Dwayne H. Adams, Founder and Executive Director, Breaking Barriers Rowing & FitnessMay 23, 2022 11:34AM ● By Tricia Hoadley
The story of Dwayne Adams is the story of resilience. Severely injured by a stray bullet in 1998, Adams overcame the harrowing experience to become a world champion rower. In 2005, he began Breaking Barriers Rowing & Fitness, which has been in Newark for the past three years. Recently, Newark Life sat down with Adams to discuss the tragedy that he went through, his refusal to let it defeat him and the organization he operates to set others on a pathway of self-growth.
Newark Life: Your first fell in love with rowing when you saw it on television, during an Olympic broadcast in the 1980s. Describe what you saw, and what was going through your mind at the time.
Adams: While I knew that the Olympics occurred every four years, I can’t say that I watched it avidly. One night, however, I was glancing at a track and field event, when suddenly, it was interrupted by a rowing event. What is this? I thought. The broadcasters were introducing the participating countries, and all of a sudden, the race begins, and I am on the edge of my seat and I am moving with the rowers in their boats. I could feel myself getting revved up and I could see the boats jockeying for position.
I had never had that feeling before, but just like that, it became a distant memory that through a miracle, somehow came back.
The beginning arc of what becomes every person’s greatest story does not always begin beautifully. Take the readers of Newark Life back to the evening of July 19, 1998. You had just arrived at your mother’s house in Philadelphia.
I was off to meet the kids of a woman I had begun dating a few months before. I sat on the front steps of my mother’s house debating whether I wanted to go or not. And then, Bang! My ears started ringing and I couldn’t open my eyes and I asked ‘What happened?’ I realized that I had been shot in the face. I turned and crawled up the steps and began banging on the door. My mother came to the door but she couldn’t see me because I was on the porch floor.
I screamed, ‘Mom, someone shot me!”
With one arm, my mother dragged me into the vestibule of her home and called the police. I heard the neighbors in the background, yelling “Look at all of that blood!” The paramedics soon arrived, and grabbed me by each arm and walked me out the door and walked me down five steps because the stretcher couldn’t fit in the front door. They got me into the ambulance and all I heard were loud noises.
Through all of the noise, I heard one voice tell me quietly, “It’s not time for you to go. I want you to breathe.” Just when I heard it, the paramedic put a mask on my face, and I just became calm, and we headed to Temple University Hospital.
What happened next?
When we arrived one of the doctors said, “Dwayne, we are going to open your eyelid, and if you can see my light, squeeze my hand.” I saw the light, and squeezed his hand. Then everything went quiet, but I knew I wasn’t in heaven because I could still feel the presence of others around me and the sound of the machines.
The next thing I felt was a hand taking mine and squeezing it and letting it go. I knew it was my mother's touch, sending me a prayer for whatever was about to happen.
When I woke up the next morning, a doctor asked me, “Dwayne, can you hear me?” I told him that I could. “Dwayne, you are at Temple University and you were shot and a bullet entered your skull. The bullet is still inside of you. We removed one eye and you have lost vision in the other eye.”
At the time my vision was so bad everything looked like clouds. Even the doctors in their white coats looked like clouds, and when they first started talking the clouds came together as one, and when they finished talking, the four clouds separated.
As you were recuperating in rehabilitation after you lost your left eye, a woman suggested several forms of fitness for people with disabilities. She mentioned the sport of rowing. Talk about how that one recommendation changed your life.
It was beautiful and ironic, because her recommendation came so many years after I first saw rowing at the Olympics. She had first suggested tandem bike riding. I didn’t want to be on the back of a bike. Then she suggested tandem roller skating and weightlifting and then rowing. The feeling I had many years before came back to me, and not too long afterwards, I found myself being driven along Kelly Drive and to the boathouses along the Schuykill River.
I saw athletes with several disabilities there – amputees and those with cerebral palsy, for instance – and soon I was in a boat and rowing in the river. An instructor told me, “I know that you are strong, but we need to teach you the technique first.”
