle of his athletic success. Members of his village will wake at 5 a.m. to join him on the water and help him practice. They will use their vacation time to drive him to competitions in other states. And not only will they do so without complaint, they share his excitement. “There’s not one trip […] where we don’t look at each other and be like, “‘man, how cool is this!’” Haxton said.

His positive attitude and his self- described “stubborn” dedication as an athlete were undoubtedly behind his U.S. Rowing teammates voting him the 2016 Male Athlete of the Year. Haxton is the first para-athlete to receive the award, and he’s humbled by it. “It’s the greatest honor I’ve ever gotten by a long measure,” he said.

Even in the hardest times, Haxton has learned to be “willfully grateful.” He points to that moment when he was still in the ICU, as he wondered what the future would hold for him as a double amputee. His fears and worries began to snowball as it sunk in that his life was forever changed.

And then he looked up and saw his mom sitting in the corner of the room. The moment was a revelation.

“I realized how true it was, that as bad as this is, it would be so much worse if my mom wasn’t here,” he said. “In that moment, it was like the snowball stopped rolling.” He began to think of the other visitors coming that day—his dad, grandpa, and brother. “I sort of found that it can snowball the other way,” he said. “I was surprised by how powerful that was.”

Haxton knows firsthand that life comes with real difficulties. He says the hard moments need to be confronted, not “swept under the rug.” Still, he focuses on the people around him and the support they provide him as an athlete, colleague, and friend. “When you get to go through life with teammates like that,” he says with a smile, “it’s pretty good.”

Visit blakehaxton.com to learn more.

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A Columbus icon has announced his retirement

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The man who has been synonymous with the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium for decades is stepping down after 42 years of service.

Since 1978, Jungle Jack Hanna has played a pivotal role in inspiring positive change in the local and global zoo communities. His work as a wildlife ambassador and conservationist has transformed the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium into one of the world’s best since he took on the job. Hanna will still be recognized as the zoo’s director emeritus, a title he’s held since 1992.

Hanna had this to say in a press release:

As I approach my mid-70s with more than four decades at the Columbus Zoo, I believe it is time to wind down and officially step back while CEO Tom Stalf and the Zoo’s great leadership team continue to guide the Zoo into the future. Together with many friends and partners, we’ve come a long way to make the world a better place for people and wildlife!

Jack Hanna

Hanna wore many other hats throughout his 42-year career. Those include television personality, author, and all-around pop culture icon. As he steps away from his professional role, Hanna says that he still plans to maintain a close relationship with the zoo as its “No. 1 fan.”

At 73-years old, Hanna is the father of three and grandfather of six. His retirement will be made official on Dec. 31.

The Zoo will host special events dedicated to Hanna through the remainder of the year. Those include:

  • Jack Hanna Weekend – Oct. 3 and 4
  • Jack Hanna’s Home for the Holidays – Dec. 12

The Zoo reopens to the public on Monday.

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Coronavirus

Penzone shares: what to expect with salons

Julian Foglietti

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With the closing of Hair Salons on March 18th, buzz cuts and bowl cuts have made an appearance on the heads of Ohioans, young and old. Luckily for those desperate for a do, Dewine has announced that hair salons may begin to reopen on May 15th. To guide us through the transition, I spoke with Debbie Penzone, President and CEO of Penzone Salons, about serving on the Governor's salon advisory board, dealing with the business effect of the virus, and what we can expect from hair salons moving forward. 

I understand that you served as the chair of the Governor's committee board regarding reopening salons. What did you do in that role? 

On the committee, my role was pulling from my experience as a cosmetologist and business owner to assemble a group of individuals that represent our business in Ohio. We had everyone from 10 person salons to one person barbershops. braiding salons and nail salons, to schools and three health commissioners. From there, the job was building an agenda and listening to members while consulting health professionals on how to expand upon existing sanitation guidelines.  The Ohio State Board of Cosmetology has been enforcing for years. Beyond that, it was a lot of keeping time, guiding the conversations, gathering information and reporting it.  We also wanted to build plans if something did happen in a salon, and make sure that everyone could abide by these practices so we can remain safe and open.

