Danielle Hansen, a Patterson native made Paralympic history by becoming the first ever female rower to qualify for back-to-back Paralympics.
“It’s very easy to make excuses because of my arm but I never use it as an excuse, if there’s a sliver of a chance that I can do it, I’ll take my chances even it’s going to take longer because of my disability. Just putting a lot of responsibility on my movement, my skill, and myself, it’s something my parents have taught me that has really helped me, and they always taught me to never say I can’t do anything because I can do anything I want to do,” said Danielle Hansen.
Hansen was born October 16, 1993, with Erb’s Palsy in her left arm. Erb’s Palsy is an arm injury that causes nerve damage limiting the use of the injured arm, and it is most common but doesn’t only happen during birth.
“Dani was the happiest kid you ever met,” said Danielle Hansen’s mother Sharon. “She was really athletic and really curious about things, and she loves being around people.”
“Growing up in Patterson was great. Everyone was so welcoming, it was like growing up in a huge family, nobody treated me different because of my arm, said Danielle Hansen. I always tell people it’s the best place in the world,” said Danielle.
Hansen is a class of 2012 graduate at Patterson High School and while growing up in Patterson she participated in basketball, softball, volleyball, soccer, track and field, while finishing high school as a valedictorian. After high school she attended the University of Washington, which is where she was introduced to rowing.
One thing the Hansens knew is that Patterson had Danielle’s back growing up, but there were always some people who didn’t understand her disability.
She excelled in basketball as a shot blocker, “She was six feet tall in the eight grade and she was like the shot block queen, she was just blocking shots all over the place. There was one coach from a different school that would always come up to me, my husband, or Dani and say, ‘She would be so much better if she blocked shots with two hands.’ I had pulled the coach aside to explain Dani’s condition, and let them know we don’t make a big deal about it,” said Sharon.
The coach didn’t understand and unfortunately that wasn’t the last time they faced people who just didn’t get it.
“When she played catcher in softball people (in the stands) would ask me, ‘Why does she choose to do it (throwing and catching the ball with her right hand) like that would so much easier for her to catch with left and throw with her right,’ They thought it was choice, like it was a trick.”
Danielle having to catch and throw with her right hand not only raised questions in the crowd but also caused an uproar during one of her PHS softball games.
“One coach screamed out ‘That’s not fair, that’s not fair she’s tricking my players. She’s pretending like she’s a left-handed catcher but she’s not and she’s just doing that to trick our players into running to second,’ I was shocked, and told him ‘Who would do that?’, said Sharon.
With supreme athleticism Hansen wanted to play a division one sport and certainly knew she had the capability to do so despite her condition.
“I wanted to play volleyball at the division one level, but I only had one offer that wasn’t division one,” said Danielle.
Schools were turned off by her having Erb’s Palsy and the only offer she had was a volleyball scholarship from NAIA school Florida College in Temple Terrance, Florida. Even though volleyball was the sport she wanted to play she didn’t want to move cross county to play, and it wasn’t division one.
“The school was in a small town, and I needed to be in a place where I’m in a more challenging situation, like a small fish in a big pond,” said Danielle.
With that in mind Danielle and her family went on a college tour in the state of Washington. She and her mother made a stop at the University of Washington, which is also Sharon’s alma mater. Sharon was a rower for three years at the University of Washington from 1980-1982.
“She didn’t know how to row before going to the University of Washington and the coaches told her they would teach her. All her life she wanted to be a D-1 athlete and she got her wish when one of the premier rowing universities offered her a scholarship,” said Sharon.
During the Hansen’s official visit Sharon informed the rowing coach Bob Ernst, who was still there from her rowing days about her daughter’s condition, and they still agreed to offer her scholarship.
“When I went on my official visit, I knew this was where I wanted to be,” said Danielle.
She didn’t have an ideal start to her collegiate career, she suffered a torn right meniscus during freshman year, and she was still learning how to row. Determined to learn and succeed Hansen was in the coach’s boat daily after surgery, asking questions and learning about her new craft.
