Charles Sweeney reports from the big event….and muses on life, rowing and streams-of-consciousness
I wasn’t supposed to be here, at the Masters Nationals, in Oak Ridge Tennessee, with my crew, the Capital Rowing Club.
Literally the day after last year’s Nationals, in Worcester, Massachusetts, a nagging back problem blew up into a sciatica case that damn near crippled me and crashed not just a very successful season but a personally important one.
I’d spent a few years trying to hammer myself – in the pejorative, rowing sense — into the boats that won races and went to the Charles. I worked hard and I was pretty strong but, apparently, I just wasn’t that good at this rowing thing.
And last season started out the same as the others: bitter, frustrating.
I remember one practice. Elena, our assistant coach/coach’s wife/Olympic Medalist, who narrates and critiques each practice nonstop in a Russian-accented voice that jumps from operatic praise to severe scolding in an instant, jumped on me like a terrier on a rat and tore me up so long and so hard that I was literally looking around trying to figure out how to get out of the boat in the middle of the river and stomp away from the team, forever.
And there were so many spring mornings where I’d get home and I just wanted to stamp into the shower and wash the stinking Anacostia River and the sweat and shame off my body, and my girlfriend Laura would be lying there quizzing me like a mom to her kid after a bad day at school, “so, how was it, honey?”
I suck. Rowing sucks. Life sucks. That’s how it was. I don’t want to talk about it.
But, like the peasant turned into a newt by the witch in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, I got better. I started getting into good crews. Guys would say things like “you’re rowing pretty good this year. I mean, last year you kind of sucked, but this year you’re not so bad.” They could have put it nicer, but I took in the spirit in which it was offered. I even started rehashing practice voluntarily with Laura.
I felt like I had finally earned the respect of guys who I respected a great deal. That was probably more important than winning, and the winning was pretty fun, too.
And then it all blew up in a day.
By late winter, I was convinced I’d miss this season or be so sloppy and slow when I finally made it back that that no one would miss me if I went instead with Laura to Sun Valley, where she had a conference this week. And we could backpack and fly fish the Sawtooths instead of rowing. When they asked, I said I was “tentative, probably not” for Nationals.
But I finally started erging gently in late winter and then went gently back on the water in May (conveniently missing all that crappy early spring weather. But that’s not why I waited. No, really, it’s not). People seemed glad to see me, which was heartening. Also in May, Laura got drafted into another conference in San Francisco (where she is today), screwing up the Sawtooths jaunt. In June I started racing.
And now I’m here, in the town that produced fuel for the atom bomb and birthed America’s peaceful nuclear program – promising clean plentiful nuclear power generated so cheaply that there won’t even be any point in metering it. (I was driving back to my cabin in the woods after racing today and there was a mist rising from the river and I thought “Should I be worried about this?” “No,” I figured, I’m sure the government would tell us if there was something we needed to know about.)
There was a mist earlier, too, this morning, coming from the sky, so they postponed racing for a few hours and I ate a humongous breakfast and typed a little, then drove into a generic section of Knoxville to get my yuppie bearings by picking up a map at the REI (an upscale camping store) and checking out the Whole Foods, whose fish looked sub-par. No Simpson’s three –eyed lake trout, either, despite the nuclear thing.
I’d heard a rumor that Ace Hardware had eclipse glasses, so I could look at the eclipse coming through the Tennessee hills Monday and not go blind, but they were hoarding them — the line formed outside and the sale started at 4 o’clock, when I was supposed to be on the water. Oh well. They tell you that lots of things will make you go blind and I’ve done most of ‘em, so we’ll see what happens Monday.
I dropped off my erg and discovered another 30-minute lightning delay and that the guys at the next trailer were playing hideous whiny Pearl Jam-type music at a significant volume. So I fled down the road and around the corner to the firing range I’d come across.
First, I read the safety rules and signed a document stating that I was of sound mind, had no felony or domestic violence convictions or drug addictions, and was not currently subject to a restraining order. Then, I watched a short safety video. Now, I’m good to go for a little target practice tomorrow.
The next-to-last thing Coach said to me today was “when you go to sleep tonight, think about finishing high – blade on the water.” But really, this East Coast urban liberal will be thinking “revolver or automatic?”
Finally, about 4:30, I started getting that pre-race adrenaline, doing a little erging, seeing how I felt. I always feel like something’s wrong. Like I didn’t warm up right and my back is waiting to explode. Or I should have eaten a better lunch and now I’m weak. Or I have cancer and it’s showing itself by attacking my thigh muscles.
