When Carlie Geer won the silver medal in women's single sculling at the '84 Olympics, I cheered out loud. After all, she had been my rowing teammate at Dartmouth. It was a case of glory by association.
I knew Carlie well, though we hadn't been exactly the closest of friends. Other than our sport, Carlie and I had little in common. On the other hand, that one continuing experience accounted for two years of shared jubilation and tribulation. That's why I cheered. I felt Carlie's joy. But what was this pensiveness I also felt?
That was for me. As I mentioned, I was a college athlete. Not great, but good. And I've always wondered if I could have been great. If I had devoted myself to my sport as Carlie had, could I have made an Olympic team? Could I have been good enough? Who knows? What I do know is that five years ago, at Dartmouth, Carlie wasn't an Olympian. She was just one of eight athletic women who met for crew practice every fall and spring afternoon at four o'clock. There were the mornings, too, alternating days of running and lightweight reps. When the season shifted into full swing, we'd throw in a morning row as well. We worked.
The New Hampshire winters froze the Connecticut River like a cube in an ice tray. But we didn't let up. In a catacomb of Alumni Gym, we scored each other's pieces on the rowing machines or laughed at how fashionable we looked during the heavyweight workouts with a 200-pound barbell across our shoulders and an Arnold Schwarzenegger-type belt cinched around our waists. Together we ran stadium steps, entered local cross-country ski races and timed each other's miles, proving that misery does indeed love company.
We were strong, healthy and just a little smug about it all. Even when we weren't torturing ourselves, two or three of us would invariably hook up for a leisurely bike ride in the Vermont hills, a moonlight ski across the golf course, or a hike in the White Mountains. We became intimately involved in each other's lives. We shared post-practice meals, trading assessments of who on the men's teams was looking particularly virile that season and surefire methods for filing down the calluses on our hands.
Some of us continued our socializing after practices. We'd be smack in the middle of a dancing mob at a fraternity, or at a football game, absorbed with the action in the stands, not on the field, or at a bar, ordering a round of Dirty Birds (White Russians made with skimmed milk instead of cream; less fattening).
Carlie was rarely with us. While most of us were content to make the varsity, Carlie was thinking ahead to the national team. Call it family ties. Her older sister, Judy, had been an Olympic oarswoman in 1976 and our coach in 1978.
Judy rowed, ran and lifted weights with us that year. She also chauffeured us to our races, giving us the scoop on notable international rowers as we bounced down 1-90 in the school van. Judy inspired us. She also killed us in workouts, but because we were in awe of her, we rarely balked—at least not openly. To us, Judy was in the big leagues.
To Carlie, Judy was family. Maybe it boils down to sibling rivalry, but Carlie decided she was going to be an Olympian, too. Oh, a lot of us talked about trying out for the national teams. A few even did something about it. But Carlie devoted herself to it above all else.
It wasn't easy for her, either. Carlie had to deal with being "Judy's little sister." Rowing became her life, and we worried that perhaps she would become too directed, too one-dimensional. She usually turned in early, and she watched her diet. But she once confessed that she wearied of the regimen. She had doubts, like: Was this the right thing to pursue? And was it right to pursue it to the exclusion of just about everything else? But these obviously evaporated along with the river's mist during the 6 a.m. row. Carlie never missed a workout, and we marveled at her discipline. We also thought she was a little crazy.
I graduated in 1979. Carlie, who was a class behind me, took that year off to train for the 1980 Olympic team. She made it but, of course, never competed because of the U.S. boycott, and she also qualified for the three subsequent national teams before she made the '84 Olympic team last summer.
We all make choices. Carlie's was rowing, mine wasn't. Carlie won an Olympic medal and I, obviously, didn't. She doesn't regret her decision and I don't regret mine. But what if...? We're left only to wonder.