In what ways has the virus caused you to rethink the way salons will function moving forward?

One of the things we did was go through a COVID specific certification process with Barbicide, which produces a lot of the sanitation products already used in salons and barber shops. A lot of people don’t realize that in the Ohio Administrative Code, there are very specific sanitation guidelines that you have to follow when you get your license, and there is a major component of constantly learning new sanitation practices all the time. The main difference you’ll see is us taking that sanitation to the next level: social distancing between booths, or barriers put in place, as well as reduced capacities in many salons. There will be more emphasis on reducing contact points and sanitizing things like doorknobs and counters as well. The biggest change will be the way we interact with our clients. We're a very emotional industry. We’re huggers, and we’re very close with the people we work with. Our clients are like family to us, so having to distance ourselves and not engage in that way will be different. 

What has been the greatest challenge to overcome over the past months? 

It’s really been adapting to the constant change we're all facing. We might spend all this energy sharing with our team new knowledge, but the next week it will change again. It’s been difficult to coordinate and continue to train everyone and update them with the new practices, as well as provide support for them while we're all distanced from each other. We're all scared right now, and it’s important to not lose our community so we can give each other confidence in the direction we’re heading in.

What have you witnessed over the past few months that gave you hope?

The biggest hope for me was serving on this committee. I’ve always felt so strong about our industry, so bringing so many people together and supporting one another during this difficult time. This whole thing has really brought us together as an industry, and shown that we can work together to support each other and raise each other up. There's enough clients for everybody, and it’s beautiful to see the incredible diversity of salons and see us all coming together to work with one another.

Are you worried about customers returning?

We’ve opened our booking today, but were not opening on the 15th, because we want to have a few days to go over the new procedures with our teams before we start to bring clients in. Every salon will only be operating at 50% capacity, and then we’re extending the hours to make sure everyone has the same hours they used to, and some of them are already booked out to July.

What would you say to ease the concerns of customers?

Really that we’re regulated by the state board and have so many sanitation practices in place. We have printouts posted showing the guidelines for clients that come to the stores, and for those who are high-risk, we are opening up early so they can be the first people to come in right after the salon is sanitized. What's important to remember about salons is that the regulators randomly check our spaces to make sure we're complying, and as we build on regulations, these checks are going to be taken to the next level. 

As a hairstylist, do you see any hairstyle trends emerging from this?

I definitely think there's gonna be a boom for bobs and pixie cuts, ‘cause people are just done. Maybe some bold colors, because everyone just wants to come out and say, “I’m back, baby.” Maybe just a little more attitude with the cuts people are getting.



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Coronavirus

Meet the Saviors: from doctors on the front line to PPE makers

Mitch Hooper

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While searching for Columbus’ helpers, we found that they come in many different shapes and sizes. And this month, we are telling as many of their stories as we can.

These are the stories of the saviors on the front line, working at hospitals, and assisting patients on a day-to-day basis. Or these saviors are at home and providing essential resources to these same folks on the front line. These efforts are quite literally saving lives and risking their own in the process.

Saviors: Pauline Vales, COVID-19 ICU Nurse at Riverside

It was just a little more than a week before Gov. Mike DeWine announced the state would be going into social distancing orders when Pauline Vale and her husband had already begun leaving for a vacation to Texas. And when she returned home on March 10, the events preceding have been a rollercoaster ride of long days and nights, moments of sacrifice, and above all, bravery in the face of danger.

“We have to be mindful about what we need to do each time we enter a patient room because we can’t just run in and out when we need something. It’s harder to connect with our patients because they can’t see our faces, we can’t hold their hands without gloves on, and it’s harder for them to hear us talking through a mask,” Vales explained. “It seems like there is something new every single day, so we have had to adapt and evolve many times over in the last weeks. And there is just more stress and worry in general, but my unit has really come together as a team and done so many amazing things.”

The challenges are seemingly endless for nurses in the ICU like Vales. She said beyond medical professionals having limited contact with patience, hospitals are not allowing visitors unless it's a life situation or fits a different protocol.

