I ignored coach Claus's warning and glanced left at the University of Wisconsin's junior varsity boat. No one looked back at me. Only directions droned by the starter interrupted the silence: "Lane three, take a stroke. Lane six, back it down. Lane three again. Let it run, lane three. Lane four, take a very light stroke...."
I didn't think of the importance of this race. I didn't think of the months, even years, of training that had prepared me to row 1,500 meters in the next several minutes. Nor of the May sun warm on my bare shoulders or the breeze gentle on my cheeks. I didn't think. I yawned.
Before us on his platform, the starter was aligning the six boats. Meredith, our coxswain, raised her hand to signal that ours was not ready. "Bow, take a light stroke," she said into the microphone held at her temple by a headband. In response, our boat moved slightly sideways and forward. Meredith's hand went down; we were alert for the start.
"Lane two, back water. Lane two, hold water. All hands are down. All boats are even. This is the start. Are you ready? Ready all! Row!"
Through the sudden frenzy I hear Meredith shout,
"Three-quarters, half, three-quarters, full...."
I pull, oh, how I pull on my oar. Three-quarters of a stroke begins the race, followed by a quick half stroke to develop the momentum and then another three-quarter stroke to effectively leave inertia in our wake. From there the count starts anew, and we stretch out for our first full strokes, sure of the rhythm of a controlled, fast pace. The plan is a 3-15 and settle: Launch the boat with the first three strokes, lengthen and quicken to full speed in the next 15, and then settle the pace while maintaining pressure. By the end of the first 20 strokes, I feel that I have reached my limit.
This is the sprints of the Eastern Association of Women's Rowing Colleges. The first three boats finishing in this heat are rewarded with places in the Grand Final, the last three make the Petit Final. Five minutes have never lasted so long.
Symmetric, even, we skim across lustrous blackness. One last power piece flings us home past a wild dark island, past cozy family sailboats tucked in for the night, past immense sub tenders looming from a pink-lit Navy base. We are direct, true to ourselves and true to each other.
So begins my ode to rowing, penned one evening after a fulfilling, exhausting workout. That night I stretched in my room, depleted yet peculiarly content. Scientifically speaking, chemical endorphins had been released within me during a fierce exercise. I was naturally high and poignantly happy.
Aiming toward a dock we are able to distinguish only by habit, we disrupt the water's smooth finish, dividing the river with our shell, rippling a reflection of pink lights to fairy whorls. Through the night we have announced ourselves with a flashlight taped to the bow. We wait to glide in to a docking space and all is calm, still.
Connecticut College looks upon the Thames River, the aptly named waterway of New London, Conn. The crew program was still quite young in the late 1970s, but its competitiveness was acknowledged, if reluctantly, by the Ivy League. Every May the women's racing season culminated with the EAWRC Sprints. This program of races, held on Lake Waramaug in western Connecticut, pits the region's best collegiate rowers against each other and determines the champions of the East Coast. Boston University, the University of Wisconsin, Princeton, Syracuse University—they all had fearful reputations. "You've run just as many miles, lifted just as many pounds and rowed just as much as those crews, if not more," our coach told us. Our fitness inclined us to believe him, but it was all too easy to be dubious.
Quickly breaking habits of summer indolence, we began crew practice in preparation for fall regattas, beginning in September. Our mileage on the cooling Thames was long, crisp and steady. Piece by piece we'd test our muscles, past Mamacoke Island, past the U.S. Navy submarine base, past the marinas, past Harvard's and Yale's summer boathouses, sometimes even past the fetid Dow Chemical factory. In early November the season ended, and a chill tingled our fingertips. Practice continued, colder, darker. One night several weeks later, we built a campfire and hoisted the docks out of the river, not to row in the Thames again until February.
Through the winter we concentrated on weight training and running. Anaerobic exercise took three forms: calisthenics, heavy weightlifting to strengthen and repetitive light weightlifting to develop endurance. The exercises were often of a make-do-with-materials-at-hand nature. Calisthenics were easy moves with a long, hollow iron bar; with repetition, however, the bar gradually filled with invisible lead. A favorite light weight exercise was also seemingly easy: Two wooden horses were set up about five feet apart, and a padded plank was laid atop them. The oarswoman lay facedown on the plank, resting her chin on a pillow of sweats and letting her arms dangle. When ready, she grasped a 40-to 60-pound bar and at the shout of the tester began to smash it rhythmically against the underside of the plank. Trying to increase the rate toward the end of this inventive five-minute exercise, I'd be grimacing furiously while sweat soaked the clothes into which I was mashing my nose. With the last smash at the call of "Time!" the bar would fall from suddenly opened fingers with a crash. My arms would be simultaneously fiery and numb.
Nonathletic in high school, I joined the crew ignorant of the labor involved. My idea of rowing had never included sweat; I always saw myself gliding effortlessly along a sparkling river, tanned, healthy and smiling. Actually, as the weekend of the Sprints approached and as our boat's strokes synchronized, we did have occasional consummate rows. Our grace and strength became greater with each stroke if we moved as one.