Nine months after I left the hospital, I took part in my first regatta, and I finished in second place. I was upset, because I didn’t win. That became the drive that began the rest of my life.
Describe the sensation of being on the water during those early sessions. It must have been freeing in many ways, yes?
It was actually beyond freeing. When I was out on the water, I could see the cars going by on Kelly Drive. I could see the fishermen along the banks and other boats, but all I could hear was my breathing, my partner’s breathing, the oars dipping in and out of the water, and the ducks and the geese. I could hear nature and feel the wind. After going through something so traumatic, to be placed in a scenario like this, I couldn’t have asked for more than that. This was nature. This was God.
You would go on to row on both adaptive and able-bodied teams, earn a spot on the U.S. Adaptive Rowing Team, and earn a medal at the 2002 U.S. Championships in Spain. Do you ever view your success in rowing as both a series of accomplishments but also a statement to your resilience?
No. I prayed and went to church prior to my injury, but the power of my faith that gives me that resilience has climbed to another level in the years since. To those who do not see the real me, I am blind, because that is what they choose to see. I have faced many challenges, but they have always been met with the fact that I will not give up. I am in a rowing race for my life now, and am I going to give up? No.
I always say that the bullet that entered my skull was a blessed bullet. It may have left me with partial sight in one eye and no sense of smell, but it has enabled God to elevate me higher and that has transcended to everyone around me, including my trainers.
Breaking Barriers Rowing & Fitness is built on the principles of diversity, equity and inclusion. You founded the organization in 2005 in Philadelphia, moved it to Wilmington and opened up your Newark location three years ago. How did these principles figure in your vision to begin the organization?
These principles of our organization are in place because they aren’t what I see at many other organizations. I asked myself, “Why can’t I have a kid from the inner city who doesn’t have it as well as a rich kid from the suburbs rowing together?” I believe that it can all be done under one roof, under one mission.
Here, you see Black, Hispanic and white. We have adults coming in from different backgrounds who may have had some initial reservations and are now working alongside each other. It’s the concept that is breaking barriers through fitness.
Breaking Barriers is truly diverse not only in its members, but in its programs: youth training, group training, fitness for seniors and veterans, core strength and more. Describe the advantages of membership here, as opposed to joining a health club facility.
In far too many health clubs, individuals come to get their work out in, but here, it’s about family. I just saw a mother here who was working out while her young daughter was enjoying herself meeting some of the other members. At another club, that young girl may be thought of as a nuisance, but here, one of our other members stopped her workout to play with the young girl.
You are a well-sought-after public speaker. What is the message you share with others?
Public speaking has been another blessing for me. I have never taken a course in giving speeches, nor have I ever written a speech. What I speak about is based on what the program’s message is about, but it comes from the heart, and it comes from my life experiences, and it simply takes off from there.
Too many people deliver nothing more than a pre-written speech. I can’t do that. I need the audience to feel what I feel. I always try to put me in them and them in me. I always thank everyone for allowing me to be a part of them.
What is your favorite place in Newark?
That’s easy. Breaking Barriers Rowing & Fitness.
You decide to host a dinner party, and can invite anyone you wish – living or not, famous or not. Who would you love to see sitting around that table?
The first person I would like to see there is my father, who passed away in a drowning accident when I was three. I would also like to invite Muhammad Ali. I always felt that in front of the camera, he needed to do what he needed to do, but away from the camera, he was a different person, and I could learn so much from this man.
I would also like to invite Warren Buffet, just to listen to him and the directions he might point me in. I would also invite Jay-Z, who elevated himself from the ‘hood to become a successful businessman. I would also like to see Michelle Obama at that table, as well as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Sheila Johnson, the and the first African-American woman to become a billionaire.
That dinner would cover everything from spiritual growth to business and finance to life.
What item can always be found in your refrigerator?
- Richard L. Gaw