The first race was the Mixed D class. I love racing in the mixed boats because, with the women, the boats set better and it’s generally a nicer row. And it’s just fun to row with people you don’t normally get to row with – nothing gets you closer to your teammates than racing with them, and my teammates are pretty cool.
I also kind of hate rowing with the women because I think that they secretly (sometimes not so secretly) think that the men are just a bunch of artless muscle-heads. And I’m the team poster boy for artless muscle heads, though not as muscle-y as I might like (especially when I’m wearing my uni rowsuit) and I feel like – especially from five seat – I’m confirming the worst fears of the four mean girls immediately behind me.
The winsome foursome rowing behind me are incredible rowers with years more experience and way more big wins at the highest competitive levels than I have, and I knew that if we boys could work enough artistry into our muscling to keep the boat reasonably set, we all might come away with some hardware.
Allison reminded me not to spazz out at the start (she said it nicer than that, our women are only “mean girls” in my paranoid imagination) and we got off the line in third, not bad for us. Chinook, who’s always tough, had us by a seat and Ashville had them by two more.
It was like “Ashville?” We’d never rowed against them, that I can recall, and certainly never gunned down to the line for a photo finish with one of their boats.
I wanted to like Ashville. Seems like kind of the place you want to move to when you chuck the rat race and open a little steak frites joint with unisex bathrooms to piss off the conservatives and host traditional acoustic mountain music Tuesday nights and acid jazz on Thursdays. You know: work, camp in the Great Smokey Mountains and row for a club that wins a few big races.
But not this race. Not against us. We caught them at the halfway point and slowly walked past. It was Chinook we had to fight off in the end, finally putting them away with our monster sprint which was actually only like four strokes long because our cox misjudged the finish line and it wasn’t ten seconds after she yelled “take it up” the horns went off. If she’d called the sprint a little earlier we might have won by more than eight tenths of a second. But, no harm, no foul. Besides, we’re all afraid of her, so what are we going to say?
Sue was back for the next race, the men’s E-8. We won a race earlier this summer with the E boat lineup and the coach said “good win – you’re defending national champions, remember” which was a thought I‘ve always found slightly surreal. I’ve never been “defending national champion” in anything and a few years back, when I read the Capital Rowing Club website before coming back to the sport, I read “competes on a national level” and decided to go out for the less gung-ho club team. But, there it was.
There were some changes from last year. I was coming back from the injury, another guy had a baby and a third guy had been creamed by an idiot while cycling to practice and was out. But we rowed the new lineup regularly and you could really feel the boat coming together, rowing pretty well. I like rowing with the old guys, the geezer boat – eight of us raging against the dying of the light but with a certain élan.
And this year, maybe because I’d expected to have such a lousy season, I was more attuned to the boat as a whole — to being part of a lineup rather than a guy whose first priority was trying to fight his way into the lineup. The boat felt good.
Ashville lined up next to us again, a boat with a distinctly thuggish look which made me want to move there and join their club even more, steak frites and acid jazz or not. Boats where the guys mostly look like dive bar bouncers not only win races, I suspect they’re fun to drink with after.
But it was Western Reserve and Riverfront Recapture who jumped out on us, taking seats at the start — as someone always does, dammit! But, if we didn’t row as pretty as we’ve rowed in practice, we rowed pretty good and caught ‘em — as we often do. And with Sue calling the sprint at a more appropriate distance from the finish we raced into a two second win over two strong crews.
It must have been sometime in January and I was laying off the hydrocodone [opioid pain medication] and my back hurt and I was out of shape and bitter and the weather was cold and I was looking at unemployment because I worked in government and the government was changing, and I was stomping around and whining that “next season is fucked, just fucked!” And Laura, who probably also saved my life after my wife, Stephanie, died, gave me this look she saves for when I’m just being stupid (she’ll take a little whining, but she hates stupid) and just said “no, no it’s not.”
And she gently encouraged the self-rehab and the cult gym workouts that seem to help your body’s balance and, eventually, the erging even when it was inconvenient to her and when she had to listen to tedious analyses of the day’s workout.
And the guys, our team, welcomed me back and did the hardest thing: showing up every morning tired and sore and determined to work to the edge of exhaustion and row better every day — and forge eight of us into one boat.
And women’s and mixed boats medaled in two other events, a great start to this year’s racing.
And Guennadi and Elena – who have patiently coached me up over six seasons and once again showed their talent for bringing out our best when it matters most.
And seven months after I though the season was busted, I was in Tennessee, doing that asshole thing of strutting around with two medals on my chest, showing off and enjoying what a friend of mine calls “the clank factor” and feeling a little amazed and very grateful.
It was a great day – for the team.