If every race is like a performance, then each one is also just a dress rehearsal for the big finale at the end of the season - the National Championships.
The Lake Waramaug Invitational was our last competition before the Dad Vail Regatta, which was considered the national championship for small colleges. Most of the crews who would be attending that Philadelphia event hailed from the eastern seaboard, but not all. Marietta and Minnesota would make the long trip from the South and Midwest, and the University of British Columbia might bring a well-prepared Thunderbird crew all the way across the country to try their luck on Boathouse Row.
Before the Vails, however, we first had to duel against Williams, Ithaca, and Marist at Waramaug - three small liberal arts colleges with well-established crew programs.
As soon as we disembarked from our Peter Pan bus, all the Trinity squads assembled and started to busy ourselves with pre-race preparations, eager to show what we could do. Trinity was a Division III school, but its sports teams often went above and beyond this designation, and with Norm Graf by our side, we tried to carry ourselves with a sense of dignity. All except Mongo, that is, who hopped off the bus and promptly released an enormous fart.
"Juworkski, I believe the port-o-potties are that way," Graf pointed out.
The lake looked deceptively bucolic at first inspection, with gently forested shores and a grassy bank lined with picnic benches. The launching area was part of a state park and it had good views for spectators at the finish line. Overall, the rural feel of the place was a welcome relief for those of us who had endured the long winter and the urban grind of Hartford.
"Far out! We're in the country now," Joe Rhineman announced, in his mellow, California voice.
"Rhino" was the four seat of our boat, and I'd begun to hang out with him more and more, even though he was a bit of an odd duck. With his blonde curls and body-builder physique, he seemed more like a surfer dude than an oarsman, and his pre-race practice of meditation had earned him another nickname - Karma Joe. Lately I'd come to appreciate his laid-back attitude, though, because it was radically different from the uptight the East Coast vibe.
Heidi herded us toward the shell trailer, and we carefully offloaded the two sections of our eight. Dak was in charge of bolting them together, first applying a thick coat of Vaseline to insure the seam wouldn't leak. We soon got caught up in the ritual behaviors of pre-race preparation - not only the necessary labors of rigging the boat, but also cleaning and coddling our seats and oar handles, not wanting them to jam or slip. Joe, however, soon wandered off and sat under a pine tree, while the rest of us glanced about nervously at the other teams and pretended to stretch.
"Hey Rhino," Wean called out, as he rolled his seat back and forth for the umpteenth time. "What are you doing over there-taking a dump?"
"He's probably thinking about his old high school girlfriend," Porgy ventured.
"I don't think he had one!" Rob said.
"Hah! Hah!" Wean guffawed. HEY JOE," he called out, "ARE YOU A STILL A VIRGIN?"
We all laughed again.
"Actually, he is probably thinking about all the food he's going to eat after the season is over and he doesn't have to make weight," Henry Phillips offered.
No one responded, because the comment wasn't funny to a bunch of lightweights.
"Ok, leave him alone," Dak said.
Joe continued to sit calmly under his pine tree, unaffected by all of the teasing. A gentle gust of wind blew lightly through his blonde curls. He sat facing the lake, smiling like a tranquil Buddha.
Our other rivals had recently arrived - Ithaca, Williams, and Marist. Ithaca was just starting to unload their trailer, and the Ephmen, dressed in their trademark purple, were already rigging their boats. I looked over at the Ephs with some degree of envy, for Williams had been my first choice for college admission, and I confess that I didn't get in - even though I'd applied early decision
Ithaca had never been on my shopping list of schools, maybe because it was so far north. But now, as I watched the I.C. team joking and carrying on, I thought they looked cool in a Seattle grunge sort of way, years before that fashion trend became popular. Instead of being all preppy or outfitted in team sweats, the I.C. guys milled about in thermal shirts and wool caps, looking pretty laid back for a bunch of athletes. One of them mentioned a keg party happening later that day that he was definitely planning to attend, win or lose.
"Hey Joe," Wean said, when Rhino rejoined the group, "maybe you should have gone to Ithaca. Seriously. They look like your people."
"Wean, you know, you can be kind of a dick sometimes," Joe said.
Everyone laughed, because Joe delivered the remark in such an unaggressive, offhand way.
"Hey Joe," I said, sidling up next to him. "If you don't mind me asking, what do you actually do when you meditate?"
Joe shrugged. "I just relax. Then I visualize our race and row 200 perfect strokes," he said.
"Really? That's it?"
He nodded. "It's like making my own movie or creating a dream."
"Huh..." I said. "But how does it feel when we are actually racing? I mean, don't you ever get stressed out that we are going to lose-or catch a crab or something?"
"Not really. That's all negative crap. I'm pulling hard, of course, but I'm pretty relaxed about the whole racing business, because I figure what will be, will be. Right? So I'm really just trying to let it all happen the way I've imagined beforehand."
