row2k Features
The High School Rowing Life
March 29, 2005
Anne Schier (

The Start: adrenaline central

My friends think I’m crazy.

My non-rowing friends, that is. And I can understand. What is it about this relatively unknown, decidedly painful sport that is so addicting? Save for a certain few, certainly not the overabundance of spandex. "So, what," acquaintances ask skeptically, "you, like, sit down and –" (an awkward rowing motion with the arms follows). Well, I tell them after attempting to correct their form, not really. And then I stop – how can I make them understand the appeal of crew? Previous attempts have earned me only dubious, you-must-be-on-drugs looks. And I can understand that, too.

In short, crew is a sport where one practices six days a week, multiple hours a day, for nine months, sometimes longer. Nine months of lactic acid buildup and sweat, nine months of frustration and improvement, nine months of monster wakes from insensitive motorboats and Cal coaches and ahh-I'm-blinded salt water in the eyes and in the hair and clothes. Nine months of coming home utterly exhausted to hours of homework, nine months of blisters on the hands so bad that washing one’s hair is more painful than minor oral surgery. Nine months of ergs – rowing machines – which are basically raw, unadulterated pain. Don’t get me started on those.

So these nine months add up to what? On average, six seven-minute races, all in the spring. Not to mention hands calloused enough to rival a lumberjack's.

So how do I explain to my friends that no, I can’t come out Friday night because I have practice early Saturday morning. No, I can’t have Nation’s for lunch because I have an erg test this afternoon and I don’t want to throw up. No, I can’t come snowboarding with you because I can’t risk injury. No, I can’t come watch your play because I have crew. The story of my high school existence has been "I can’t, I have crew." I should make a shirt. But wait, someone already has.

I guess you could say I row for those moments when everything, from the anxiety of an upcoming 2k test to the strict no-snow-sports rule, is undeniably worth it.

I live for the sky as the sun sets, and the clouds above the bay light up with the color of the sunset, and the water reflects that color and is a vast plain of light, and the water-side restaurants are lit up with their lights, and even the sailboats have rows of lights up their masts.

I live for the light, barely-there rain that renders the entire estuary flat and smooth as glass, our oars and the little dimples where the raindrops hit the only disturbance. And just when it couldn’t get any better – a rainbow that stretches all the way over Coast Guard Island and seems solid enough to touch.

I live for those practices where everything just feels good; when the bodies swing together and the legs press together, and the blades catch and release together. When everything is in perfect unison, just the way it should be, and you want to keep rowing forever.

And the races, where at the starting line the adrenaline starts pumping and you can hear your heart beating with excitement and nerves, and your teammates are silent and concentrating, and the coxswain gives orders in a quiet voice, and you look over at the boat next to you and know that that girl, those girls are feeling the same nerves and excitement as you. Everything is surreal and calm and infinitely focused. And the start of the race, every coxswain shouting as every body explodes in synchronized intensity - five short strokes, three-quarters, half, half, three-quarters, full! Now 20 high, rate climbing to a forty, legs and lungs already burning and there are 1750 meters left. Nerves are gone; can’t waste energy on that. Now lengthen, stretch and lengthen the stroke, rate of 35, that’s perfect, keep it there, keep it long and strong. I’ve got stroke on the boat next to us, give me seven seat! Good, keep it there, five strokes to six! Second 500 meters passes quickly, now walk away in the third 500! This is where they tire, but not us. We don’t tire, we are going to walk away from them right here! This is our move ladies, they’re trying to make a move but we won’t let them. A ten to walk away, that’s it, that’s it, I’ve got bowball! All open water from here, don’t let them take it back. They’re not taking it back. Sweat blurs eyes, and lungs and legs are burning, and breathing is frantic and noisy through dry mouths. The last 500 meters, and the noise of the crowd is a distant roar and all you hear is your coxswain yelling and your heart pounding and your own breathing and the breathing of the girls around you, and that solid finish that tells you you’ve still got more to give. Last 250 meters and it’s the sprint, the white lane markers turn red, somehow manage to bring the rate up with your burning legs and burning lungs, the red markers are passing quickly and you know that at the end of these red markers are the red buoys that signal the finish line, any time now, ten more strokes, nine, eight…the last stroke takes the boat through the finish line and that harmony that makes rowing look so easy, that unison that held the boat together for 2000 meters shatters and girls are exhausted, slumped over their oars; there will be time for speaking later. And you know that you could not have given any more, and you are proud of yourself and your teammates. No regrets.

So maybe it is impossible to make my non-rowing friends understand what I experience. Will they understand what I feel whenever I think of the starting line? Even writing about it sends a shot of adrenaline through my body. Or that familiar feeling that grasps my stomach when I hear a song from one of our erg CDs playing on the radio (“at about two minutes into this song, my legs would be starting to hurt…”). Maybe they will never be able to commiserate over stair repeats or those never-ending pieces on the water, or the excitement of practicing starts or those beautiful sunsets over Alameda. Maybe they never will understand. Or care, for that matter.

It’s a good thing that I have 30 fit, beautiful, spandex-embracing friends who do.
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