After arriving in California, I made my way to the Newport Aquatic Center, having received a welcoming message on Facebook from the legendary Xeno Muller. I called Xeno while in Tucson and we agreed to meet at the NAC at 9:00 AM – after his row, but before mine. I found him to be one of the nicest, most genuine people you could ever meet. And this is a guy who has a silver medal and a gold medal from two different (but consecutive) Olympics – both in the single scull. That is no small task, as anyone in the sport knows.
Interestingly, I had had a Xeno Moment at NSR 1 in 2004, when I attended at the age of (almost) 44 years of age. I was training with the Riverside High Performance Group for reasons I still don't understand, and I went down to Princeton to, essentially, not come in last place (I ended up 28th out of 32 overall).
But Xeno was there, and he had an Epic Race with Steve Tucker. He was still racing for Switzerland, his native country, but he was conflicted. He had gone to Brown, married an American, and was starting a family. His priorities were changing and he wanted to become an American citizen. When he went to NSR 2 a few weeks later, he resigned from the sport of rowing before his race began. It was pretty big stuff in the rowing world. The interesting thing about it was that I had taken a few pictures of him at NSR 1, and I still had them on my laptop. I emailed them to him and we looked at them while we were talking in the NAC parking lot. "I had weight issues back then," he noted. Didn't look like it to me – he looked like the complete Animal that he was – but he would know best. In any case, it made for a fun and interesting conversation.
Newport Aquatic Center is one of the best places to row in the world. And at this point, I've been to a few places. The weather and water conditions are nearly perfect all year round (right out back of John Wayne's house). Everyone is extremely laid back, friendly and helpful. I just brought my boat and stuff down, and after taking a picture of the huge Esther Lofgren banner atop the front door (she's rowing there now), started to put my boat together.
Everyone was wonderful. A masters rower named Burt McChesney showed me a map of the geography, helped me with my stuff, and took some pictures of me as I launched. I also made friends with some masters women, relatively new to the sport, who were launching a double while I was launching. After my row, they invited me to join them in their traditional post-row Sunday Brunch. (I'm getting treated a lot on this trip. I'm not minding it at all.) So there I sat, after a blissful row, in the warm California weather, being treated to a fantastically healthy, protein-infused brunch by the lovely and charming Gayle Jennings and Linnet Conley. "Yeah," I thought, "I think I like rowing in Southern California."
The next morning I rowed again, which made for my first two days of back-to-back rowing since I started this journey. It was also the first time I got up early to row, and it was well worth it. Following the aforementioned first-night-of-not-coughing, the water was like glass and the weather was to die for. Oh yeah, except that there weren't any power boats or anything else out because, well, it's winter time here and it's just too damn cold. It's down to the low 70s, for crying out loud.
As it was my first row feeling relatively healthy, I made the most of it, putting in about 90 minutes of steady state. I rounded Lido Island, then Balboa Island, then Lido Island again. On the way back from my second rounding of Lido, I noticed a strong young rower doing some slow-rate work in the wide straight channel on the east side of Lido Island. I decided to try and hang with him, which I did, but I was at a 22 and working pretty hard, while he was at a max of 20, and probably not working very hard. But it still felt great, and I met up with him on the dock. His name is Erich Hanxladen, and he's a 24-year-old National Team hopeful, training for the NSRs next spring. He coaches and trains with the Graves brothers, so he's in good company. He also couldn't have been nicer, even offering to teach me to surf! But as I didn't have a wet suit and needed to get on my way to the next port of call, I politely declined. Still, it was pretty cool of him to offer.
Yesterday I had some time to be a tourist, and I wanted to see L.A. I've read and heard so much about the legendary city that I had to experience some small part of it for myself, which I did: I got lost, stuck in traffic, and got a $53 parking ticket on Sunset Boulevard. My one goal, other than to get a massage in Santa Monica (which I did, and it was inexpensive and very good – and no weird stuff going on, for you perverts out there), was to take a picture of my car somewhere famous, like on Rodeo Drive or with the Hollywood sign in the background. It was late afternoon and the light was fading fast. I totally screwed up and missed Rodeo Drive, which was disappointing: I had my line for one of the high-fashion stores all set – "Excuse me, but I was in here the other day and you refused to sell me pogies? Big mistake. HUGE."
But alas, it was not to be. So I searched and searched for the Hollywood sign as I drove along Sunset Boulevard (with the sun actually setting). I finally saw it from Hollywood Boulevard (in the seedy part of Hollywood). It was off to my left, but in the distance. Time was running out. I turned left and headed up into the Hollywood Hills. But the streets were all dead ends and there were huge trees everywhere. I finally found a road that climbed up, up, up. I thought, okay, this might work. I might get a view. And sure enough, near the top, with barely enough light, I was able to snap a picture. Then I noticed - all the houses were really nice. Good Lord, I thought. I have stepped right into Shawn Mullins' song about LA, "Lullabye"
She grew up with the children of the stars
In the Hollywood hills and the boulevards.
Her parents threw big parties. Everyone was there.
They hung out with folks like Dennis Hopper and Bob Seger and Sonny and Cher.
I was on a narrow, winding road that was about one-car-length wide. It was almost completely dark. And the turns were so tight – microscopic hairpins – and the houses and walls so close to the wall, that I was becoming really, really nervous. "This is it," I thought. "This is where I'm going to snap my boat into three pieces. Right here in the Hollywood hills and the boulevards. And then Nicholas Cage is going to come flying out of his house and kick my ass."
But everything turned out to be all right, and I made it safely back to Sunset. At this point, it was really cold and I had to change clothes, get food, and go to the bathroom. Not necessarily in that order. I ran into a nail boutique and asked, first, what time to the meters expire (2 am or something, for future reference), and second, could I use their bathroom to change out of my shorts and t-shirt and into some warmer clothes. The lovely ladies said not sure on question one, and no problem on question two. But I forgot to put a quarter in the meter just as a precaution, and that, dear readers, cost me exactly $53.00. Let this be a lesson to you. "Amy," the young starlet working the phones, even ran out onto the street to try to talk the meter guy out of giving me a ticket. Who says LA is a cold, mean place?