Some of you may not know that I rowed in college, but I did. Four years of competitive, collegiate, division one rowing.
During this period, almost all my friends rowed. It was part convenience (we all lived in the same area near the water, ate at the same cheap places that were open at the butt-crack of dawn when we were finished our workouts and worked at similar jobs that were flexible with our schedules). Plus we, like everyone else, love to talk about ourselves -- which leads to a lot of talk about rowing. Believe it or not, people that don’t row don’t find rowing all that exciting.
At the time, I separated my rowing friends into two groups -- rowers and people that row. Rowers were wicked competitive and hardcore and people that row, just rowed. Didn’t even necessarily enjoy it, but they did it all the same.
I was a self-proclaimed person that rowed, because somewhere along the way I got it in my head that it was cool (whatever that means) to not care. I also got it in my head that it was ugly to be competitive.
My Mommy Friend (though she wasn’t a mommy at the time) didn’t believe me, but let me say it all the same.
And now that I have been back in the boat, I am really glad she never gave up on me.
For almost 10 years I have been denying a big part of who I am. Whenever people would ask why I no longer rowed, I would shrug my shoulders and say, “I’m just not that competitive.” They would ask me if I missed it and again, I would shrug and say, "Not really" or the more honest, "Sometimes."
But the truth is I did miss it a lot because I am very competitive. Yes, running races can be competitive, but I am not so good that I ever had to worry about winning. Often I would just find people in the crowd that I thought I should beat, but I really had no idea of whether or not I crossed the line before them. So in the end, I was just racing myself and my goals. Not quite the same thing.
My repression was such that I couldn’t even tolerate “girl’s game nights.” I wanted to win but I didn’t want everyone else to know that it mattered to me and then my stupid face would get in the way when I lost and it was just too much to bear so I would beg off from playing games as often as Bridie and my other friends would allow (which wasn’t often). When they would ask, “What is your problem?” I would whine back, “I just don’t like playing games.”
When I first got back on the water yesterday, I didn’t notice it. I was too busy trying to remember how to row. Then we were just doing drills and the coach was trying to correct my technique and I was following the girl in front of my and my head was consumed with a thousand thoughts all at once.
Then we turned around and started doing pieces.
Okay, quick rowing lesson. Pieces are periods of full pressure work; they are either measured by distance or time and are typically done against another boat. This morning we had two eights. A coxswain is the person that typically sits in the back of the boat, facing the rowers, steering and yelling. The coxswain is part coach, part boat skipper, part cheerleader.
I didn’t notice it during the first two pieces, either. Though I am sure it was there, I was still too busy concentrating on my form and not falling apart during full pressure (which is pulling as hard as you can, often at a much faster rate). However, before the start of the third piece, the coach warned that we weren’t racing and our coxswain said, “yeah right.”
That is when I first I felt it.
I mean the coach was right. It wasn’t a race. But I doubt it mattered much to any of the 16 girls out there rowing. They all still wanted to win. Mommy Friend confirmed this when she whispered, “If this isn’t a race why does he keep starting them like one.”
The piece started, the coxswain sharply whispered into his cox-box to give it to him and even feeling the flesh from my thumbs rubbing off against the oars and the straining of muscles that I hadn’t used in a lot of years didn’t stop me from pulling as hard as my out of shape self could. I could hear it in the coxswain’s voice. He wanted to win. I could see the other boat from the corner of my eye, and suddenly I knew I wanted to win. Even if it wasn’t a real victory. It felt good when the coach told both boats to paddle and our boat was ahead.
When we got off the water I was glowing (part sweat, part thrill of victory). I hadn’t felt that good in a long time. Of course, I would be lying if I didn’t mention it was also feeling part of a team again. Everyone smiling and patting each other on the back as we put our oars away and took the boat out of the water.
But for me, I think it was also letting my competitive beast run wild for an hour. Sure, I am just rowing for fun now (I have no delusions about training six days a week, two times a day until I make the National team). But the thing is, I am no longer afraid to admit that I think winning is fun.