And there I sat. Completely dumbfounded, staring at the traffic pattern map of one of the windiest water raceways I would ever compete on. “A coxswain’s race”, they call it, meant only for those with strong wits and a key sense of navigational genius. In just three short hours, it would be “go-time”; rocketing off the starting line with no time outs, no water breaks, and absolutely no chance of turning back. I had spent three whole years preparing myself for this day, the day where I would lead my team to a successful finish in one of America’s most prestigious and well-known regattas. It took countless days of my coach’s incessant reprimands and even my teammates’ disapproval for me to get there, so there was no better time to prove to whoever doubted me, that I could handle this, that I was built for this, and that a few curves in the course were not going to slow me down.
It was a cloudy, blistery Sunday, on October 24th, 2010, in Boston, Massachusetts, where I had accepted my biggest challenge of my rowing career. I was to cox the Merion Mercy Academy Women’s Youth Eight headrace in the Head of the Charles Regatta, the world’s largest two-day rowing event, against over seventy other highly competitive boats, in just our race alone. For those with little knowledge of the sport of rowing, “’Head’ races, a class of regattas, are generally three miles long, where boats race against each other and the clock, starting sequentially approximately fifteen seconds apart.” My job, the coxswain, is to steer, coach, and take full responsibility of a shell of eight female rowers, heading down this windy, narrow, serpentine, three-mile long waterway from hell. For those past twenty-four hours, I had drilled the race plan into my head: power 20 over the line, settle at a 26 rate, steady rhythm, go through the second arch to the right under the first bridge, go hard on port side around the first curve, power 10 to separate, and on, and on, and on, until our bow met the final buzzer. I had it down cold. The only thing in my way was the competition, who, hopefully, was not as prepared to handle the sharp turns and aggressive game-play as we were. This was it. I was ready. Emergency boat equipment in hand, team jacket warming my quivering back, yellow spirit ribbon wrapped firmly around my ponytail, like a Christmas gift waiting to be unveiled to the world. We, my eight girls and I, placed our shell into the water, locked in the oars, and began our journey on our very own “highway to the danger zone”.
Every second of this day is embedded in my memory. The sequence of events plays over and over in my head, like a home video on repeat. I can still feel every emotion to this day; the pit in my stomach, the adrenaline of the race, the sense of accomplishment as we crossed the finish line, even the pride I felt when I hugged my parents. Though we did not win, or do anything exceptionally noteworthy that day, I finally, after 7 years of exposure to the sport, learned what the term crew really meant. By definition, it is a sport of racing rowing shells. By experience, it is a group of people working together for a common goal.
Without my teammates by my side that day, survival would have just been a thing impossible of being accomplished. I was strong and confident on the exterior, yet scared and self-conscious within. However, the support of my girls helped me overcome these personal challenges. They knew what was at stake and what was expected of them, also. We believed in each other. I had faith that, as a unit, stroke-by-stroke, we would make it over that finish line, in one piece, respectively. And they had faith in me, that I could execute the race plan and also do whatever was in my power to keep them going when they thought they could not.
To paint the picture of what was endured, three miles is approximately five thousand meters, elapsing an over-under time of twenty minutes, depending on the type of racing shell and the number of people in the boat. Imagine giving one hundred percent of your energy and power for twenty minutes, without stopping or hesitating. Each rower must be in perfect unison; two, four, or eight clones, back and forth, up and down the slide, blade-work in flawless precision. It is truly impeccable, the sight of a crew in sheer harmony. It looks merely effortless to the untrained eye, yet those of us who know the effort behind each movement can only hold the upmost respect for those who do it.
We were the 48th fastest women’s youth eight that day, out of 70. We made it. We did all that we could in that final stretch, and we weren’t going to let anything go until we heard that buzzer, yet, somehow, other boats just had more fuel in their tanks. I couldn’t be more honored to share those moments with such incredible athletes, so, with little voice remaining, I muttered into my headset, “Ladies, I am so proud of you, and you should be just as proud of yourselves. You did amazing out there.” I sat, not expecting a response from such exhausted souls, yet a resounding appreciation filled my ears. “Thanks, mare, you did great. Good job, thanks so much.” With just those simple words, my wet, frozen cheeks bore a warm and grateful smile.
My crew is unlike any other. Through the torture we subject ourselves to, we grow closer and our bond thickens, because we do it together. We never leave another behind because our team is only as strong as its weakest link. When race day is upon us, we leave it all on the water, so when we take that final stroke, we have no regrets; we start and end as a team. That is love. That is respect. That is teamwork. That is crew.