Back in the spring I wrote about being incredibly inspired by the women of the Oxford and Cambridge rowing teams, who competed for the first time ever in 2015 on the Thames Tideway course that has been reserved for men for… well, forever. They got amazing publicity, thanks to their unadulterated awesomeness (and the novelty of it all), and I know I was not the only athlete out there moved by the sheer joy I saw on the faces of the Oxford squad when they won, or harrowed by the expressions of the strong and amazing Cambridge women who had to settle for second place.
Yet the tideway race (the first of many) moved me in particular because I was once an aspiring rowing champ, too. I was part of the University of Alberta crew in 1994-5, during my third year as an undergrad. I rowed starboard in a sweeping eight, though we came to very little glory and my time on the crew is tinged with the bitter memory of a coach I recall favouring the blond and the beautiful over the chunky but strong. I was heavy, really powerful, but a mess technically; for me, it was a classic case of scoring high on the erg test but failing miserably at translating that strength into success in the boat. I sensed (rightly or wrongly) that the coach didn’t want to spend time or energy on me, and so I left.
Then, this spring, the Oxbridge women helped me to remember how far I’ve come since those days, and how able an athlete I am now. They arrived on my computer screen just at a moment when I needed a fresh challenge, something to stop me obsessing 24/7 about my performance on the bike; I was also in need of something to help me move beyond a very hurtful breakup with my longtime partner.
So I went online – to the London Rowing Club.
I queried the president about my options, and I heard back quickly; the Master’s lead, Wendy, was excited to hear I was a former rower (to this day, she overestimates both my memory and my skill!) and told me I shouldn’t bother with the “learn to row”, even after 20-some years on dry land. I should just come on down to the lake and get back in the boat.
And thus, my friends, began my summer of rowing – again.
The first few trips out were hard, I’m not gonna lie. Sculling is not the same as sweeping: in a sweeping boat you work only one oar, in league with four or eight others; the boat is large, and you have a coxswain (a tiny person at the front, facing you, wearing a race radio) helping you to manoeuvre and steer. In a scull you handle both port and starboard oars for your seat on your own, and must therefore coordinate your hand positions, hand height, and sweeping posture with the others in the boat AND with your own “other half”. Plus, no cox: the person rowing bow seat steers, which means a fair amount of turning around to make sure you aren’t going to run into anybody as you cruise up the river/the lake/the shore. (Remember: in a rowing shell you face opposite to the direction in which you’re moving.)
As a not-that-well-coordinated human I struggle to make left and right play nicely, so moving to the scull was both challenging and terrifying for me. And forget bow seat – I also can’t judge distances that well! So those first few rows saw me in two seat in the quad scull, or stroke seat (facing the horizon) in the double, trying hard to keep my oars level and my catches under control. I found myself sweating not from exertion (you can’t pull hard if you aren’t yet pulling smart) but from a mix of worry (about how I was doing) and shame (that I wasn’t doing better yet. After all, I’ve done this before!).
As a teacher myself, though, I found the challenge of grasping sculling technique both provocative, and also humbling. I felt compassion for the more experienced women in the boat (usually sitting in bow, steering with ease!) who took it upon themselves to remind me of basic techniques that had gone far, far out of my head in the years since uni. They were patient as I struggled beyond my comfort zone and slowly started to learn the rhythms, patterns, and tricks of a quad, and then a double scull (oh my god; so much tippier). At the same time, I kept my frustration under control (most of the time) by reminding myself that I ask my students constantly to move beyond comfort, into challenge, even if that means risking failure; it was the least I could do to follow them there.
The spring was filled with endless mistakes, but the summer passed in a blur. First I was in the boat, embarrassed at all I’d forgotten: trying to stop dead at “let it run”, to keep my arms level in the boat and the crabs at a minimum. Then I was off to India, for another comfort zone-pushing adventure at the Sivananda ashram in Neyyar Dam, Kerala. Then I was back in London, having apparently forgotten everything I learned on the water in spring (and ripe for a meltdown about it – see under control, but only mostly, above); and then, finally, I was settling into a pattern, and into a double with first one, then two consistent partners. The leaves changed colour; the air grew still and the birds landed on the lake in droves. I rowed with joy through the peace of our small, earthly heaven, leaving surprised seagulls in my wake.
I’m now excited for next season; we’re off the water for winter but I’m already making plans to race, at least next autumn, with a fellow female rower who fits me beautifully and might even let me sit stroke (a dream!). London is – believe it or not – the home of Rowing Canada, so there is a tonne of expertise on my doorstep, and the London Rowing Club is blessed with plenty of ergs, weights, and even a tank for winter training (it’s a splashy pleasure to jump in and work on the technical stuff I sorely neglected all those years ago). And of course I’ve not stopped riding; cycling and rowing are terrific cross-training partners, and I’m more excited than ever to be on my bike because it’s not my only game now. I know there’s a boat waiting for me at the finish line.