ON THE CHICAGO RIVER — Ten years ago, Lakeview's Su Bermingham was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis.
The inflammatory disease, which can cause vertebrae to fuse together, made simple tasks like bending over or bathing her three children extremely difficult for Bermingham.
"Any activity was stopped because I was in pain," Bermingham said. "Over a period of time, I couldn't even walk around the block. And I wasn't able to run or golf. All those things you take for granted, I couldn't do."
On a doctor's advice, Bermingham took up rowing and her health immediately began to improve, she said.
Justin Breen introduces us to Su Bermingham:
"For me, just the ability to move from a mental perspective was huge," said Bermingham, 45. "I was actually pretty good at it, and I took to it really quickly. And I'm virtually pain free now."
Bermingham has become a master rower, competing on eight-person teams with the Chicago Rowing Foundation, which is headquartered at 3400 N. Rockwell St. in North Center. The organization trains and competes on the Chicago River and a state-of-the-art indoor facility, which will be hosting sessions for newcomers as part of Saturday's National Learn to Row Day.
Bermingham said many rowers start in their 30s like she did. Betsy Trevarthen, the Chicago Rowing Foundation's executive director for development and communications, said she's seen rowers begin even later in life.
"We have some people in their 60s who had never done it before," Trevarthen said.
Trevarthen said rowing was a perfect fit for Bermingham because the discipline doesn't affect her joints. She's also progressed in the sport from starting in a single-person scull boat, where the rower has two oars, to an eight-person boat where each person powers through the water with a single oar.
"It's the ultimate team sport," Bermingham said. "The boat crosses the finish line as one."
Bermingham practices with her squad three days a week, 1½ hours each session. She trains separately indoors one day a week for 1½ hours indoors.
She also makes time to row with her daughter, Delaney, a sophomore-to-be at Loyola Academy, and Ben Donovan, an Army veteran. Bermingham and Donovan were on the water Friday near Goose Island in a two-person craft working on different strokes and techniques.
"It was an excellent workout," said Donovan, 28, who drives from Kenosha, Wis., once a week to row with Bermingham.
Bermingham continues to take anti-inflammatory medication and receives an IV treatment every six weeks to combat ankylosing spondylitis. But she said no one would ever know she has the disease unless she mentioned it.
Rowing, she said, has been the key to her recovery.
"In terms of happiness, I'm a 10 out of 10," she said. "There's something to be said when you have a chronic disease, that it doesn't consume all of your thoughts. It's a great thing to not have to worry about it."