A Seat at the Table, a Seat in the Stern
I still remember the first night I stepped foot on campus. It was dark and cold outside — a typical September night in Hanover. With me I had two large suitcases that I had lugged over with me, inside them everything that I was to start my new life here at Dartmouth. Standing there in front of the Green, I was all alone in this town I’d never heard of just a half year ago — about to spend my first night alone as a college student. I was terrified, but I could sense that something amazing was just around the corner.
The little walk-on who could
“You’re pretty small,” said one of the rowers that lived on my freshman floor. “You could think about becoming a coxswain.”
I’m not gonna lie, I had no idea what I was walking into when I walked into that first information session — as was the case for the 10 other girls that walked into Floren Varsity House with me. But I liked the rowers that lived on my floor — some of them had grown to be my closest friends that term — so I figured, why not try out a sport they all seemed to love? I’d obviously get to hang out with them more.
It says enough about how much I knew about rowing that I attended an information session hosted by the women’s rowing team — instead of the men’s team that my friends were on and wanted me to join. I didn’t even know that women were allowed to cox men! In the end though, it worked out well; I was corralled into a group of novice freshmen women who all grew extremely close with one another throughout the course of the term. We were excited to be down by the water every day on the beautiful Connecticut River and be a part of a new team of strong, motivated women.
But when the excitement died down and walk-ons began to feel the pressure mounting of having to keep up with grades and row at a competitive level at the same time, our numbers slowly began to dwindle. By the time fall term had ended and winter training rolled around— when we’d be spending most of our time on the ergs instead of the scenic Dartmouth outdoors — the novice roster that filled about two eights had whittled down to just a handful of us.
That also happened to be when one of the novice coaches asked me if I had any desire to join the Heavyweight Men’s team — they were down a few coxswains and needed bodies to help out with the season indoors. I was told to report to the erg room the next day in Alumni Gym at 3:45PM if I wanted to, so I did.
I guess we came full circle that way.
The winter went by quickly, especially for me, eager to prove myself as a new coxswain on a varsity team. To show you an example of my eagerness, to one of the recruited coxswains’ surprise, within one week of joining I had already learned the names of a thirty-something roster of guys just by the backs of their heads going back and forth on an erg.
“Wow, you’ve already memorized their names? Impressive.”
There was something glorious about the sheer amount of work these rowers were putting in day in, day out — so singularly, so steadfastly. Watching the steam coming off their bodies after a long steady state workout down by the boathouse on an early morning when the temperature was close to sub-zero, or feeling the energy in the room on the last minute of a 3x10', 1x7' workout — I was in awe all the time. I felt proud to be a part of something so gladiatorial and couldn’t wait for the spring to come around so I got to be a part of the action.
I couldn’t have had a ruder awakening then on my first row out on training trip at Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Pshht…racing? I could barely steer straight (and steering straight is a coxswain’s biggest virtue). All I remember from that first row is one of the seniors — bless his heart — wrapping an arm around me and saying; “Annika, we need you more than you need us.” As much as he tried to make me feel better, I was a flustered mess all throughout that training trip — miserable and feeling ready to quit with each practice.
Having been objectively terrible in every way that spring, I still can’t put a finger on what made me want to stay on. Keep in mind that this was also the first time I was balancing being a student-athlete as well. As someone who came to this school with her first priority not being rowing, I also felt guilty that I was spending this much time outside of the library. Despite all the stress and ups and downs though, the time I was putting in was rewarding — I found myself getting better on the water as the season progressed. There were more days where I was going to bed in anticipation of the next morning; even knowing full well that there was a chance that I would swerve into another boat during practice, zig-zag all over the river during a piece, or make a really dumb call. There was something perversely addicting about being in a boat.
Hooked on something like never before
By the third race of the season, I was moved up from the 5V (where I began the season) to the 4V.
“You’ve put the work in, and I think you deserve it.” , said my assistant coach — someone I was most terrified of at that time.
It was in that boat I won my first few shirts (a tradition on men’s teams is to take the shirt of the crew that you’d just beaten), against Brown on our home course, then against Syracuse on Lake Onondaga. I coxed that boat at the Grand Finals of Eastern Sprints later that season, where we placed fourth by less than a boat length behind Brown (disappointing, seeing as we had beaten them by open water earlier on that season).
I had no expectations going into my sophomore year, except that I was thick as thieves with my classmates on the team and without a doubt be back on the team. Attrition most often occurs earlier on in the season as walk-ons discover other passions up on campus or find that their academic aspirations are incompatible with a long-term commitment to a varsity sport. Not me though — I was in love with the team and the sport too much to care about all that.
It was also this time when my coach pulled me aside to tell me that I would be coxing the Club 4+ entry at the Head of the Charles. Coxing that race — spectated by thousands of people from all over the world and on one of the most exhilarating rowing venues ever — and walking away with my first piece of Dartmouth Rowing hardware gave me a taste of how amazing it feels to wear the D. I was hooked, for real.
