Thursday, October 19, 2006

Rowing as Religion

It was one of those mornings where you question what you are doing but it's too early to think clearly. Dark and rainy, we all had hoped the rain would taper off before we launched but it only increased as we put the boat in the water. It was late in the season and hopelessly dark. When the starboards went to get the oars, someone shook their head and said, "I don't think they're coming back."

When our boat rounded the corner and went under the bridge, the rain picked up to torrential. We were all siting shivering in the dark, hardly anyone else out or even up yet. It occurred to me that something like this, eight fit guys and one little coxswain sitting in a boat in the pouring rain at an ungodly hour isn't something that happens by accident.

I realized it was a minor miracle every time a boat launched. There seemed an infinite number of obstacles to be surpassed just to get it in the water. Get a boat and access to the water. Find eight guys who will pull on an oar until they feel like they are going to die and arrange for them to meet at a certain hour (with the caveat being, if one of them doesn't show up, the whole boat is screwed). Find a small authoritative person who is a morning person, likes to steer things, bark commands, and preferably knows how to steer through the Weeks Bridge. Get a coach, plan workouts, pay the coach, et cetera et cetera. Getting a boat in the water was a minor miracle. Competing in a regatta was a series of miracles.

I had a teammate who rowed for our club for 19 years. He was the founding member and they named a boat after him. Once, when I heard he bought a home within walking distance of the boathouse, I told him he was "hardcore." He said, "Some people buy a home to be close to their church," he pointed to the boathouse floor, "This is my church."

This allusion to religion was one I'd heard before. You have to have a fanatical semi-religious zeal to excel at this sport. Like I said before, none of it happens by accident. It is a complete and total test of your willpower. Every day before practice I would think, "I don't want to go to practice today." The temptation was always there to give in and do the easiest thing. You have to overcome this temptation every single day.

And just as zealous religious converts have difficulty relating their fervor to non-believers, so do rowers have difficulty explaining to non-rowers why knocking two seconds off their split is a big deal. And like most small religious sects, because rowing is almost never covered on television or other media, most people don't even realize it exists until they (somehow) stumble upon it. Yes, there really are groups of people who get up very early to compete and train for these events. They practice their craft while you are sleeping.

The distance, both literally and figuratively, between viewers and rowers make the sport look effortless and most viewers look at the beautiful, perfectly synchronized rowers and think, "Oh, that must be so fun." I've been in a good amount of races and I can tell you the only time they are ever fun is when they are over. And if you came in last place, they are not fun at all. Belying the calm exterior appearance, it's a state of frenzied chaos inside the boat and the rowers' minds, almost an out-of-body experience. That's not to say they are not emotional affairs. Last year, when we hit the course at the Head of the Charles (a goal of mine since 1996) I got a chill and thought "THIS! IS! IT!"

I'm biased but I'd say rowing is the perfect sport. No other does a better job of balancing grace with power and aerobic endurance with brute strength.

But why do we do it? What is the underlying motivation to take on this workload? I suppose it is different for everyone. It certainly isn't for monetary gain. I do know when we are rowing as one synchronized team, taking broad sweeping strokes and I can hear the hiss of the water along the boat, I feel like it is my Sabbath.


At 7:38 PM GMT-5, Anonymous Rhea said...

The Head of the Charles was in Boston this weekend but I didn't go. I guess my fear of parking problems overwhelms my curiosity in rowing. Not a good attitude, I know.

At 8:47 AM GMT-5, Anonymous Dave said...

Hi Rhea!

Oh yes, it sure was and people turned out in force. I was worried about parking too but I had some friends take the train in from Alewife to Harvard. I rode my bike over and met them there. That was a good option.

Thanks for reading!

At 3:52 PM GMT-5, Blogger Matt said...

how did your team finish???

At 11:36 PM GMT-5, Blogger charmaine.madamba said...

"Belying the calm exterior appearance, it's a state of frenzied chaos inside the boat and the rowers' minds, almost an out-of-body experience."

Dave, this was on-point. Another way to describe it? (heard once from an olympian): quiet aggression.

It has been a while since I held an oar and yes, I miss it.

Congratulations on the race...

At 10:16 AM GMT-5, Anonymous Dave G said...

Matt - My team came in 21st or 22nd place (I forget now) out of 50 boats, so we were on the sweet side of the bell curve in 2005. That makes me happy.

Charmaine - "Quiet Aggression", I like that! Although if you look at my face in the Charles photos, I look really, really angry. My mom was going to buy one but took a look at my angry face and said "No thanks."

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