One Word Essay

I’m sitting on the line, heart beating rapidly. I try to calm my nerves

You are prepared for this.

Ivan turns around and looks me in the eye. No words are exchanged — only a fist bump. I turn and do the same to my brother behind me. And so it goes.

Its hot — 90° — but I ignore it. I’m sore, but I ignore it. The previous four years have been dedicated to the next five minutes forty two point five seconds.

The announcer directs the stake-boats to line us up, “lane five: out one foot. Lane three: in six inches. All level!” The flag goes up, he goes through each team, “Please raise a hand if you are not ready; this will be a quick start…Princeton: ready. California: ready. Washington: ready. Harvard: ready. Northeastern: ready. Brown: ready.” I square my blade. My muscles tense. My mind is clear and focused. “Five, four, three, two, one, attention…” the flag drops, “ROW!”

I still remember my first day of practice. I remember my coach’s first words to us,

Failing to prepare is preparing to fail. If you thought you worked hard before, you don’t know what hard work is.

I thought I knew what hard work. I didn’t. People quit. Lots of people quit: good guys — strong guys.

The moment the flag moves, all eight of us — in unison — press our legs down as hard as we can. A slow pry against the weight of the water. Then faster. Explosive power, fast twitch muscles firing, teeth grinding, and eyes wild; we’ve done this hundreds of times. Rowing is the only sport in which a mid-distance race is started with an all out sprint. No runner would sprint off the line of a 5k or even the mile. But rowing is as mental as it is physical. All the athletes face backwards in the boat, so getting ahead is a huge advantage. This is why we start by going into a deep, black hole.

Twenty-five strokes hard and fast, at a rate of 48 strokes per minute. Then, the hardest stroke of the race and we shift to a smoother, slightly more manageable pace. The lactic acid has already poured into my legs. They burn, but I am used to it. My lungs are screaming, but I am used to it. I exhale hard — an audible bellow — to get the CO2 out of my lungs, and to pump up my teammates. I hear a gasped, “yeah!” from behind me. We’ve only taken ten strokes (15 seconds) since we shifted to pace and our coxswain is already calling for our first move,

Right now you decide if you win or lose!

In the Fall we put in meters: over a million. We run hills every Tuesday and Thursday morning. We practice for three hours every afternoon. We build endurance. We break those who don’t want to do the work. On our team, everyday — every workout — is a race. There is no middle ground. All out effort is the only gear. We adjust, get into the swing of things, and start competing with each other for a seat in the top boat. Its long. The pain is both dull and intense. We learn to cope.

We are in last place. We had a bad start, or everyone else had a very fast one. This fifteen-stroke move won’t win us the race, but without it, we can almost guarantee a loss. We all know it. I am afraid of failing. I feel like I won’t make it to the end of the race. I feel like I may ‘blow up’ — push myself too hard, too early—a thought I have to remove from my head as quickly as it appears. I have others depending on me. I know they are going to put everything into the next fifteen strokes. I need to go with them. Any breath I managed to get back is now gone. The lactic acid is not just in my legs, but my arms, my back, shoulders — even my hands hurt. We creep back into the field. We aren’t in last anymore.

A tight spread in the grand final

The winter is a dark, dismal time. We abstain from alcohol. Not a drop until after our final race. Five months of studying, sleeping, and rowing. Our cult grows more distant from the rest of the student body. We spend everyday training indoors on the rowing machine: a hellish device meant to simulate rowing, though it only simulates pain. Not a day goes by when I want to go to practice, but not going is not an option. I dread the workout. I spend the morning knowing that, come afternoon, I will willingly put myself through physical and mental pain. I will bring myself to a place where I lose the ability to think, sometimes even see. Guys throw up, pass out, and break ribs from the force they put on their skeletal frame: the result of having a stronger mind than body. But we do it six days out of the week. Commitment is a bitch, but we bond through shared agony. Everyone, from the fastest guy to the fiftieth guy — the slowest guy — does the same work, at the same level of effort. There are no cuts. If you do the work, you’re on the team.

We come to 750 meters into the race. Its a time when crews are in between ‘moves.’ Everyone is focused on holding their pace, so we focus on pushing again. Our coxswain calls out a move for Ivan. Its his move, his responsibility, which means its mine too. I can’t let him go it alone. I spent three months training a foot apart from him, in the dark, in the snow, in the cold. I pull as hard as I can; my legs are screaming. Ivan is not alone. We all had the same thought, and so the boat surges forward and we walk up the field: fifth place.

