Man with early-onset Parkinson’s rowing for US at Paralympic Games

Todd Vogt, turning 50 in August, will compete as a mixed-doubles rower

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by Mary Chapman |

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An adult with early-onset Parkinson’s disease, who is nearing age 50, will compete on the world stage this summer as a mixed-doubles rower at the Paralympic Games in Paris.

Todd Vogt of Portland, Oregon, who was diagnosed in 2018 with early-onset Parkinson’s at age 43, will represent the U.S. alongside Saige Harper, 21, of Fairfield, Connecticut.

“I don’t want to be hyperbolic about it, but it’s going to be life-changing to be there,” said Vogt in a news release from Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU). “It’s going to be awesome.”

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Vogt was diagnosed at age 43 with symptoms of fatigue and tremor

Parkinson’s, a progressive disease of the central nervous system, most often is found in individuals in their 60s, but it can affect younger adults. About 10%-20% of all cases are in people diagnosed before age 50, and they are considered to have early-onset disease.

Parkinson’s symptoms often affect the motor skills needed for balance and movement, and can be evident as tremor, rigidity, and slowed movement. Patients also may experience nonmotor symptoms that influence a person’s mental health, cognitive abilities, and sleep patterns.

Vogt, an OHSU patient, has symptoms that include weakness, fatigue, and involuntary tremor in his left hand and foot. He said exercise, known to be of benefit, has helped him.

“I believe all the exercise I’ve been doing has delayed the progression,” said Vogt, a longtime professional rowing coach.

Given his active lifestyle, Vogt says he was caught off guard by his diagnosis. But within six months, he was training hard on his rowing machine and competed in the 2019 World Cup in Poland. He was an alternate rower for the U.S. team at the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo.

Vogt normally works out for four hours daily, but he plans to step that up with the arrival of Harper, who is expected to join him in training at the Portland Boat Club. He can be seen “carving a wake” in his sculling shell six days of each week.

Vogt’s neurologist, Lauren Talman, called Vogt a model patient and inspiration for others struggling to come to terms with their diagnosis. And he’s an advocate for the value of exercise in Parkinson’s.

“He’s willing to be a resource and a mentor for others with early onset Parkinson’s,” said Talman, also an assistant professor of neurology in the OSHU School of Medicine.

Celebrating a 50th birthday while the Paralympics are underway

In addition to the challenges of competing at an Olympic level with Parkinson’s, Vogt faces the particular challenges of athleticism at an older age: He turns 50 on Aug. 31, three days after the Paralympics begin.

“It would be almost unheard of for the Olympics,” he said.

Portland Boat Club member Hans Feige, who coaches Vogt, said he’s often “amazed” at Vogt’s workouts. Despite having a cold, it recently took Vogt six minutes and 30 seconds on the ergometer — an indoor rowing machine — to complete the equivalent of the standard 2,000-meter course. Vogt’s personal best was 6:20 while a rower at the University of Buffalo in the 1990s.

“Add 30 years and Parkinson’s, and he’s only 10 seconds slower,” Feige said.

The film “The Boys in the Boat,” released last year, is expected to produce new interest in rowing during the Summer Games. It is based on a 2013 book chronicling the University of Washington’s surprise gold-medal win during the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Vogt, who has seen the movie, hopes to add to the legacy of the Pacific Northwest in rowing.

Talman intends to watch Vogt compete — partly as his neurologist, but mostly as a fan.

“He’s just a good human,” she said.