June 17, 2020

The Great Exultation

“Harmony, balance, and rhythm. They’re the three things that stay with you your whole life.”

During this time, I find myself at a unique juncture. As an incoming college student, it is the first time in a while that there have not been serious academic pressures on me, so I have been able to recreate, reflect, exercise, and hone my skills in writing and programming. Normally when I work out each day, I will run on the treadmill and let my mind wander as my body takes over. Often my mind goes to the topic of baseball, probably because part of me is still perseverating over not being able to play my senior season. Our season was canceled before it began due to the coronavirus pandemic. It was a long time coming to be at the top of the totem pole, but it never happened. I try to focus on the positives, though. As you might know, it can be difficult to see the positive in a world that can be so negative at times. These biases toward negativity that we have are inbuilt, and it takes effort to alter these patterns of behavior.

On the bright side, I still had a full autumn season of rowing in 2019, for which I am grateful. Throughout the years of rowing for the Chicago Rowing Foundation, I have learned some of the most important lessons in life thus far and have formed lifelong bonds with other people. As I face my transition to college in the coming months, I wonder how I will adapt. I am not sure whether this will be the end of my career in organized sports. On the one hand, it might be impractical to try to play sports for a Division I school. On the other hand, practicing athletics has been such a cornerstone of my identity that I cannot imagine my life without the discipline, honor, exultation, and community.

Rowers have a sense of community that the most brilliant of writers have struggled to define since the sport’s inception as capital punishment. In the years that I rowed for CRF, the community exhibited harmony, balance, rhythm, and belonging. Each crew member at CRF knows his or her position like a birthright. I am a four-seat, and among the other even-numbered rowers, I am a port. This means that my oar is on the left side of the boat when facing forward. It is on the right to me. There is a tendency to portray four-seats as the daydreamers—the inquisitive, woeful ones always thinking to themselves when rowing. However, from experience, I can tell you that this perception probably originates from the fact that I am out of hearing distance from the coxswain, the person who sits at the stern and directs the rowers. The bow rower is at the other end of the boat, farther from the coxswain than I, yet he somehow hears directions perfectly fine. Five-seat is usually the strongest of us, and seven-seat must have impeccable technique and can break down every improvement we must make for the next race. Stroke-seat is like a maverick, keeping the stroke rate consistent as everyone else follows his lead. Although all the claptrap goings-on of this boat are invisible to spectators. Like how a duck looks so elegant as it glides across a pond, we do not see the chaotic webbed feet, frantically battering and propelling through the water underneath. In this way, I would go to a regatta with my team of four years, and we would maintain a balletic kind of synchronicity in the way we would assemble and lift the boat off the trailer, walk it to the dock, climb in, and pull our way through a head race.

However, according to my team’s philosophy, races are not won on the day of the race. Medals are won during the hours of cooperative practice, even on those days you would rather go home. There is never ever a day off because my rowing community makes a point of looking at the competitor at the starting line and knowing we put more work in. This is one of many adages that our coach has imparted onto us. We admire him as the defining embodiment of who we are. With his towering stature and bushy, mustachioed face, he once told me that “you can only be as strong as your mind.” When we take that to heart as a unit, our community is something that no one else should want to go up against.

When “Row!” is called, we take an initial Herculean stroke as we go to war with inertia. When the boat gets to full speed and the coxswain guides us to the correct stroke rate, we begin to adjust to each other’s fine movements in an effort to conserve energy. Marathon runners describe hitting “the wall” at the 23rd mile. Our version is “the pain cave,” which opens up as early as the first two minutes. My mouth gets dry, and I struggle to take a deep breath. Every time I slide the seat with my thighs, I feel nails being driven into them. I can feel my forearms splitting. Then the pain becomes disorganized and confusing—but I still remember that is the case for every one of my brothers in the shell. Since we face backward, I cannot even see where I am going, only how far I’ve come and who still has my back. We keep pulling until we get to the halfway mark. Half of me is glad that it is half over, and half of me knows that I won’t make it to the end. However, that is when the energy of the boat starts to distribute, and I separate from my ego. It is no longer about how hard I need to pull, but it is about hard we need to pull. I can communicate verbally with my teammates to encourage them, but I don’t need to because we are now moving the boat forward in one uniform, seamless motion, like the expansion of lungs or the gallop of a horse as it rounds the homestretch, never letting all four feet hit the ground at once, with a body that is already spent. If I drop my hands, my crewmate slightly raises his to maintain the boat’s balance of oars. It’s automatic, even though every single stroke is slightly different, as every one of us, with numerous tiny, simultaneous adjustments constantly occurring, until we move beyond conscious adjustment and into the realm of optimal rowing experience, termed swing. At this point, the eight of us lose all sense of identity and go with paradoxically brute force and grace. We forget everything outside of that shell, and the motion of swaying back and forth is no different from unconscious synchronized breathing.

At the 250-meter mark, I dread the unthinkable distance left, no matter how small. At the same time, however, the idea of letting my teammates down by not rowing my hardest is more unthinkable. This is where the elusive, transcendent experience of swing originates from, an experience that only others in the rowing community will relate to so deeply. We choose to suffer momentarily for a lifetime of honor and self-respect, and we are linked by that resolve. Swing is an elusive, transcendent thing to describe that exacts a physical, mental, and spiritual toll, offering in return the realm of ideal movement in which we find rewards and life lessons of time management, interpersonal skills, mindfulness, and self-discipline that exist in few places else, and when we collapse at the finish line, cowbells ringing, horns honking, we are too spent to outwardly celebrate what we’ve done. However, the deeper sense of connection with my crewmates is there, albeit invisible. In the words of George Yeoman Pocock, a leading designer and builder of racing shells in the 1900s, “Harmony, balance, and rhythm. They’re the three things that stay with you your whole life. Without them, civilization is out of whack. And that’s why an oarsman, when he goes out in life, he can fight it, he can handle life. That’s what he gets from rowing.” We when we all connect with each other and connect with the rivers, streams, lakes, and oceans, when we connect over going through the valleys with each other, that bond is forever.