In the first stage of a stroke, knees are bent to position the shins perpendicular to the water's surface. Then, legs slam straight, throwing the body on a sliding seat toward the bow. As the legs are straightening, the back begins to move, and the arms start to heave the oar inward. Legs, back, arms is the rowing motion sequence. At the end of the stroke the legs are level, the rower is leaning slightly beyond the perpendicular, and the arms are tensed in to the rib cage. The recovery is comparatively slow and passive. If the rower rushes up her slide as fast as she flies down it, the boat's forward glide is disrupted. To lessen the recovery's reverse effect, the arms stretch out first, and then the torso rocks forward as the boat runs out under the seat. The blade is feathered to cut wind resistance—flipped to parallel the water from finish to catch. In the last half second of movement back to the bow, the blade squares, all blades as one, and dips to catch the water with a violent yet contained splash.
Rowing was a major commitment. Others on campus did not understand the time and energy we devoted to crew, but they also had no way of knowing the exhilarating rewards. Because I was a senior now, this was my last opportunity for a Sprints victory, and it seemed the grandest goal of my rowing career. Sure, we were ranked low, but we had just as good a chance to win as any other boat.
Within the first minute, rowing starboard at No. 3, I have slipped into my usual racing state: half catatonia and half whirling, frenzied concentration. I hear nothing but Meredith's shouts and I see nothing but Gretchen's shoulders moving as mine must be moving. I don't think; if I reflected for an instant on my fatigue, I'd be lost, I'd give up.
By peripheral vision, I mechanically note that we are still with the University of Wisconsin. In past Sprints they have been one of the best crews, and we are well aware of how formidable they are. Still, our start is fast (42 strokes per minute, I find out later—perhaps our fastest start on record). Meredith keeps us apprised of the other boats' whereabouts, but even without her cries we know that the race is close and that as we near the end of the first 500 meters all boats are within a length and a half of each other. We are in the middle of it, racing third or fourth.
At 500 meters, we hit a bad stretch of choppy water. I am struggling, gasping, parched and exhausted. We knew to be ready for this difficult stretch, and following the race plan Meredith calls for a power 10. As if we were not already giving our utmost, we dig into the next stroke with even more power, and we keep it up for 10 strokes. This propels us through the white chop to the race's midpoint. University of Wisconsin is ahead, but not by much. About three minutes have passed.
Wait. Something extraordinary is happening. We are slowly pulling up to the rivals on our left. "Wisconsin's lost an oar!" Meredith screams. "They're down to seven! Now's the time for a power 10! Take us away! Two to build, and one...."
Yes, we're moving on Wisconsin, we're pulling ahead! I am a bundle of feelings never experienced collectively before and never experienced collectively since: disbelief, exhaustion, joy, pain. Despite the adrenaline boost, however, my strength is seeping away. "Come on, Meredith," I pray, "say something."
An hour earlier, sitting on the grass by the lake, we nine had solemnly discussed our plan. We decided to take a silent power 20 during the 1,500 meters, and we agreed that Meredith would call it at her discretion. The coded power piece is a psychological weapon; with it, a crew may surge without warning. Several code words were suggested and then discarded as too bland. When we finally came up with a code for the silent 20, I hoped I wouldn't giggle during the race, as I did during our nervous preparations.
Battling exhaustion, I feel no urge to laugh when Meredith screams the obscenity. I am enraged, and at the next stroke I dig into the water with such ferocity that I wonder now from where the energy was tapped.
"I've got three seat," she screams, and her voice cracks. "Give me two. I want two seat!" We power through Wisconsin, allowing Meredith two seat and then bow.
Meredith checks our position against the other racers. I don't know where we are, how far ahead of Wisconsin. My mind seems to drive the oar as sensation fades. How far can I push myself? Each stroke feels like my last, but somehow I keep control and pull harder and harder. The discipline of four years sustains me now.
At the start of the last 500 meters, with about two minutes remaining, our tiny coxswain bellows a hoarse warning: "Get ready for the sprint."
I will surely either faint or shatter to separate ions. Meredith, though, is relentless. "Up two for 10," she commands, "and one, two...."
The beat rises two strokes a minute at the next stroke. We count 10 and then, "Up two for the next 10!"
"I want the Grand Final," Meredith screams. We eight could not agree more. We up the beat again by two at the next 10th stroke.
"Last 20," I hear fuzzily, and we bring the stroke up for the last time. Amid √† chaos of muscles and lungs and heart, I dredge up the last bit of strength I have and apply it to wood and water. We are flying, we are flying, and I want never to stop, although I cannot go on.
"Twelve, 13, 14, 15," comes the screamed beat. "Sixteen, 17, 18," and I know that this is it, that if I have anything left at all, give it now. "Nineteen, 20, paddle!"
We are over the finish line.
I collapse over my oar. I fight to breathe, to move. And then I remember—how did we place? Everyone is strangely quiet. We realize that winners have not been determined. With five trembling crews, we turn and paddle slowly to the dock.
We wait for a docking space, bobbing silently. Dartmouth's eight is hoisted out, a space is cleared, and Meredith directs us in. I crawl from No. 3 seat and stand, my legs shaking uncontrollably. Someone puts a steadying hand on my shoulder. We lean to unlatch our oarlocks and the announcer begins to note times and places.
"First place, Princeton University, in 5:21.28."
Cheers from the Princeton boat are echoed by the Princeton fans. We nine, feeling especially underdoggish, pause on the dock.
"Second place, Boston University, in 5:25.81." I want to cry. I listen, frozen.
"Third place, Connecti...."
We shriek, leap on the dock, cry with joy, throw our arms around anyone nearby and shriek more. We did it! Third place! Our time was 5:30.52 and Dartmouth, finishing fourth, was 5:30.66.
We have edged into the Grand Final by .14 of a second. With that testing of limits, we have defined boundaries that we never imagined.