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by Alessandra Phillips
posted on February 14, 2001

It has been a little over a year since I started this odyssey; the river is clear and open now, and I take solace in the calmness and softness of its contours in the early morning. Everything looks fuzzy, like a Whistler painting, and the sense of rowing through an Unreal City seems to be a better transition from my sleeping to my waking than immediately going from a bed to a desk. I still erg at lunch at the gym of the university where I work. Yesterday I walked by a group of undergraduates huddled in the hallway, who were being lectured by the lacrosse coach: "Our goal is to be playing those last two weeks in May. That is your goal. Put the work in now, and you'll be seeing the offseason. That's what we're working towards."

I had to smile, as it was the same pep talk many of us give ourselves, and one I'm familiar with debating at 5 o'clock in the morning, and in the evenings, when I am weary from a day's work and want to just rest my eyes. It is amusing at those times to step back and take note of the lively internal struggle, I mean dialogue, as to the merits of sleeping in or braving the cold, damp air.

This is why training partners serve such a useful purpose. I bless my lucky stars that I've found people to row with who are conscientious about making it to practice on time and not giving up in the middle of a piece, although afterwards we may discover that a mutual urge to quit arose after the halfway point of a self-imposed 6k piece. I know that once I've started the workout, about ten minutes into it I'll have a breakthrough where it actually starts feeling good. Tired, but good. There's nothing like the healthy sense of exhaustion that comes when you've used your body in the best possible way.

This constant effort that we all indulge in for the sake of moving a glorified toothpick across the water found resonance in some Buddhist texts I've been reading recently. I like the fact that Buddhism is a system of thought and learning, not blind faith. You do not do good deeds to avoid punishment, but to achieve a goal which you may not see in this lifetime. And it requires constant attentiveness and persistence to achieve that ultimate state of grace. Taking the long view can be liberating--it takes the pressure off if one's progress is not meteoric, but to look to enlightenment as the only goal is ultimately frustrating for me; I get overwhelmed. Luckily, smaller goals allow good practice to flourish. The same could be said for rowing. The persistence one needs to prepare for a race at the end of the summer is an important tool if one wants to win a bigger race in four years. However, looking at the short-term goal puts the task in human terms.

I made the mistake of telling two coaches my background and what I eventually wished to accomplish. One coach told me that I would always be a mediocre sculler. Another advised that I quit rowing and take up recreational skiing. I went on to win races in spite of them. Maybe it's the enjoyment of being the underdog; i do have a strong streak of the drama queen, and it makes a better story.

However, I feel that there is something else there--the value of persistence. I look to a friend of mine as a model; while he knew at the outset that he did not at the time have a killer erg, he understood that anything good takes time to emerge, and change. He took it upon himself to study the craft of rowing intensely; he became a graceful and powerful rower through focus. That determination he used to achieve his goals I can see as he takes on other challenges in his life.

It is by far the best paradigm to follow; there are times when blind instinct and the easy grace of inherited talent has its place, but if you ever want to master something, you must examine it, turn it inside and out, understand it as you would a lover, or an enemy.

So I have learned not to listen to other people's assessments of your limitations. They may not know what you are capable of.