“I know sometimes it had to be annoying for him (coach Conor Bullis), but I couldn’t physically practice, so if I can’t row, I can at least learn about it by asking. I don’t know how he didn’t throw me off the boat (in joking manner) because I was constantly asking him questions.”
All those days spent learning would come to fruition when she returned to the team for the fall season.
“I was back on the freshman team because I had red-shirted but I couldn’t let all these little freshmen (first year freshman) beat me, so I had to raise my own standard and figure out how to be one of the best.”
While at Washington she was able to capture a PAC-12 title and compete on a World Championship stage in Amsterdam in 2014. Her UW teammate, Eleni Englert learned about Danielle’s disability and advised her to tryout for the Paralympic team. Englert previously competed alongside another athlete who also had Erb’s Palsy in the 2012 London Paralympics.
“When I went to the boathouse to do the 2000-meter test and my team came to cheer me on while I do the test, I sent in the video, and they liked it. I made the USA Select team for the first time in 2014. In Amsterdam was the first time I was stroking the boat (person in the front of the boat), I thought it was really nice that my coaches and teammates had confidence that I can handle that level of responsibility.”
Her parent’s reaction to her making her first Paralympic team was priceless. “It almost makes me cry thinking about it. That was amazing, I knew she was going to do big things one day and I wasn’t surprised because it doesn’t surprise me when she does amazing things. It was so cool and exciting. I remember us on FaceTime, and she had tears in her eyes, and I had tears in my eyes, we had little American flags and we started waving them in the camera. She was in Boston, (where U.S. Rowing trains) and we were here in Patterson screaming as we were so excited for her,” said Sharon.
In that event was when her history making started, they finished with a silver medal in that event, but it was also the first time a U.S. team earned a medal in that event and they were being led by the Patterson native. She then went on to compete and win a silver medal in the 2016 Paralympics in Rio De Janeiro.
“Racing in Rio allowed me to get a new experience under my belt that was different than a World Championship. The stakes felt higher, and the venue and race setup were different than anything I had been used to from other international races. I think that having raced many World Championships has added another level to my repertoire that I can pull from as I head into Tokyo,” said Danielle.
Danielle added, “You are never the same stroke in water because everything’s moving so you have to be ready to adapt at moment’s notice. I feel ready to go no matter what’s going on.”
After Rio De Janeiro, Danielle would add to her legacy by setting a world record in the PR3 Women’s Coxless Pair in Bulgaria with a time of 7:39:30. Then COVID-19 shut down the world as Danielle was gaining momentum winning World Championships and putting the world on notice. With the pandemic striking during an Olympic year, it set all Olympic athletes back (in terms of preparation), but Danielle found a positive way to channel her energy and stay ready.
“I remember thinking ‘What’s going to be the hardest thing to do? The answer to that was to relax,’ The hardest thing for me was to stay relaxed. I practiced relaxing. I did a lot of meditation and stretching, learning to relax and stay calm in high pressure situations. I couldn’t train like it was the same year because it wasn’t. I also did breathing techniques to help myself get ready for Selection Camp.”
During this time, her coaches were skeptical if she would be ready to go dealing with nagging injuries and the new world, we’re living in.
“I told them put me in the worst boat and I promise I would win. They sent the invite and put me in some tricky situations to win and I won all three of my trial races. I think I made the team because I practiced relaxing. You can’t be neck-to-neck with someone and not be relaxed and gain the victory.”
Hansen carries Patterson everywhere with her as she has the cities 209 area code tattooed on her hand Roman Numerals.
“I see it as something I wanted to do (making back-to-back Paralympics) to represent my family and where I’m from. I feel like Patterson deserves something really great attached to it and I have attached myself to Patterson and I want to help because I had such a great time growing up there, I want to make Patterson memorable to people and know that great things coming from Patterson.”