After four hours of sleep in the familiar Oak Ridge Comfort Inn & Suites, I rolled out of bed, pulled on my uni, and stumbled in a daze toward the hotel elevator. Downstairs, the other girls in the Varsity 8 stood solemnly, rubbing their eyes and eating whatever breakfast they had packed the day before with the knowledge that the hotel wouldn’t be serving up waffles and over-moist blueberry muffins for another two hours. In silence we boarded the white short-bus, and each girl claimed a seat, hoping to get fifteen more minutes of sleep or perhaps a chance to start listening to a pre-race playlist. Having reached the racing site, we perfunctorily got off the bus, ran to the bridge and back, visited the Port-a-Potties with the typical amount of disgust, and obeyed the “Hands on!” call.
After Coach went to each girl either shaking her hand or just firmly grasping her shoulder while reminding her to “Stay tall at the catch,” “tap down at the finish,” or just “row hard,” we laid eight calloused hands on the dock, pushed away, and set off. From my vantage point in bow, I saw all seven other rowers’ blades stretching out on either side like thin wings of a peculiarly engineered airplane. We rowed up the racecourse, the same course I’d rowed four times before, and instead of experiencing the typical pre-race dread and panic, I my mind was focus, my thoughts clear and calm, even through some quick Power 10’s. The black sheen of the Alacrity seemed a continuation of the mirror-flat water, unlike the Ineffable, whose scuffed white paint never struck anyone as an unforgettable image. While the stern 6 rowed, I gazed to starboard, watching the reflections of the green and white oars periodically masking the brilliantly clear studs and the perfectly round orb of the moon’s face. A light fog cloaked the still waters like vanilla icing on a devil’s food cake, and the temperature lay somewhere between the chill beckoning extra layers and the heat that our hideously unattractive unisuits are designed for. The mist blurred the border of the shore, creating the illusion that the trees had sprouted from the very water upon which our water-dagger was gliding.
The coxswain’s piercing voice sparingly poured out through the speaker system, giving our captain ample space between calls to focus on the best way to fill the upcoming tortuous eight minutes and allowing the other eight of us to relax without concern for the heat, finals, school, or any other drama. The growing purple-orange halo around the mountains reminded us that soon the shoreline would be full of life—friends reconnecting, coaches barking from their bicycles, novices nervously seeking last-minute advice, and victors proudly donning their medals. But for as long as only that halo topped the hills instead of the radiant sun itself, the only sounds were the occasional coxswain calls, the flow of the water as the keel mercilessly sliced onward, and the precise war-drum of the thud, click, and splash of all eight oars as we feathered, squared, and placed the blade adroitly into the water, creating eight circular short-lived scars on the river’s perfect face.
As we rowed through the half-way point, one of our most fearsome competitors, Atomic, gained seat by seat on our mostly lightweight boat, storming through the water like Hannibal’s elephant army, filling the entire valley with their resoundingly powerful and clean thud-and-clicks as the girls twisted the oars within the oarlocks with such precision that even the best watchmaker could only hope to achieve. Minutes after they passed, the golden sun finally breached over the mountains as parents erected tents on the shore and squad after squad stumbled out of buses. The serenity of the warmup dissipated as quickly as the fog shied away from the sun. The time of ease, the absolute peace of the perfectly quiet morning, and the mirror-clear water was gone—now it was time to race.