"Go West, young man..." --John Soule, 1851
The Midwest. Such a vague word for a landscape that seems wilder and rougher than the eastern rivers. This winter, I've seen more colors of gray and green and purple and brown than I ever knew existed in Philadelphia, as I drive across the river each morning to school. The colors of the trees that hug the banks seem to overwhelm the senses. Best to keep one's eyes in the boat, or behind the wheel.
I miss the family of competitive rowing. On the eastern club circuit, I was happy to gain friends, and competitors as friends. It's a wonderful welcome feeling to visit other boathouses. It's one of the most attractive things to me in this sport; the feeling of striving towards a common goal, and the ethos of helping others towards that goal. Even if you are a single sculler, and prefer it that way, there is nothing like a steady state workout on the water in a cloud of singles; with some chit-chat and a little bit of talking smack thrown in, all in good fun. Whatever my grumbling about steering may have been at the time, it was delightful to arrive at the boathouse early and be doing something fun, if grueling, with your friends while the rest of the city sleeps. The one thing I miss out here on the Plains is training partners.
However, I am thankful for a group here that has as long a history as many of the eastern clubs; a group of Midwesterners that have fought to maintain a boat club in the face of arson and the costs of rebuilding, and the cost of maintaining a fleet and a facility. It frustrates me at times as well.
Some clubs with gloried names have so much at their disposal, while others try to grow but are constrained by lack of money, talent, and cooperation. It becomes a chicken or the egg problem; as I saw this summer when I tried to get a high school's rowing program off the ground, support is crucial, and it is important to encourage rowing at every level if you want the overall organization to survive. However, some people seem to forget this. They lose the fact that rowing is a team sport at heart, and that concept extends beyond the water to its administration. They should realize that encouraging multiple rowing programs is not a threat to them, but a wonderful sign. After all, rowing in a vacuum is no fun. Why not spread the seeds for a larger community? At the very least, increased interest means a possibility for more funds from donors. And of course, increased interest means more possible training partners. And more training partners means more competitors, and more fun for all.
With my old training partners, there were the shared jokes, the long vivisections of practice at breakfast, the social side that comes with most boathouses of a night out, a movie, or dancing (best sort of steady state I know). With my competitors, there's an overwhelming feeling of respect. In high school the tradition was to thank your opponents for a good race. I've taken that with me, and it's interesting to see the differing reactions to it--but it is meant to recognize and honor the time and effort spent preparing for a moment which is maddeningly brief. I can remember highlights of a race--moments that take a second or two--but that is about all I can remember of my races, and, I'd guess, the most anyone remembers. When my father saw my first race, he was struck by the brief amount of time a race took, given the amount of time I'd put into it over the winter, and the spring.
So what is it about this sport that demands hour after hour of tireless perfecting for only a few minutes to show what you have done? The technique of the single is a continuous effort; I am beginning to understand boat feel, and I know enough to know that I do not know, and I know enough to know when it's not good. I can feel the hull shuddering on the recovery in my seat, and know that there's too much tension in the boat, too many people doing different things to try to make it better; but all that comes of it is the boat shudders and jerks along. I am so much more grateful now for the days when someone wants to train, or a group gets together to go out and hash out a long, hard workout. I see those days as good solid stepping stones in my journey.
Rowing for a club has its challenges; so many strong personalities seem to be attracted to our sport; some because of its arcane nature, which fills some hole in their lives; some simply because they become infatuated with the water.
Sometimes I grow nostalgic for school, when the coach set everything and personalities to a certain extent were subsumed by the structure of the eight. Rowing for a club can be chaotic; with no head coach, you have people dictating to you how you should row--whether or not their comments are in line with generally accepted principles of how to row well. I used to protest; now I affect temporary hearing loss whenever a comment is tossed my direction; as a teacher of mine once said, "no one likes a know-it-all." It has taught me patience. But I don't want to leave you with the unsettled feeling of a fractious group.
I want to give you the beauty of an early morning on the Mississippi, a river that awes, even here so far north, by its scale and size. Imagine dodging barges and huge steel buoys while you look at sheer bluffs towering over you, some carved into caves, some that descend onto small white beaches, and all around the lush leaves' vibrancy can't help but make each catch a little lighter. I will always love the Schuylkill for its history and its familiarity; the small row of snug boathouses will always seem like home to me. But I'm now learning a new river and its moods; like a new lover, where topography is still an excitement, and every trip you learn something new about how the water feels, and how to read the sky.
March 4, 2003
Alessandra Phillips is a lightweight oarswoman at Minneapolis Rowing Club.