The sport that built me up, broke my heart, and gave me freedom

Photo: Nashville Juniors Rowing

I will always remember the way the water sounded as it rushed along the gunwales of the boat. We rowed in the peaceful early morning, illuminated by the moon. We were surrounded by a stillness so profound that I could hear each breath from the eight rowers in my boat. Silhouettes against starlight; inhale, exhale.

As the coxswain, I would round up my eight boatmates and on my command, in unison, they would gently raise the boat from its rack and walk it down to the water. Routine kicked in and everyone silently grabbed their oars while I setup my equipment. “One foot in, shove off the dock in 2…”. And suddenly, “one, two…shove!”, there was no world outside of our boat.

Freedom filled my heart as we drifted from the dock and approached the wide open water. It was romantic the way all of our blades would take the water in one catch, and the bow of the boat would press up ever so slightly and surge forward in one swift motion. We were flying. It was romantic how eight bodies moved in synchronicity, with such delicate yet expansive focus. It was romantic the way we paused briefly at the finish as bodies collected and folded, ready to move towards the next stroke. “Breathe”, I would remind them.

Coxing taught me to find my voice. I loved calling a ten stroke move during a race and watching our bow stretch out in front. I loved telling the women in the boat that while I knew they were feeling the meters, that they could press for more, and that soon this will end. I loved calling: “we have 500 meters to go. We are prepared for this moment, right now. We will cross the finish line first because we are strong enough, we are fit enough, we are one.” I loved looking down the center of the boat to see each woman splitting out to her respective side as momentum pulled us to the next stroke. Sometimes her eyes were closed, sometimes her brow was furrowed, sometimes she was effortlessly focused as she stared into the depths of the water, prepared.

Crew was a place I could go and find purpose; these people were my family. I had a hormonal imbalance during high school, so walking through the hallways with a face covered in acne was challenging. But with crew, I could be seen. With crew, I was accepted just for the simple act of calling “hands on.” Sometimes as we walked up the muddy hill to our cars after practice, we would have our arms around each other because that’s what teammates do after sharing three hours of deep connection.

I do remember some of the races that were won, but what I remember most is the mundane moments. Of course I remember being ceremoniously tossed in the water after our course record and 7th gold medal at Master’s Nationals, but I also remember driving with my friends in their Jeep with the top down scream-singing to Kesha after practice. The warm spring air dried our sweat, and swept through our already messy hair. That feeling of innocent freedom and friendship is what I carried in my bones.

Sometimes it felt like we were moving in slow motion as we powered through the water. If conditions were just right, I could look at our reflection and not know whether we were moving down the river, or if the river was moving under us. It was a conundrum of stillness and gentle movement, with a touch of deep passion; the perfect balance. I wasn’t sure what the word was to describe this feeling at the time, but now that I’m older, I think that word is presence. I felt it when I sat in that seat and called “ready all, row”. I felt it in the moments between when the race announcer would call attention and row at the starting line. And oh, I felt it when witnessing all eight oars slice through open air stroke after stroke; pure poetry. It reminds me still that balance is always accessible.

Like any great love though, there was also great pain.

I remember not qualifying for finals. I remember not winning my seat race for the varsity 8. I remember not making weight in college. I remember being cut from selection camp. I remember getting up at 3:30 in the morning for practice. I remember going to practice in college and not seeing my name on the lineups. I remember breaking my rib and not telling anyone the kind of pain I was in as I sat in our unset, bowloaded 2nd Varsity 4+. I remember being sprayed with backsplash at the beginning of March during an ice storm in upstate New York, becoming pre-hypothermic as the ice and water soaked through my float-suit.

There came a time when I lost the innocent freedom and presence I had once experienced. All along I thought that my dream was to keep pushing for a higher level, but I was feeling intensely disconnected. I judged myself for coxing the 3rd Varsity boat with four years of experience and gear that read “Junior Women’s National Team”. Practice wasn’t fun anymore, and sometimes I held back tears while I was in a lineup that I wished not to be. I began to resent the water and the sound of an uncollected catch in an imbalanced boat. I also resented myself for knowing that my time with this sport was coming to an end, but the more I resisted leaving, the worse I performed.

There are times when it’s necessary to push through soul-crushing experiences, but this wasn’t one of those times. It’s important though at a crossing like this, that there is time to inquire within. I had to ask myself the hardest question I could have imagined at that time: is this really what I want? I knew the answer, and had known for some time, but hadn’t yet allowed myself to slow down and respond. I stood in my bedroom one night at Syracuse when I allowed myself for the very first time to say no more. I felt the whole world moving in slow motion all around me, and I fell to my knees as I said out loud: “It’s time”. At first I cried because I was letting go, but then I cried because I felt a rush of powerful freedom and presence once again.

I used to believe that life was impossible without crew, that I would have no value without a microphone strapped to my head. I couldn’t possibly imagine not having free gear to fill my closet, and that when people asked me if I played a sport I would have to say no.

What I didn’t realize though was that crew was just preparing me for my future, and as much as I loved this sport, it loved me right back. It never meant to break my heart. In fact, all it was doing was just asking that I use my learned skills for different experiences now. I never realized that as I was sitting in the top Men’s Master’s boat with Potomac Boat Club calling a race-winning move, that I would call on that confidence one day while interviewing for a dream job as a college dropout. I never understood that the heartbreak of watching failed weigh-in after failed weigh-in was really just a wake-up call to come back home to my body. And as I stood in my apartment crying the night that I let go, I couldn’t see that I was creating the space that would later allow me to move forward, open up, and follow similar glimpses of curious freedom.

Not everyone will understand why I had to walk away from something that I loved so deeply, but the truth is, I can’t completely let go of something that has become so much a part of my soul. I prefer to include this part of my past in my present and future because I believe in the integration.

I’m grateful for every moment of deep love and every moment of crushing loss. I’m grateful for the smooth, peaceful sound of the water running alongside the gunwales. I hear it as I paddle with my surfboard out to the open water at sunrise, and I know that I am free and I am present.