If there's any sort of silver lining to be found in the lost year of 2020, at least from a rowing perspective, it's that more than a few literate rowing folks have put pen to paper to write about their personal experiences in and around rowing. In the past year, we've seen the release of Lindsay Shoop's inspirational "Better Great Than Never," charting her rise from college walk-on to Olympic champion. A late addition to the 2020 batch of personal rowing books is Maureen McCauley's memoir "Falling Out of the Boat."
McCauley's book is very different from Shoop's book, almost necessarily so. The book details McCauley's discovery of rowing later in life, her experiences first in team boats, and finally (almost reluctantly) as a single sculler.
Certainly the biggest difference between McCauley's book and Shoop's works is that, for the latter, life in and around competitive sports and rowing teams formed the framework for her experience and growth. For McCauley, who came to rowing well after college (of "a certain age," as you might say) competition in rowing is secondary, tertiary almost, to her search for meaning within the movement and the experience of rowing.
McCauley charts her life, beginning with her childhood growing up in Yeadon, PA (a suburb of Philadelphia), through an unnamed college, to her present residence in New York state's capital region.
Running through McCauley's account like a fine thread is her relationship with the movements of her body and how, for lack of a better way of expressing it, movement and the state of her soul relate. Keying on the memory of joy and freedom felt as a child during games of red rover, McCauley searches for the reasons why (and why not) this joy is so elusive, and so difficult to recapture later in life.
She traces her way through college where her access to sports (as was probably typical for female college students not so long ago) seems to have been limited to PE classes in swimming, tennis, bowling and other such offerings, taught by, in McCauley's description, instructors who seem to have been dead-set on making the experience as hard and unpleasant as possible.
Post-college and into marriage and law school, McCauley rediscovers movement for herself, first as runs, and then ballet class. After seeing rowing on TV, McCauley is intrigued; after a friend mentions a flyer at the local gym where the local rowing club is seeking rowers, McCauley finds her way down to the boathouse, where she is almost instantly hooked.
"There are moments that make me believe love is simply a piercing of the heart with no will involved," she writes. "Seeing a rowing shell up close for the first time was one of those moments for me."
In what seems to be a surprising reversal of perhaps a typical coming-to-rowing narrative, McCauley's experiences as she learns to row are tentative and shade into the negative; her club boats are set at random, and (in an experience that other club rowers may recognize) the coach soon drops any pretense of getting the rowers out in any sort of equitable way; some rowers, mainly McCauley and other women, are passed over regularly. "I hated arriving at 5:30am only to be headed for home at 5:45am," as she relates.
In order to continue to pursue rowing, McCauley opts for what for her is a radical choice; sculling.
"I had never sat in a scull, didn't know the technique, and had no idea how I would get access to a scull. I could say it was intuitive logic, but I don't remember anything either remotely logical or intuitive going on. What I do remember was a mind flash, a before, heavy with uncertainty and helplessness, and an after of clarity[...], strained beyond limit by my determination to hold on to the feeling I got when out on the water."
The path is chosen, but it is fraught, and the reader feels with McCauley as she embarks upon it. McCauley's path to single sculling is, one must say, filled with frustrations and fear, intermittently rescued by moments of grace and insight as she overcomes limitations and hardships, health issues, and the collapse of her marriage.
It's academic that the single is the most "free" of rowing boats, but you have to wonder if "freedom of the single" is simply a corollary for "the loneliness of the single sculler." In so many instances in McCauley's memoirs, as she comes up against the tension between everything that she wants rowing to be, and the circumstances that seem to prevent her from attaining the elemental joy she seeks, one can't help but feel for her. And it's to McCauley's great credit that she unflinchingly details all of the moments along the path, the highs as well as the lows, as she struggles to make progress on her journey.
McCauley is a fine writer, capable of deep insights into complex worlds of thoughts and emotions. As I read the book, I could not help but wonder whether too many of us in rowing take for granted what for most of us is (or was) a typical route into the sport. We learned to row in high school or college, safely ensconced in the bosom of a team (for better or worse), and then, armed with the knowledge attained from (more or less) skillful coaches and supportive teammates, were equipped and free to fend for ourselves in the sport-happily rowing any boat, any seat, any time, all the way into the sunset. What if barriers, personal or otherwise, prevented you from getting there as easily?
This, I think, is what shines through McCauley's book. Most folks who spend time rowing, by choice, are searching for (or have found) many of the things that McCauley is searching for in the book; freedom, grace, joy, and a whole host of other things that we know rowing is capable of producing in a person. What if you had to find all of these things on your own, by trial and error, with very little help?
(It also bears asking, again, if McCauley's experience might be typical for anyone whose access to rowing and coaching comes down to personal initiative. Maybe the joy that so many of us experience in the sport is still not as accessible as we all think it is, or should be.)
No spoilers intended, but, at least in her estimation, McCauley has succeeded in her quest. "I had believed that transformation was the stuff of fairy godmothers: an incantation, and I'd be off to a life-changing ball in an exquisite gown," she writes. "I discovered instead that the formula for transformation is try, fail, over and over, until one small thing changes. Repeat process. Transformation is not glamorous; there's no abracadabra instantaneous change. It's about endlessly coming up the slide, going back down the slide, paying attention to body, boat, water, connecting all three."