Rowing as a Team Sport
If you step into the Dartmouth boathouse, there a sign you’ll notice. It reads: “TODAY WE RACE LIKE CHAMPIONS”, hung above the steps that lead down to the boat bays. It’s tradition for rowers to give the sign a hard tap as they walk under it; to remind themselves that every day is race day.
If we take that sign apart, we can find in every element of it the spirit of what it means to row for Dartmouth.
“Today we race like Champions” — the importance of having the discipline to know that each time you set your hands on a boat, you’re ready to get out there to give it your all.
“Today we race like Champions” — instilling within all of us the graciousness, toughness, humility, integrity, relentlessness, and drive of being a champion.
“Today we race like Champions” — getting out there always to have each others’ backs no matter what. There’s no doubt about a special bond that forms during rows that are so frigid and miserable that we have to turn around and come back in because the tracks in the boats had started to freeze. A bond that forms between two rowers as one hands the other a towel to wipe down the erg after a hard workout. A bond that forms between a coxswain and a stroke seat that place absolute faith in each other on race day to pull one another down the race course.
We live in a world now where people are struggling to engage with one another at the most basic level, and coxing at Dartmouth was where I learned how to be part of a team.
Boldly Embracing Doubt and Vulnerability
Seeing each other every day at both our very best and our very worst and not having a choice on who and when we get to show our vulnerabilities to is the force that brings a team together. I faced a tough roadblock my junior year, as anyone might at some point in their college career. Mine specifically pertained to whether I should continue to cox. Never having been excellent as a student or an athlete up until that point, I felt like time was running out for me to do something with my time left at Dartmouth. If I look back at it all, so many things I did in college I regret not really having enjoyed it in the moment. I always put myself in the chase.
The stupid thing was that it was all entirely self-imposed; I was blessed with parents who never once pressured me to be more serious about pursuits that had better career promises or chide me for wasting time outside of the classroom. The team or the coaching staff were nothing but supportive of my development inside and outside the team — the pressure and stress all came from within. Doubts that I was never going to be enough, and that I wasn’t good enough with what I was doing with my time.
An alumnus that I recently sat down for coffee with asked me what my Dartmouth Story was. (What is with alums and that question?)
“I’m from Singapore…majored in Government, minored in Education…I coxed for the Men’s Rowing Team…pledged Alpha Phi Sorority…wrote for the D for a bit…”
I’ve always found any question about the “Dartmouth experience” tough to answer (and of course, it’s the question alums love to ask) because I felt dwarfed by the achievements of my other, more talented peers, in comparison. Peers who have gone on to become Presidential Scholars, Editors of the school paper, leaders within their Greek organization, and national team calibre athletes. Compared to them, I was so average, so middling with my achievements at Dartmouth.
However, after hearing my short introduction, he remarked; “Now, that’s one of the most unconventional Dartmouth experiences I’ve ever heard. An international student who flies halfway across the world to begin a new sport in a new town at a new school? Don’t think I’ve heard that one before.”
And it was like a lightswitch went off in my head.
We all feel uncomfortable when we’re placed outside of our comfort zone, and where I was at that point in time, I was nowhere near what I was used to. I had started a brand new sport in college. I was in a new country, in college, living on my own, and trying to figure out who I was. I wasn’t giving myself enough credit for embracing this new sport that gave me a community in which I could thrive in at Dartmouth —and instead, here I was wasting time chastising myself for trying something new and not being immediately great at it.
Finding my place in the Boat, outside the Boat
I think there were many times throughout my Dartmouth journey where I felt like I did not belong — whether that was being a walk-on on a varsity team, a minority in a traditionally “white” sport, a woman on a men’s team. Feelings like these were hard to shake, and as those thoughts came, all I kept doing was sinking under the very weight of them.
It was only when I opened up my concerns to those around me on the team that I began to see light.
My sophomore summer was objectively one of the hardest time of my Dartmouth journey, and even so far to this date, my life. I still can’t bring myself to really talk about it, but a lot of it were heavily shifting dynamics within my family back home that was affecting my life at Dartmouth. When it felt like everything was coming undone, I found control in a destructive pattern of working myself too hard and then sleeping in copious amounts at a time. The highs were really high, and the lows were really low. It was also that summer that I had lost almost 20 pounds, down to a measly 100 pounds, and had to stay behind in school (voluntarily) to finish up a paper for a class I had taken an incomplete for (an accommodation that allows students to finish up a course outside of the course period, due to extenuating circumstances that prevent a student from finishing the course on time).
Going back home on my off-term junior year helped, but looking back at it all I returned to school not fully ready to be back. I was still performing ritualistic behaviors like counting the number of steps I was taking to class and having to make the exact same number of steps every time and suffering from compulsions like always having to step off of something on my right foot or my whole day was going to be ruined — destructive patterns of thought and behavior that was a sign that I was not 100% well.
