When I was in college, I rowed crew. I can’t really tell you why I joined the team other than to say that I left high school with a lingering crush on my high school boyfriend. This boyfriend was obsessed with his older sister, a rower for Clemson University,. I think a large part of me felt that the way to his heart would be through collegiate athletics. Just so you know how well that went, I am now happily married to Andy who does not have a sister and the boyfriend in question is probably somewhere out there with a boyfriend of his own to row with down a river in northern Virginia where I assume he still lives. We lost touch somewhere between his coming out of the closet and his raging at me in a public restaurant for quitting the team half way through my senior year. By that time I was exhausted and he clearly needed counseling.
For all the wacked out reasons that I joined the team, I can say that it was a largely positive experience for me despite them. I had been a decent enough soccer player in high school but was tired of the sport by the time I got to college. Crew was something new I could learn that kept me focused on goals outside of how many shots I could down in a given weekend. Our school had a reputation for partying and the idea of spending most of my college years drunk sounded worse than spending most of my college years getting up at 5:00 in the morning. So I chose the latter.
The only real problem with the Loyola College rowing team was that we weren’t very good. Racing shells, oars and coaching launches are so expensive compared to the price it costs to run a basketball squad that the school couldn’t afford to offer our team any scholarships. This left our coaches committed to recruiting people who were just masochistic enough to actually want to get up at 5:00 every morning during their college years and work on perfecting our rowing strokes. Needless to say, it was always a hard sell.
My sophomore year, my two closest friends on the team were two seniors who had just returned from study abroad years in Ireland and Thailand. Not only were they terribly out of shape but they were five foot four inches at most and no more than 125 pounds soaking wet. These two along with two others in our varsity eight were really much more fit to lightweight events – the category of rowers that allows shorter women to compete against teams more similar in size and thus more suitably matched for competition. Of course my smaller teammates sizes were a problem given that the rest of our squad were closer to six feet, and, well, decisively NOT 125 pounds.
On a soccer team these varying sizes might not be such a problem but in a boat where the length of someones arm’s and legs determines how fast or slow you have to swing to keep a boat balanced, it can be a huge problem. This meant that most of our mornings were spent with our coach attempting to help us time our catches in a very specific way. Quicker with the shorter girls and a longer in the air with the taller girls. We practiced for hours on end, at 6:00 in the morning, on the world’s narrowest boat. We did this rain or shine for months.
I share all this to say that most of my time on the water with this squad was incredibly frustrating. Narrow boats with varying stroke times mean that the boat is constantly dipping from side to side and the oars are getting stuck in the water because the timing is off. There is no glorious sense of “swing” that you hear about when you talk to rowers in more suitably matched clubs. Practices are slow and choppy with constant stops to allow various rowers to practice strokes while the rest of the team balances the boat for her with oars flat on the water. After two years of this torture it hadn’t occurred to me to expect anything other than a slow boat with no swing. I didn’t know that things could be any different because I had never experienced it.
Then, at the end of our sophomore racing season, something strange and completely unexpected happened. We were at our conference championship regatta and in the final women’s race of the day. We were positioned next to Marist College that had a boat I was certain would beat us just as they had beat us at every race we had met them in that season. The starting gun went off and we started the race like we did every other race and practice that season. We each zoned in on the muscled back of the teammate in front of us, attempting to match their oar speed stroke after stroke.
Miraculously, 500 meters into the 2000 meter sprint, something happened that the entire boat felt. We got swing. Something clicked and the boat for the first time started feeling light. It was like rowing on air. Not only that but by half way down the course I could see out of the corner of my eye that we were neck and neck with Marist College – the team that had left us in the dust race after race that spring. On the other side of the boat I could see on land that our coach was now on his mountain bike racing towards the finish line and screaming at the top of his lungs on our behalf. The rest of the men’s and women’s teams were soon running behind him cheering us on. What they hadn’t known until after we were already on the water was that the women’s races that had gone ahead of us had all gone very well for our school. Our coach and teammates on the sidelines knew what we didn’t: if we won the varsity women’s eight race we would be conference champions.
Eventually, we got to the final 250 meters and with a call from our coxswain we gave the rest of the race everything we had left. Marist did the same as we heard their coxswain yelling at her rowers to push harder but they didn’t have it. We won the race and then to our doubled surprise at the finish line we learned that we had won the entire regatta. We all completely lost our minds, started screaming and all but jumped in the water we were so happy.
I love remembering this race for several reasons but I keep coming back to two thoughts when I think of it. First, I keep remembering how quickly we forgot the drudgery of the months beforehand. Miserable practices were long forgotten once everything clicked that day. The rest of the season was incredible as we felt and performed like an actual legitimate crew. If I’m honest, sometimes I think that the heights of joy we felt that day would not have been as high if we didn’t have the miserable months behind us too. Its like the harder parts put the really joyful high in deeper relief.
The other thing I love remembering is just how elated we all were by the end of that race. I rarely think of it without a huge smile flashing across my face. It reminds me that happiness (as our culture views it) and joy are two very different things and that joy is totally worth shooting for.
I don’t know about you but I have a few things in my life these days that feel a bit like unending rowing practices on a cold and rainy river. I am also all too aware that some of these difficulties are things that might just stick with me in some form or another for the long haul. In rowing, some crews just never get past the drudgery. I am grateful though for these high moments in life that remind me to keep digging in, keep practicing and keep holding out for joy. Looking back I can say that it was worth the 2 years of difficulty to get to those 2 months of pure joy. I’ll never forget what that felt like.