Some days, I question my decision to row. Not my previous experiences, or the likelihood that future conversations will be centred on the effect rowing has had on my life. Simply, my decision to continue to row for this very practice.
I’m standing in a beautiful place; a sailing club overlooking a long, windy stretch of the River Tay. Behind me are mountains underlined by an orange stripe of trees. Beyond the river, are lush green fields with white roaming specks, the ever-present sheep with much warmer kit than my teammates and I.
Perth, Scotland is a beautiful place, and yet all I can focus on is my feet.
Cold and wet, standing barefoot in the grass, this feeling is only the beginning. I’m in short tights, because soon we have to wade into the piercing waters, down a steep and muddy incline. If I wear long tights, they’ll be completely submerged when my 5’1” frame inevitably meets the water more than halfway; a problem of the perpetual bowman, perhaps. Once we place our boat, I’ll either stand in the water, undoing gates to take my mind off the watery needles inserting themselves into my legs, or I’ll emerge to grab my and my partner’s oars, jabbing my cold feet into the sharp edges of an uneven concrete slipway. After it’s done, we’ll stand in the water until the middle pairs get in the boat, until finally, finally, we’re asked to join our crewmates in the shell. Next, our coxswain will ask us – the bow pair – to take strokes away from the shore, silently acknowledging our delayed gratification of warm socks in her request.
Before I can dread what’s next any longer, internally bemoaning the extra seconds I’ll spend with my feet bare to the cold as we help guide the boat to the middle of the river, I break my reverie to place my blade in the water. In those brief moments that we rowers spend so much time practicing, I press my handle down and let my hands lead my body to the catch. A simple release of the handle and the blade drops into the water and I move back to where I started. The cold and wetness is an afterthought and the dread for the inevitable cold of practice falls away. It only ever takes one stroke to assuage my doubts.
Why do I still row? There are more reasons than single strokes, even if the answer can be found in every single one. But for now: because I love it, because it makes me face my doubts, and because anything less enjoyable than a single stroke simply washes away before the puddle fades.
My rowing career unofficially began during one of my last summers at Windridge Tennis Camp, just down the road from the Craftsbury Sculling Centre. Older campers were given the opportunity to learn to scull for an hour during the lunch period, over the course of a week. My parents were thrilled – if slightly bemused – when I came back from tennis camp and told them all about what it felt like to scull. However, I did not return to rowing until three years later, when I tried out for the novice team at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. One of my friends from high school convinced me to give it a shot, encouraging me that I might make a decent coxswain. At UNC, I learned to cox and continued for the rest of my college career, spending time in the varsity 4+ and varsity 8+’s, while coxing master’s and teaching junior camps during the summer. Before my junior year, I returned to Craftsbury, this time as glorified grunt, in exchange for instruction and time on the lake. I returned to school eager to fill my long-time goal of rowing in addition to coxing. My coaches were kind enough to let me race a scull for my final two years at university while coxing my teammates’ sweep events. After graduating from UNC, I have had the pleasure of continuing my rowing career at the University of St Andrews, competing in women’s 8+’s and 4+’s events throughout Scotland and at the British University Championships. In addition to rowing here, I also had the pleasure of coaching the university’s novice squads last year, seeing the women finish 15th at the BUC’s championships in May. I am still proud to row with the senior women’s squad, lend a hand with novices, and oversee the coxswain development for the club. If given the chance, it would be a pleasure to share stories or anecdotes from these experiences, especially if it could be useful to anyone else in the rowing community.