The start of Spring. Campus is buzzing with life again, and we are in good spirits. We are finally getting back on the water. Time for speed work. In my coach’s mind, the best way to prepare for a race is to race. Over and over. It sounds simple, but most teams have a scientific training plan: low cardio today to build endurance, high intensity tomorrow to build anaerobic threshold, rest the next to recover. they rarely race the full distance at an all-out effort. Not us. Threshold everyday. Everyday is a race, and science is always in air quotes.

We are coming into the middle of the race. This is our favorite part. The most painful part. It doesn’t show on our faces, but we are smiling. Our team is not known for size or perfect form; we are known for grit, for toughness, for taking blows and returning them harder, for doing it the ugly way, for doing it the hard way. Our big move in the middle of the race is no secret. The other teams know its coming as well as we do. There is no chance of us failing to move further into the lead with the upcoming twenty strokes. Our coxswain is yelling. We are coming up on the halfway point: 1,000 meters in. A shout from behind me, “Yea! Lets fucking go!” And then the coxswain, “ON THIS ONE!” This move is dedicated to the guys who are not in the top boat. We represent their struggle, not just ours. If we don’t commit ourselves to this move, we are failing them. I think of those guys and am hit with a rush of energy that shakes me to my core. We bump the rate. Adrenaline surges. There is no pain. I hear shouts from my teammates.

Its a funny thing to use precious breath to yell during a race. Most teams don’t do it, frown upon it even. After all, rowing is a sport for gentlemen. Ha! Not us. I yell. A visceral cry from deep in my stomach. We surge ahead: fourth.

The most crucial part of rowing is trust. The greatest part is not just trusting that your teammates have your back, but knowing that you have theirs. I have blown up plenty of times, and been carried to the finish line by my teammates. But that is for practice. Only by bringing yourself to failure can you know your true limit. We’ve all seen it. I know this. We all know this.

We come off of our twenty stroke move. Our cox tells us our positioning. She tells us what we have to do. Its easy to come off a move like that, the adrenaline diminishing, and slow down. She calls the ‘commit thirty.’ Thirty strokes to commit to speed, to commit to our coaches, to commit to our teammates, and to commit to ourselves. We hold our pace. I am doing everything I can just to put my blade in the water, pull, and take it out again. Doubt creeps into my mind again. I am afraid I will not make it. My vision is tunneled. My face is contorted. All the pain is there. I feel it all. In my entire body. Every muscle.

We prepare to hurt by hurting ourselves. There are days when we cannot move, but have to. Days when we think we won’t make it, and we don’t. Days when our coach asks too much from us. And days when we surprise ourselves by prevailing.

Classes end, practice doesn’t. We graduate and walk with our class, but as our peers celebrate with beers, we head to the boathouse. Its time for practice. We shed our robes for spandex, our diplomas for oars. Campus clears and we are alone, but it feels right. There are no distractions. We practice most the day, with only time off to eat and sleep. Its not over yet.

The last 500 meters. This is mine. I can smell the finish line. The doubt is gone. This is the last 500 meters of my collegiate rowing career. The last 500 meters I will row with my best friends. The last time I will sport my colors proudly on my chest. Our cox calls it and all my muscles tense. Pain is everything and nothing. None of it matters. I have no more thoughts. I cannot see. Everything is black. The coxswain is yelling. Her words are coming out faster than she can think. I don’t hear any of it.

The rest is a blur. I wish I could remember it, but I wasn’t there. We cross the finish line and collapse. My back is on the rigger of the man behind me. My arm drags through the water. The boat dips to one side and we slowly come to a stop. Its over. I am on the verge of hyperventilating. The emotion is overwhelming. Not one of us knows it, but we got third. It was too close for us to tell. Point three seconds from second place. Some of us are happy, some are pissed off. It doesn’t matter. We collect our medals. They are placed around our necks with a handshake. I am trying not to cry. I am proud, but I tuck the medal in my shirt.

Post-race exhaustion

With my last race I gained a lot, but lost even more. I lost my purpose. Its dramatic, but we spent so long with only one focus. Take it away, and you are left with a highly motivated individual who wants to work hard, but has no direction. The commitment was everything, and its gone—taken away from us all at once.

We transition to normal lives. We move to new cities. We get jobs. We try and fail to stay in shape. We feel alone. Most of us stick together. In smaller packs. We’re spread thin. Time goes on and our bodies change. Some of us get fat, others get skinny. We stop talking about rowing. Some of us feel free, some feel caged. I am unhappy. I look for pain. I look for reward. I look for commitment. I am missing something. I try to find it in my career. I work hard. Its not the same. It wont be. I let it go and try to take pleasure in knowing that every year a new group of freshmen shows up at that boathouse. They are cocky and scared. They learn that they don’t know hard work and then they spend four years becoming acquainted with it. They learn a commitment so strong that it cannot be replaced.

Team swim, post-race