row2k Features
Rubberband Girl
February 9, 2004
Alessandra Phillips

See those trees
Bend in the wind
I feel they've got a lot more sense than me
You see I try to resist
A rubberband bouncing back to life
A rubberband bend the beat
If I could learn to give like a rubberband
I'd be back on my feet
-- Kate Bush.

This song was going through my head this morning before my first 2k of the season. Since I'm not one of the lucky few to live in such pleasant climes as California or Georgia, I made do with the erg. And while I was at it, I figured a race was a good a time as any to test my mettle and see where my head was. My pacing could have been better, but I needed to run my engine as hard as I could; I wanted to see what happened when I really emptied the tank, even if it came short of the finish. I wanted that particular feeling when you've surprised yourself by pushing yourself so hard that all you have left is your bare bones, your guts, your essence, your character. I wanted to stretch myself further than I thought I could, and come back for more.

The race went exactly according to plan; sometimes you're in the flow and everything comes easily to you (maybe not so easily this morning); but my question is, what do you do when it's not coming easily? This fall, as I tried to make sense of my situation and my goals and my injuries, I just put my head down and went. For some crazy reason I had faith that I was going in the right direction. The first few months were difficult, but gradually it felt like a light was dawning. The experience of morning practice went from feeling like a mule that was stepping into the traces for another two hours of drudgery (the kind of morning where you ask yourself, "why am I doing this?"), to getting to the boathouse with that excited feeling under your sternum, like when you first fall in love. I may have even skipped down the walkway.

And I was in love. I was falling in love with the sport again, with the work.

A friend calls rowing "the work." Even something that is supposed to be fun can be difficult if its demands are regularly scheduled and impose a discipline that can be inconvenient or oppressive. An apt term, since despite the fact that rowing is so beguiling, it requires so much work to perfect. During bad bouts of clock-watching in some sessions, I thought of the phrase "work makes you free." It is work. But it is a work of love. Aristotle said something to the effect that the human good turns out to be a soul-activity (work?) in conformity with, or chasing after, excellence. But he also adds that it must be in a complete life. That stuck with me, though it took me a few months to figure out why.

In the passage I was reading, Aristotle was concerned with what constitutes happiness, or the word "eudamonia" which translates roughly not to a state of being but an action of doing well and living well. He says that every human action is aimed at some good, and that the highest good is happiness. I was struck by his assertion that actions done for some goal are less worthy, that he preferred actions done for their own sake. I liked the idea that happiness is an action of living well. I liked the free will of it, the nearness, the tangibility of happiness. After all, if it's something that we all are looking for, isn't it nice to know that you have agency? That it doesn't have to wait until tomorrow? I liked the fact that I could choose to be happy.

Strangely enough, the more I flung myself headlong into the workouts, the easier it was to complete them. It's not that it hurt any less, but there began to be little difference in pleasure between my bed and the erg, since it was fun to see if I could improve on the previous week, even if it was incremental. Measuring my life out by split-seconds, I ignored the larger issues in my life that had been a source of anxiety, trusting that eventually, with action, the path would become clear and I would be able to see the forest for the trees. And somewhere in the minutes and sweat and miles, I found that clarity.

I decided that it was best to stop my flirtation with lightweight rowing. As tempting as rowing lightweight was, it was also psychologically difficult - and it insidiously threaded through my thoughts throughout the day. I realized that people had come to expect my appearance and performance to be a certain way, and commented on it, and although I never admitted it, I was angry a lot of the time, angry because I knew I was for the most part holding up an elaborate facade.

I hated what lightweight rowing did to my self-image, and I hated what it did to my relationships. Most of all, I hated that I couldn't be who I wanted to be. I felt like I had a big excuse hanging over my head every time I competed. Every time I raced and felt awful, I had to ask myself whether I had expended everything I truly had, or whether the non-stop dieting had leached away some element that could have given me a bit more speed.

Lightweight rowing tests just about everything you have, when you're going full tilt. But it is not for everybody; it is meant to allow talented athletes to compete, not to allow bigger people to compete in a smaller pool. However, once you step into that pool, it can be hard to get out. Others expected things of me, and I felt like I had to conform to their idea of who I was as an athlete, as a woman, and as a person. I had stretched too far, and I felt like I no longer had any choice in my actions.

I was never meant to be a lightweight, at least not physiologically. It was only through severe discipline, starvation, and sweat runs that I could even make FISA weight. I never missed a weigh-in, but I saw other lightweights who didn't have to do the crazy stuff I was doing, and I started to question my motives. I felt stretched so thin I might break. I started to worry about being able to have kids one day. The bones in my spine felt like they were made of glass half the time, and the other half of the time I was obsessing over everything I had consumed. But the truth was that lightweight rowing was consuming me. Every day, I felt farther away from the truth of why I loved rowing. The highs I got when racing were too few to counter the turbulent emotions that became a daily companion. And worst of all, I felt like I was lying to myself.

I had rowed as a heavyweight in high school and college, and had never really been comfortable with identifying myself as a lightweight. I felt like a wolf in sheep's clothing. So I decided if competing was what I really wanted, I had to go after it full force with honesty, with everything I had. No more excuses.

So I crashed and burned at the race today. And I fucking love it.

February 7, 2004

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