Breaking physical and mental limits

There were no windows and one large door. The blue and gold paint was chipping and the floors so uneven you tripped when you walked. There was no electricity or insulation, which invited the cold Ithaca winters in. To an outsider, it was a small rundown shack on a big lake. I loved it.

As the informal Commodore of the freshman rowing team at Ithaca College, I was entrusted to lead 29 rowers. I had no prior rowing experience, and my ascension to this leadership role was based solely on backbreaking work and mental toughness. I didn’t join the rowing team with this strong character, however. It was forged in that small shack on the big lake.

The old boathouse is where we trained and tested ourselves. Every month we completed a 5-kilometer test piece on the rowing machines. Based on your time, you would be assigned boat A, B or C. Every rower aspired to the A boat because it competed in all of the races and would be sent to the national competition. The positions changed every month, based on your 5-K score. On test day, 29 rowing machines were rolled out and oarsmen took their seats. There was no chatter, no excuses. There was only you, the machine, and the voice of the coxswain yelling to pick up the pace.

I had secured my spot on the A boat five out of five times, pulling a faster time each month. A personal record each month was important for freshman rowers. It proved commitment, improvement, and motivation. However, on this frozen day in February I didn’t feel like the leader I had become. The day before, I had gotten sick and spent the night violently throwing up.

I had no intention of rowing that day, but I was a leader so I went to motivate my teammates. I explained my situation to coach Manny and he of course told me to sit this one out. He even assured me that my spot in the A boat would remain secure until next month’s test. Manny had a degree in sports psychology, and his mastery of motivation led to a strong bond between us. Perhaps that explains what happened next.

After a light warm up, the rowers took their seats. I was shaking, partly nerves for my teammates and partly from the night before. As I watched my teammates brace themselves, I started to feel guilty. Every rower knows that to make the boat move well, all must row in perfect unison. If you lean one inch to your right or left, the boat will tip. If you catch the water half a second too early or too late, the boat will jerk. Rowing is the ultimate team sport. The guilt was all over my face, and one man knew it. With my teammates poised for the sounding whistle, Manny walked over to me and said, “You don’t have to row, and no one will blame you, but you will know for the rest of your life.”

I climbed on the rower. If my teammates were going to push themselves to the limit, so was I.

Immediately, my body began revolting. My legs were tight, my breathing too fast, and I knew I wouldn’t last long. My desire to lead my teammates kept me going, but as I approached the 1/3 mark, I felt my body failing.

Typically, Manny walked behind the rowers to see the computer screen tracking their time. However, after passing my screen he walked in front, crouched down and stared me in the eyes. “Based on your pace, you have 30 seconds to increase your speed.” I violently shook my head “no.” Unwilling to accept my conquered attitude, he screamed “Stop shaking your head! Everyone in this room is counting on you to lead them!” This struck a nerve: my teammates looked up to me, and I couldn’t bear to lose their confidence. But my body wouldn’t move faster. My legs couldn’t pull harder. There are physical limitations the mind cannot overcome. Or so I thought.

With seconds left until the no turning back point, Manny said something that would change my life: “Make the decision.”

When we push ourselves to the maximum, our body and mind revert to survival mode. For nearly all athletes, this means stopping. The impulse to stop expending energy and to keep living is stronger than any motivation to continue. However, in that moment, the words “make the decision” registered so deeply I began pulling a little stronger, moving a litter faster.

I had nearly 10 minutes to go. It may as well have been an eternity, but I became laser focused. “Make the decision.” It was so simple and clear. I didn’t have to measure every ounce of energy, to think about my teammates or worry about injury. I decided that in the face of nearly insurmountable odds, I was going to break my record.

The difference between committing to something 99% and absolute commitment is a gap we’re rarely asked to cross. It takes a combination of extreme circumstances and extreme responses. For me, in that old boathouse, on that freezing day, and in that moment, my mind became crystal clear: all I had to do to bridge the gap was decide.

They say there are years when nothing happens and moments when years happen. Those 18 minutes permanently changed my character, because I learned that absolute commitment is the ability to strip away the fear, doubt, pain, and every imaginable excuse. What’s left is a decision. I had made my decision.

Manny stayed with me every stroke, never breaking eye contact. In the last 10 strokes my vision went dark and my legs were completely numb. I don’t remember pulling the last stroke and barely remember being hoisted off the floor. I do, however, remember Manny’s smile as we looked at my final score. I beat my previous time — by half a second.