row2k Features
Life is a Metaphor for Rowing, Ch. 25: Gatorade
September 9, 2022
Peter Mallory

Me in the center, rowing at half-pressure and sitting on a narrow lead in the Lightweight Dash heat

In my single that summer of 1971, I train and train and train some more. Before or since, I never met a man who could run stadium stairs like I could back then, and most of the time in a rubber suit with elastic at the neck, waist, wrists, and ankles just to help me make weight.

Proustian alert! As an old man half a century later I can close my eyes and still smell that death suit.

I have to weigh in for U.S. lightweight races at 150 pounds. I can rather easily reach below 160 by dieting, but the rest has to come off in sweat. In the summer of 1971, I sometimes wear that rubber suit night and day. Oh my!

All of a sudden, it's August. I'm at the U.S. Nationals regatta site by Friday morning. I rig my boat, my beautiful vintage Vesper Stämpfli single, etc., etc., check out the course in my rubber suit and check out the official scale in my birthday suit. I'm 151 3/4 as of 4:30pm. That's close enough. Just exhaling for the next fourteen hours will lose me more than two pounds of water vapor, even if I don't tinkle a single drop in the meantime. I have at least a quarter-pound in hand.

I have an orange Popsicle, a personal favorite, for dinner, just to whet my whistle. I go to bed at my brother's apartment in the Bronx. He's at work that night. In his refrigerator I place a bottle of Gatorade, a marvelous new product produced in Indianapolis, Indiana, by Stokely-Van Camp - at the age of 15, the first "date" of my teenage social life had been with Barbara Stokely. My Dad drove. I was SO embarrassed! - a full bottle of Gatorade that I will drink as soon as I officially weigh in the next morning.

Middle of the night I am thinking of the qualifying heats the next day. I am entered in both the lightweight and heavyweight dashes. Lightweight dash heat first. Should be no problem. Bill Belden is undefeated this summer, and I know I have his number in my stadium-tuned quadriceps muscles. My starts are now close to 50 strokes per minute. I settle at 44 and take it back up at the end. I'm ready . . . if I can just make weight . . .

You know, I'm mighty thirsty. I start thinking that I'd get back to sleep more easily if I suck on a sliver of ice. Great idea!

I get up and head for the kitchen. I open the refrigerator door. In the glow of the light at the back of the refrigerator there's the Gatorade. "You know, a sip of Gatorade would be even more effective than a piece of ice." I open the bottle, take a tiny sip, put the empty bottle back in the refrigerator and close the door. I settle back into bed. Life is good.

Wait a minute . . . Empty bottle? Empty bottle? I get back up and look again. Thirty seconds ago that bottle was full. Uh oh . . . Not much to be done now. "A pint's a pound the world around." Three hours 'til my showdown with the scale. I squeeze back into my rubber suit and pray in vain for pee.

At dawn I run a bit before hitting the scale. 150¾. The official gives me a break, but we both know there will be no slack allowed tomorrow before the finals. I breathe a sigh of relief, have some toast and honey and head for my shell. On the water I'm nervous as Hell . . . and feeling GUILTY! As I line up, no Belden in my heat, but two, count them, two, former National Dash Champions among my five opponents.

In ten strokes I am open water ahead and easing off. I spend the rest of the race a casual observer, utterly relaxed. I even stop a stroke early by mistake and nearly get nipped as I coast over the line, but no problem.

I paddle back for the start of my heavyweight heat. At several of the summer regattas I have been rowing heavyweight to avoid the dreaded scale, and I've been right in there. Yessirree! In fact, my ever-improving times should give me a shot at the Silver or Bronze Medal at the U.S. Nationals AS A HEAVYWEIGHT!

Are you ready? . . . Row!

Back to reality. I look around after ten strokes, and I am within a foot or two of the lead, but I am already gassed from my lightweight race just a few minutes ago. And mind-fugged. This wasn't supposed to be hard. My confidence deserts me like a rat deserting a sinking ship. I am rationalizing. The weight loss has obviously sapped some of my endurance, I tell myself. I should be saving what I have left for the lightweight final tomorrow. I shut it down and paddle in.

I spend the afternoon in my rubber suit in my car on a hot summer day with the radio tuned to Cousin Brucie on 77 WABC, the windows rolled up and the heater on full blast, chewing gum and spitting. It all works. No more mistakes. The following morning I hit the scale at 149½, focused and fearless.

* * * * *

As I approach the start line the skies are overcast, and the wind is dead calm. The enormity of the moment presses around me. My Silver Medal in the lightweight eights in 1965 on this very course, my Silver Medal in the lightweight coxed-fours in 1966, the second-place finish at the 1967 Eastern Sprints for my Penn Jayvee crew, then my Silver Medal in the lightweight quads in 1968, again on this very course, even the second place at the Eastern Sprints for the 1971 Penn Freshmen Lightweights that I just coached this past spring, all these memories surround me as adrenaline fuels my heart.

Racing starts during warm-up have felt fabulous. Bill Belden is in the lane next to me. None of us looking at one another. None of the banter that usually precedes other races. This is the U.S. National final, for Heaven's sake!

We are aligned. "Are you ready? . . . Row!"

This can't be happening! My port blade is heading straight for the bottom of the lagoon on the very first stroke. My rigger is already dragging in the water. When is the last time I have caught a crab? Why, I have more finesse at the tips of my blades than a surgeon has in the tips of his fingers! I gather my wits about me and finally get pointed and up to speed, even more adrenaline coursing through my body.

At fifteen strokes I look around. I am dead last, about a length behind second-to-last - God knows where everybody else is - and even half a length might as well be a mile when you're a quarter of the way through a dash, for Heaven's sake. But luckily in a dash there isn't time to think, only to act. Five strokes further, and I settle into the body of my race, feeling strangely calm. The pressure is off me. No more expectations. Just row my race, like I've done over and over all summer. I think of all the stadiums I've run. I think, "What the Hell?"

Twenty to go now. Time to raise the rating once more. I look around one more time . . . I'm in the thick of it. Believe it or not, I have caught and passed almost everybody. No time to ponder the significance of my comeback, no time to ask who is in the lead. I say to myself, "Think of all the work we have done this summer, all the hours in that rubber death suit. In twenty strokes our collective journey will be complete. What have I got to lose? Let's see what I've got for twenty more strokes."

I begin my sprint. The stroke climbs. No hesitation from my body. I build and build and build to the line. No more looking. Is this the first time in my life I have had the discipline not to look?

To be continued . . .

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