As I alluded yesterday, I awoke early this morning and caught the 8:07 am train from Grand Central to Westport, CT. The purpose of my trip? The fifth annual North American Oxford versus Cambridge Alumni Boat Race. Now, I know that I've dedicated many lines on this blog to running, cycling, and swimming, but rowing remains my first athletic love. I began rowing at fourteen, competed all four years of high school, almost competed in college, then competed for a year and a half at Oxford--six months at Corpus and one year at Somerville--rowed occasionally on Cayuga Lake in Ithaca, and finally rowed for about six months on a master's team in Marin County right before I moved to New York last June. Whew! Since that transcontinental move, however, I have not sat in a boat once, and to say that I miss the sport would be a significant understatement. As I've stated previously, while running and cycling I truly feel like myself, but to an even greater degree I feel like myself while pulling a blade through the water.
I accepted that living in Manhattan would mean a definitive absence of rowing from my life, and running, cycling, swimming, and squash have more than adequately filled the void. That said, I still fantasize about one day owning a shell and skimming the water every morning as the sun rises; I also hope to join another master's sweep team in the future. One of the greatest gifts that rowing has given me is the opportunity to befriend people who I otherwise would not have met--not only to befriend them, but also to laugh, sweat, and suffer with them, day after day, in every kind of weather from freezing rain to oppressive heat. I realize that the preceding sentence might make me sounds insane (why would suffering with someone be considered an opportunity?), and to that implicit question all I can answer is that some of the greatest friendships, and deepest self-knowledge, emerge from experiences like these. And that truly is a gift.
In the Spring of 2005 I was supposed to race in the first alumni Blues versus Tabs showdown, but at the last minute I had to stay in Ithaca; last year I was also supposed to row, but ended up having to travel to California for work. This year, come hell or high water (which nearly came to pass, thanks to Hurricane Danny), I was going to be in Westport for rower check-in at 9:00 am. I didn't know a single person--spectator or rower--and from the preliminary line-up, I appeared to be one of only a few women as well as one of only a few recent graduates. I slept on the train and awoke to a grey and drizzly Connecticut morning. Fortunately, the Saugatuck Rowing Club possesses one of the most beautiful boathouses I've ever seen; I would have rowed through the hurricane itself for the opportunity to relax in the SRC's well-appointed abode or explore the river in one of its gorgeous Resolutes.
Well into our 4000 meter warm-up on the Saugatuck I realized that I'd been rowing without consciousness, meaning that I'd settled into the boat, responded to the coxswain's commands, and been catching and swinging in sync with my seven boat mates without any awareness of these motions. MAR once told me that after something like 10,000 gear shifts, cyclists shift in response to the terrain without consciously needing to think or anticipate those shifts, and I wonder at what point I passed that consciousness benchmark in crew. It felt like the most natural thing in the world to be sitting in bow pair on a Saturday morning, my blade backsplashing onto the bow ball as we cut through the Saugatuck's glassy surface.
We lost, just as Oxford has apparently lost each of the last four meets. Just as I didn't care when I failed to score points in ECCC bike races, I didn't care at all that we we lost both the 750 meter and the 500 meter sprint. I never used to line up on the water unless I was 100% confident in my ability to beat my opponents, and I usually did. I think that, in the future, that will be the case again. But for now, what drives me and sustains me in these endeavors isn't winning; it's just being there. The experience of being on the water, of hearing the birds and the boats skim, the waves lapping the docks and the coxswain's echoing calls--it's enough. It's more than I dreamed I would have for the life that I live here.
Corpus Christi College First Women's VIII
Oxford Summer Eights 2002
Somerville College Women's First VIII
Oxford Summer Eights 2004