“Winning a rowing race is not like winning anything else. Here’s my theory: you’re facing backwards, so you’re looking at the people you’re beating—and there’s something exquisite about that.” – Hugh Laurie
I’m not sure when I realized it. It could have been during a brutally cold winter morning at 6am as I groggily made my way from my dorm to the basement of the athletic center. It also could have been during the first twenty strokes of the final race of the season, in the form of one of those sly epiphanies that always seem to occur at the most inconvenient times. Or maybe it was the accumulated reasoning of an entire year of practice, races, and beautiful St. Lawrence River sunrises.
My realization was this: joining rowing, quite simply, was the greatest decision I have ever made.
In the past few years, the media have brought rowing into the national spotlight, particularly after the US women’s eight took gold in Beijing in 2008, and then again in London this summer. (Interestingly enough, our coach, Nick Hughes, taught one of the eight Olympians how to row during her freshman year at St. Lawrence.) The 2010 blockbuster The Social Network’s crowning cinematographic achievement was the 90-second clip of the Winklevoss twins rowing for Harvard at the Henley Royal Regatta.
With this newfound national attention to the sport, I have thankfully received significantly fewer blank stares when I tell people that I am on a collegiate rowing team. No, it isn’t like kayaking or canoeing. Yes, you do get a lot of blisters. No, you don’t only use your arms. Am I going to the Olympics? Well, a girl can dream, right?
Rowers are unique in the athletic world. Perhaps the most significant difference between rowing and other sports is the coxswain, or the “little person who sits in the boat and yells at the rowers.” While they are not required to be athletic, coxswains are, in the words of US rowing coach Tom Terhaar, “as integral to the boat as the rowers are… they can’t do it without [him or her].”
I am a coxswain for the St. Lawrence women’s rowing team, and it is this unique role that led me to the staggering, aforementioned conclusion.
Rowers do not see where they are going. They are supposed to “keep their heads in the boat”, therefore placing their trust in the coxswain to steer them, encourage them, and to pinpoint errors in their technique. As the coxswain, you alone see everything that is going on both within and around the boat, and yours is the only voice that the rowers will hear.
Leadership-wise, it is possibly one of the most difficult skills to learn—how to guide and communicate with people who cannot see where they are going, who are undergoing what is essentially physical hell. It is brutal to watch, and even more painful to ask more of them when they are nearing utter exhaustion.
Yet I have been told time and time again by the rowers to demand more from them when they are fatigued. They want perfection, and they will not allow themselves to become complacent until they have achieved their goals.
Rowing is a sport that takes time. When one sets a goal to lose a few pounds and work out more, results are easy to see, often in the span of a few weeks. As for rowing, while teaching someone to row doesn’t take very long, teaching someone to row effectively may very well take a few years. True rowers are not daunted by this incredibly long gap between training and results. During the long days of winter training, they are able to focus on the medal or the race that is months in the future, able to summon the image of winning at moments when being together on the water seems as distant as the moon.
In life, that ability to stay fixated on a long-term goal is often the difference between failure and success. No wonder rowers make an average income of more than 60% above the national average, according to a 2008 study by Boathouse Finder.
Being a part of the rowing team has shown me the sheer magnitude of human potential. Put a person in a boat, hand them an oar, give them a taste of what winning feels like—and soon enough, they will be practicing for five hours a day, will be getting up three hours before the rest of their campus to row in subzero temperatures, and will have the unstoppable willpower of a champion.
Rowers can do it all, and they can do it well. Joining the rowing team will be the greatest decision you will ever make, if you choose to accept the harsh realities of the sport. By doing so, you will understand the incalculable value of an indomitable spirit—and you will learn, above all, that your achievements in life are limited only by the magnitude of your drive to achieve them.
Written by By Amy Yao / Huffingtonpost