Rowing and its place in my life.

Had the fortune today to head over to Lake Stevens and watch the Western Men try and take the conference title for the first time since my sophomore year (2005-2006). My friend and 4-year teammate and pair partner, Jack, is the first year head coach there, and the program seems to be in an upswing, which is a tremendous development. He’s a great rower, and a great coach, and if anybody can build on the program, its him.

Seeing a couple of races, an oh-so-close second place finish in the varsity 8 reminded me of my four years in the sport, how much I put into it, and how little the results appeared to validate that decision… we won our fair number of races, but at what cost? Was it worth the input? Well, the answer is a definitive yes, and the results themselves are the least of the reasons for this. I wrote my law school personal statement on rowing and what it has done for me individually, and, well, you should just read:

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There are many sensations that can be pleasing to the senses, and it isn’t hard to find any number of examples. Of course, most people would not typically include bitter splashes of cold water to the face, gusting wind and rain and a horrifically unsteady rocking motion, back and forth and back, in that former category. And yet, here I found myself, in the dark of the early morning and in the middle of the gloomiest of seasons, engaging in what would be, unbeknownst to myself, the first of hundreds of mentally and physically challenging workouts that would be unlike anything else I had ever experienced. It was the first of many days that I would spend as a member of the university rowing team.

Entering college I had already been a part of athletics for many years, swimming and playing water polo for my school and a private club, and was looking to continue semi-competitively both for exercise and to make friends. I did enjoy the competition, but didn’t see that there was a further end that might exist beyond the result of any contest I might be a part of. After a relatively chance occurrence just a couple days into my collegiate life, this attitude would change significantly. Three days into my new life in the dorms, an introductory informational fair was held, with hundreds of booths and flyers and wonderful new things for doe-eyed freshmen to participate in. After a short period of walking through the collection of booths in the main square of campus, I was approached by three guys (undoubtedly due to my considerable height and athletic build) and invited to an informational and recruiting meeting, scheduled for a couple of days later.  I read their literature, and was put off by the six practices a week that were to be held at 5AM, on a lake a solid 15-minute drive away. I may have, prior to my rowing experience, woken up at such an hour a dozen times. After a couple of minutes of self-debate, I decided to pass on attending the meeting, and that would have been that, if a new friend and floormate from the dormitories had not gotten the same flyer and decided to go to the meeting. After a chat with him, I decided to tag along, and was impressed with the presentation I saw (which came with the promise of friends and physical fitness that I was seeking), enough so to attend the first practice the next day. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

That first dark morning in the boathouse on Lake Whatcom is one that I will not forget any time soon. Thirty more bleary-eyed freshmen had been convinced to attend, and we all found ourselves subjected to nasty assault on the senses I described earlier. After a solid hour and a half of introduction to the equipment we were already on the water trying to use, we returned, already uncomfortably chilled and worn out, when we were informed that we would have to partake in the annual float test before leaving. The sun had cleared the sky by this point, and the water was still warm from a summer’s worth of light, but this was still a test of mental strength. When only twenty freshman showed up the next morning, it was clear that this was a test that some people wouldn’t be passing.

And so it started; hour and a half practices turned two hours practices, even three on the weekends. Afternoon workouts morphed from a battery of abdominal exercises to daily dates with a torturous device known as the ergometer, or more commonly as ‘the rowing machine’. Strangely enough, the tougher the going got and the higher the team turnover rate rose, the more dedicated those stuck with it became. There is a certain bond formed between people who blood and sweat together every morning before the rise of the sun, and while the lifestyle that such dedication requires facilitates relationships on the same team, the mutual respect gained from going through the process crystallizes them.

Come the spring time (and competition season), those of us who survived were ready for anything. We won some races, and lost a few, too, but this was a personal building year for all of us, and we had to accept what we were potentially signing ourselves away to, and the thrill of showing other people that we had worked longer and harder than anybody else was what certainly sealed the deal for me. I was a true believer in this endeavor, and as long as I had a partner and a racing shell, I would be out there every morning until I graduated, preparing myself for battle come spring time. The years continued, and we ebbed and flowed, much as collegiate programs tend to do. It varied from year to year, and while I never achieved that same feeling of getting attached to something with a dozen and a half close friends, I’m happy for every moment that followed. We had highs (winning our regional competition) and lows (finishing last in our small, local conference), and I received acclaims and took leadership roles, and all of this contributed to own sense of the sum of the rowing experience, but it wasn’t that end that I had had trouble finding earlier.

In the spring of my senior year, at our last rowing competition, in our last race, we had a severely disappointing result, largely due to failures in the racing shell’s mechanics. We failed to make the finals, and getting back on to the dock after our performance, I didn’t know what to think. On the cusp of achieving a real high watermark, a fitting tribute to the end of my four years, I was left with nothing; I received no ribbon and no commemoration for our performance. It wasn’t until some reflection later that while it may seem like the sport can chew people up, demanding such a commitment and leaving nothing in return, the sum experience of the process, the means itself, is the reward.  In every aspect of my life, in the four years since I started rowing for the first time, I haveimproved in some significant manner, whether it be my ability to persevere, my ability to prioritize based on time constraints, my physical fitness and strength, or any other of dozens of attributes. It has been said that the goal of sport isn’t necessarily to become great in that sport, but to gain appreciation for seeing what is possible, and learning how to achieve that. I have certainly improved myself based on this focus, and wouldn’t change anything for it.

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The sentiment remains the same today, and I hope that everyone participating on the this year’s team gets as much out of it as I did.

Opening Day


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~ by cdviking on April 23, 2011.

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