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I carry the picture in my head like a favorite family
photograph. The picture is 18 years old now, but the image is
still unclouded, the colors vivid, the memory of that moment
still startlingly perfect.

I was a senior at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., about to
turn 22, and I was attending the last spring practice of my last
season as a rower on the school's varsity crew. It seems odd to
me now that at that unconsciously youthful time in my life, I
could have been so preternaturally conscious of time passing.
But I was. My dorm mates in Haven House laughed at me during
breakfast every morning of my senior year because I would
invariably announce, mournfully, that this was the last January
21, or the last March 20, of my college life. It wasn't funny to
me, of course. That sudden, sad realization of loss that most
adults have in midlife was mine every day at age 21.

So on this late afternoon in the spring of 1977, as I rowed down
the Connecticut River one last time, it occurred to me to take a
picture in my mind. The cox of my eight-oared shell had just
given the command to ``Weigh enough,'' or, cease rowing. In
unison the eight of us stopped, our seats pushed to the back of
their slides, our legs extended in front of us. For a second or
two I could hear the swoosh of our shell slicing through the
water. We sat silently and drifted for a bit, our oars cradled
in our laps.

At that moment, as I sat in the bow seat, I said to myself for
the first and only time in my life: Remember this, remember what
you see and feel, because this is your last time--your last time
in this boat, on this river, under this sky. It was then that I
noticed the peculiarly immature greenness of the trees along the
riverbank and the layers of darkness in the water. Just
downriver, off the port side, were mountains known as the
Holyoke Range. Atop one peak stood an old abandoned inn, a
favorite hiking destination of Smith students. The inn afforded
a great view of the Connecticut River Valley, the crisscrossing
fields, the oxbow we once rowed on before our new boathouse was
built out on the main river, and of course the Connecticut River
itself. It is an old river. I had learned that in geology class
my freshman year. You can tell a river's relative age by the
course it takes: The older it is, the more serpentine, the more
meandering its course. The Connecticut River swings out lazily
in great wide semicircles, as if elbowing for more room.

Our coach, Miss Benson (she was always Miss Benson), was
motoring the skiff nearby. She was in her 60's and she had been
a coach all her adult life. Following in our wake, Miss Benson
sat hunched in her trademark trench coat, her hand in a death
grip around the tiller. The sun, hard against a sailor-blue sky,
seemed to sharpen everything around me. I feathered my oar for a
moment and watched the water drip quickly, then less quickly,
off the yellow blade. We sat there rocking in our slender wooden
shell for what in my mind seemed forever. It was important to
take the picture just then, to remember, always, the sun on my
face and the water lapping softly against the sides of the boat,
and these women here, these friends, whom I loved.

I don't remember today how we finished in the races we rowed
that spring. I remember very little of any of the races I rowed
in college. But I remember the practices. I remember the joy of
leaving my books, neatly stacked on my desk in Haven House, for
just a few hours; I remember racing my very tall, very athletic
friend BJ down to the boathouse. I would complain to her, in
mock disgust, that I had to run twice as far as she did because
my legs were half as long as hers. Three years later BJ would be
invited to the 1980 women's Olympic rowing selection camp.

It was the release of those few hours on the water, all of us
straining together against inertia, in the sun or the rain or
the cold, that I remember best. It was not about competition. It
was not about conditioning. And it certainly was never about a
particular race. It was about this gift of grace - - about the
privilege of being here, together, in this particular time and

I will be 40 years old this month, and I remember that grace
now, even as I realized it then. Some athletes don't remember
such a moment, a few still have never felt it. But most of us
did. Most of us do.

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who while a student at Harvard Law
School in the mid-1800s may have rowed beneath the arching
bridges that cross the Charles River, was only 43 years old and
not yet even halfway through his long life when he remembered:
Through our great good fortune, in our youth our hearts were
touched with fire.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: Lauren Uram [A women's rowing team.]