I would be surprised if my suffering mental health did not impede with my ability to be a good coxswain or teammate. While I tried, I was not performing to the standard I should have or that my boat deserved. And when I got taken out of my boat and replaced by another coxswain who was vying for my seat, as much as I deserved it, I felt as though my time on the team was over.
I was ready to quit, and I did.
The morning of the most important race of the season against Brown, a hallowed rival of ours, I told one of our assistant coaches that I was not in any shape to cox the race, packed up my locker, and went back to my room where I slept for the next 7 hours. (my boat was still able to race with another spare coxswain who stepped into my seat, but that doesn’t excuse my behavior.)
It was dark outside when I woke up and in my pitch-dark room I realized how badly I had f*cked up. I couldn’t believe I had thrown away something that was so valuable to me, just because I felt tired and temporarily slighted.
However, I also felt as though it was time to let others in on what I was experiencing in my personal life. I opened my laptop and drafted a long letter to my teammates detailing everything that was going on with my family, the personal struggles I was facing battling compulsive behaviors, and apologizing them for the grave mistake I had made by letting down my teammates— and begged for my spot on the team back. The coaching staff were only willing to let me back on the team with the unanimous approval of the seniors, which they did with gracious understanding. I was going to be allowed back but was going to be spending the rest of the season benched as a team manager, which I was more than happy and grateful to do. All I remember from back then was how soul-crushing it felt to think that I would be running across Ledyard Bridge at golden hour to see boats coming towards me that I wasn’t in.
Being on a team is how we learn to help others, but I also believe that it’s on a team that we learn how to seek it. We become allies with those we share blood, sweat, toil and tears with, and because of that, we know that we can depend on them when we are at our worst. As a young person just starting out in life, I don’t think there was a more valuable lesson I could learn than from those I picked up through the camaraderie I found on the team.
A Seat at the Table, a Seat in the Stern
The first thing that people ask me when they find out that I coxed for men in college is if I was friends with all the guys on the team. It’s a tough question to answer, because yes, there were points in time in college that I feared I would not have a maid of honor at my wedding because all my friends were guys (maybe a mister of honor?). But I also always felt a void that came from a lack of a big group of female friends.
Before I explore the gender aspect of this, I want to point out that friendships between rowers and coxswains are already tricky as is given that a coxswain is ultimately someone rowers look to for guidance and leadership. A friendship is tough to balance in that sort of power dynamic.
However, female coxswains often have an added barrier of hesitation; hesitation from feeling that they will not be taken seriously as a leader of a crew if they get too close. It’s a sad reality that women in a majority group of men fear their actions would be scrutinized more heavily, and in response to that fear, put up a guard of austerity and distance in order to prevent being taken frivolously. By no means does this mean that I was alone, and in fact, my closest friends and strongest support systems from college are members of my all-male graduating class. It’s just reality though that it’s hard to expect the same kind of camaraderie that exists between the men on the team.
However, I want to emphasize the fact that this kind of challenge is actually a good thing. In a 1988 Alumni magazine piece titled Daughters of Dartmouth, Anne Bagamery (Class of ’78) recounts how even in such a tumultuous time as it related to gender politics back then, athletics was the only truly co-educational aspect of campus life. Same now as it was back then too, it is through conflict and camaraderie that we learn how to best understand and work with one another. By placing more and more kids through tough situations together and having them come out feeling like they’ve endured something is what’s going to help future generations ahead of us learn to overcome gender barriers to become a team. I got to do that at Dartmouth.
Back to the Connecticut
Rowing at Dartmouth gave me so much. It gave me my graduating class of seven brothers (and the six classes worth of lifelong rowing friends I knew throughout my time there). It gave me the wider Friends of Dartmouth Rowing network of endlessly supportive parents and coaching staff. It gave me a life here in D.C after graduating with a fulfilling job and an opportunity to continue coxing. It gave me the Friends of Dartmouth Rowing Boathouse that will always be a home to me, long after the spaces up on campus are no longer mine. It gave me a sport and a skill that I know I’ll have with me for the rest of my life. But most importantly, it showed me that I have the courage to start something totally new and boldly let it change the course of my life.
Back on the Connecticut a couple weeks ago on a visit back to Dartmouth, I went on a long bridge-to-bridge run from Ledyard bridge to the Iron bridge on the Norwich side of the river. It was the morning of Winter Storm Harvey and the air was icy. When done correctly, the distance is close to a half marathon — I don’t know what crossed my mind when I decided to do that on the worst possible day to do it.
When I got back to Ledyard Bridge close to two hours later I was barely able to feel my face or my fingers. It had also been a while since I worked out (sitting at a desk all day will do that to you!), and my body was in pain. It took a while for me to catch my breath but when I did, I looked up and turned around — and there it was in front of me. My favorite view in the entire world, the Friends of Dartmouth Rowing Boathouse overlooking the Connecticut coated in a thick layer of snow.
I am so lucky.