There’s also the battle of resources; now more than ever, folks on the front line need protection like gloves and N95 face masks. Luckily, that call is being heard by larger corporations who can do something, such as Battelle. Battelle now works with hospitals, including Riverside, to decontaminate face masks for these front line workers.  And coincidentally, Vale’s husband works as a virologist at Battelle while she was also a former microbiologist for Battelle.

“I have been able to share my knowledge about virus research and testing with my co-workers at the hospital. It has been very helpful to understand the challenges in developing reliable testing and treatments,” she said. “When we first realized that PPE supplies were a real concern, we were worried about how we would be able to protect ourselves and still care for our patients. The relief of having enough PPE available was really palpable on the unit.”

Vales also faces challenges in her personal life. As a mother to a six-year-old boy, the outbreak of COVID-19 has severely changed his day-to-day without much preparation. Like most young children, social distancing is stopping him from going out and playing like he normally would.

“It’s difficult to convey the situation without scaring him,” she said.

But still, Vales and the rest of the team at Riverside continue to fight on the front line, day-in and day-out. And through all the adversity and tough times, she is still taking a moment to recognize the silver lining on these cloudy days.

“The outpouring of support for health care workers has been amazing and people have been so generous to our unit. We have gotten sweet treats, thank you cards, coffee, and so many encouraging words, which has been very much appreciated,” she said. “Different departments in the hospital have been doing kind things for each other, and our food service staff have been a huge support. I have seen many kind acts across Columbus as well. Food drives, to organizing financial help for families in need, to the support of local businesses. It has been great to see so many people doing what they can to help others.”

***

Saviors: Travis Ulmer, MD, FACEP

Sometimes the battle against COVID-19 in Columbus means taking your talents elsewhere; and that’s what Travis Ulmer, MD, FACEP, is doing. And even then, it’s an uphill battle.

“The toughest thing I’ve had to deal with is that I’ve been applying and registering to help New York City for multiple weeks,” Ulmer said. “But extensive red tape has prevented me from being where the healthcare workers are truly overwhelmed and need us the most.”

Ulmer specializes in emergency medicine here in Central Ohio. As someone who has worked on the front lines here, he’s been reminded of the importance physicians like himself can have—especially during an international pandemic. And all the extra steps medical workers have made to further protect their families, he said the outbreak has been eye-opening within his own life.

“I will never take for granted the impact and importance of being present for our families when we are home,” he said.

But, while there have been many struggles, he’s found the silver lining in moments like this.

“The most beautiful thing I’ve seen is that so many people appreciate the entire medical staff, not just us as physicians. There is an incredible workforce that collectively cares for patients. I am so glad they are being recognized and appreciated for the heroes that they are.”

***

Saviors: Kim and Kallie Mallett, Mask Makers

Life was normal for Kim and Kallie Mallett just a few months ago. While Kim worked at Burn Boot Camp, Kallie was busy as an American Sign Language interpreter. And then in a flash, as it has been for most of us, life was far from normal.

Gyms were one of the first of businesses to close due to COVID-19 so Kim was out of work. And Kallie was also temporarily laid off from her position. Though the financial losses have been tough to manage, the biggest thing the two said they miss is getting to interact with and help all the people they meet through their jobs. So it makes sense that the two found a way, even through social distancing and shelter-in-place, to help by making face masks.

“I have been sewing off and on for years so when an EMT friend expressed a need for homemade masks as a way to extend the life of hers and her fire stations N95 masks, we felt called to help,” Kim said. “We quickly realized how significant the shortage of PPE was across all essential workers and just kept going. In the three weeks we’ve been making masks, we have completed almost 700.”

Through mask making, they’ve been able to raise more than $900 in donations—$700 of which will be donated to the Mid Ohio Food Bank and the rest will be used to purchase more fabrics to make more masks.

“It’s been amazing to see Ohio come together and lend a helping hand to their neighbors—from six feet away, of course,” Kim said.

“I’m further reminded of how interconnected we all are and how we need to continue to rely on each other because we truly are all in this together.”

And of course, they’ve learned lessons along the way.

“I’ve learned to take it slowly and one day at a time,” Kalie said “I will be more appreciative of time with friends, the ability to workout with my gym family—really, just normal life in general.”

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