"200 perfect strokes," I said.
"Exactly," Joe said.
I studied his face to see if he was putting me on, but he just gazed back with an innocent smile. If Joe had been a dog, he would have been a golden retriever, for there was absolutely no guile about him.
"Sometimes I even feel like there is this invisible cord attached to our bow, pulling us down the racecourse," he added, lowering his voice to a whisper.
"That's pretty cool," I said, even though I thought it was pretty weird.
"HEY, LET'S GO!" Heidi called out.
We dropped what we were doing and laid hands on the boat.
* Every waterway has its own character, but lakes are notably different from rivers. They can be bucolic and still in the early hours of the morning, but quite dangerous later in the day if the wind rises. And this is exactly what happened that afternoon on Lake Waramaug.
If you've never rowed in whitecaps before, it's not a pleasant experience. Ocean rowers laugh at what we call rough water, since they are used to getting buffeted about by much larger swells at sea. But a freshwater oarsman is generally not accustomed to anything larger than a foot-high wave, and the boats aren't really designed to handle anything more substantial. We'd swamped once before, of course, so we knew what it was like to deal with rough conditions. So after we put our boat in the water and tied in, we braced ourselves for a bumpy ride.
Waramaug had its own storied past as a rowing venue, but it had only started to be used for larger regattas recently. Before then, it had mainly been used as a training ground for local high schools, Kent, East Kent, and The Gunnery. It had a 1500-meter stretch that was perfect for high school races, but in order to squeeze out an extra 500 meters, college crews had to start right up against the shore.
We quickly sailed our way down to the starting line, aided by the tailwind, but when we stopped to spin our boat, it would barely budge. The riggers creaked as the ports backed and starboards rowed, but we finally got the eight turned around and pointed directly into the wind. Four guys in fisherman's waders served as human stake boats, and each one grabbed the stern of a crew and tried to hold it fast. Williams was to our right, Marist and Ithaca were to starboard. We needed to get out ahead to avoid a crash, as there weren't any lane markers.
"C'mon," Heidi said, "Let's take them off the line."
The umpire dropped the flag, since verbal commands were useless in the wind. Then, the boats were off, with oars swinging wildly in the messy chop. I could barely keep a blade full of water through the entire stroke, but nevertheless our eight crested over the wave tops with surprising ease. After the first 30 strokes we had open water on the rest of the field and we proceeded to blast our way forward. Ironically, the fact that we were rowing in a heavyweight shell worked to our advantage that day, because our boat had plenty of freeboard and didn't take on much water. The other teams were less fortunate.
When we finished, the next crew to come in behind us was Ithaca College - 54 seconds back. Marist trailed us by 1:04. Williams didn't even finish. Spring boat races are usually won by margins of a few seconds, so this victory was nothing short of a walloping. I almost felt badly for the other crews, as they came over to give us their betting shirts.
As we de-rigged our boat and prepared to leave, I fell back into conversation with Joe.
"That was way too easy," I said, admiring the purple t-shirt I'd just acquired from the Williams seven seat. "I almost feel badly for the other teams."
"Why? It's not about them," Joe said.
"Right. It's about taking 200 perfect strokes," I quoted.
Joe smiled. I had to admit, it was a great technique.
Suddenly Mongo and Carl Rox strode by, proudly clutching the two betting shirts they had won like a pair of scalps. All the Trinity squads except the varsity lights had also been victorious, and it made for a festive post-race atmosphere.
"YEAH, BABY!" they cried, holding the betting shirts up in front our faces. Despite their moronic behavior, I was happy for them.
What I hadn't told anyone was that I'd been struggling with my energy levels ever since I'd been sick during spring break. Whatever strain of flu that I'd fought off had partially remained in my system and continued to wreak havoc. I was down to about 140 pounds and always felt tired. At the Trinity health services office, the clinician had taken some of my blood and then informed me that my white cell counts were totally depleted.
The recommendation was rest and time off from intense physical exertion.
Naturally, I couldn't do that.
On the bus ride back to Hartford, I quietly shared this information with Joe, along with my growing concern about being able to defeat Coast Guard again at the Dad Vails.
"Somehow, I have to figure out how to make it through the last week of the season," I said.
Joe listened patiently.
"Dude, you don't have to try so hard. Remember, you create our own reality."
"I guess," I said.
"There's no guesswork about it. The question is - can you imagine us winning at the Vails?" he asked.
"Yes," I said. "Definitely."
"Then focus on that outcome and it will happen."
I closed my eyes and drifted off to sleep, hoping that Karma Joe was right.
(Author's Note: This is a work of "creative non-fiction," which means that it is more or less true. Some of the names of the characters have been altered, mostly to protect them from identification. The story takes place in the mid-1970s, a time in when the sport of rowing was in a period of change, and so was the author's life. Enjoy!)
For more on Dan Boyne, go to www.danboyne.com.