Tuesday, 24 June 2014

The Hidden Life of Racing Competitively aka The Things I Have Learned

Let me begin by introducing myself… Hi! I’m Christina! I am a rising junior and without knowing much about the sport beforehand, I decided to pursue a spot on the WPI Women’s Rowing Team in January 2013.

This is me after racing in Reading; this was also my first ice cream cone in about 3 weeks so I was fairly excited!
Now that we are back in the USA, I am realizing how much I will take away from this experience and how fortunate I was to have a seat in the boat. I learned about the sport, myself, and my teammates. I also learned that racing competitively isn't simply showing up and pulling the oar through the water, it is much more than that.

On a side note, I read a copy of “The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics” by Daniel James Brown while I was overseas, so lookout for quotes that inspired me from that novel.

Disclaimer: Sorry this is on the longer side of the posts!

The Things I Learned

#1. You may show up for the sport (or free food), but you will stick around for the team.

 “What mattered more than how hard a man rowed was how well everything he did in the boat harmonized with what the other fellows were doing. And a man couldn’t harmonize with his crewmates unless he opened his heart to them. He had to care about his crew.” – The Boys in the Boat
Selfies on Public Transport
Pre-Henley Lip Sync Contest Award Winners

Anybody that has ever rowed a single stroke will tell you that there are days you just want to jump overboard and start swimming to the nearest shore. Rowing may be one of the toughest sports to master, regardless of the fact that you are repeating the same sequence of motion over and over. Everybody will have days, especially in the beginning, where the thought of simply not showing up to practice again will cross their mind. However as everyone continues to arrive to the boat house day after day, you may wonder why that little voice of doubt in your head doesn’t win. It’s because of the people surrounding you. I know my team is behind me on and off the water. They want me to succeed and they motivate me to be a better athlete. It takes committed teammates to make the hard work worthwhile. Between the 5am practices, the early morning lifting sessions, the practices in the pouring rain, and the days when it is so cold that backsplash immediately forms into ice on your rain jacket sleeve, the extra encouragement can be necessary.

#2. Rowing is made up of hard work, dedication, and just a little bit of crazy.

As I just explained, it takes a team of devoted athletes pushing themselves to be better through every workout presented in front of them. Joining the rowing team can be a daring endeavor. You will be expected to show up every day and give 110%. That percentage may seem crazy to replicate day in and day out but every time you give less than that you are not just hurting yourself but your teammates as well. Missing a workout because you don’t feel working that day is equivalent to saying to your team, “I don’t care that much, you can carry my weight on race day.” That brings me back to the first point about your team being the motivation needed to show up every day with something to prove. These girls will bust their butts right next to yours because they have the same goals as you do. They want to win as much as you do. Without being surrounded by friends that want to see you improve, and want to motivate you to be the best, it isn’t going to happen. The beauty of rowing in an 8-oared shell is that nobody can do it alone. It takes 7 other rowers and a coxswain to make the boat move, and it takes everyone moving together to make the boat move fast.

Number 3. Being Silly = Laughter = Less Stress

As coaches move athletes around from boat to boat and seat to seat they are striving to create what it known as boat feel. It’s a magical thing when it is achieved and it can only happen when the rowers are able to work with each other and their coxswain to create a seemingly effortless swing effect. When all 8 rowers are moving together through every position of the stroke, rowing will look pretty and effortless on the surface. The rowers must create chemistry between each other and the best way to do that is by being comfortable and confident in each other’s abilities.
Racing in the Barolli eight, we discovered that we are most comfortable when there is a no stress environment and we are all laughing and just feeling the boat. As soon as we try to be too serious, it feels as if we are rowing 8 different boats and can’t seem to come together. Being in Henley taught me that in order to achieve the swing that makes boats fly through the water, I needed to loosen up and just enjoy the experience of being with my teammates doing what we know how to do.

Number 4. You know how to row, so stop thinking, and just do it.
The Barolli eight in action!

The rowing stroke is fairly simple to learn but nearly impossible to master. It is a symmetrical motion of hands, shoulders, legs – then – legs, shoulders, hands. Sounds easy enough until you realize that it is extremely easy to overthink it and then start doing it incorrectly. This explains the need for coaches. The commentary from the launch is usually an endless flurry of, “Shoulders over the hips, sit up, drive with the legs, good, looking better, put your oar in the water!” These things seem obvious until you hear them and after a quick evaluation of yourself realizes that you are aren’t doing it properly. I think the last correction might be my favorite. Seems basic enough, the whole point of rowing is to put the oar in the water. Once you focus in on it, it is easy to not realize that the blade is missing three feet of water or you’re not dropping it in before driving your legs.
I learned that when you feel like all is lost; it is probably because you are concentrating too hard. I know that I can row, and I can even row well occasionally. Sometimes it is necessary to just clear your mind, and remember that rowing is simply putting your oar in the water and taking it back out again. It is a basic concept and there is no need to complicate it.

Number 5. Remember to have a Game Face.

“It doesn’t matter how many times you get knocked down,” he told his daughter, Marilynn. “What matters is how many times you get up.” - Daniel James Brown, The Boys in the Boat

Racing in Reading

Being in England at the Henley Women’s Regatta, I was surrounded by some of the best rowing athletes that exist today. Perhaps one of the best aspects of this trip was having no prior knowledge of what to expect on race day. Now of course I knew that we would line up, sit on the start, and when the official dropped the flag I would pull the oar through the water, take it out, put it back in and repeat the sequence as many times as needed until I crossed the finish line. What I did not know however was how quickly and efficiently the competition would be able to perform the same task. This is very unlike racing in the United States where I can tell you exactly how well a crew has raced for at least a handful of years in comparison to our crew. I can almost always accurately predict how they will come off the start and at what points in the race they will dig in and when their sprint will begin. I knew none of these factors about our opponents on the Thames River.
England taught me to never push off the dock before a race without putting on my game face. Not knowing anything about my opponent has the slight bonus of them not knowing our strengths and weaknesses as well. First impressions make a big impact and the paddle to the starting line should always be treated as a march into battle. If there is ever a time to be intimidating, than this is it. You must always believe you are the superior crew and show up ready to fight to maintain that title.

Practicing Our Game Faces with a mirror selfie

Number 6. You are stronger than you think you are.

“Rowing is perhaps the toughest of sports. Once the race starts, there are no time-outs, no substitutions. It calls upon the limits of human endurance. The coach must therefore impart the secrets of the special kind of endurance that comes from mind, heart, and body. —George Yeoman Pocock” – The Boys in the Boat

You are stronger than you think you are. This is a concept that I will hold myself to believe for the rest of my life. Although it doesn’t need to always apply to rowing, this mantra has gotten me through some tough moments. This idea will be introduced on your first day as a novice rower and will continue to surprise you throughout your rowing career. The motivation of my teammates has encouraged me to take leaps of faith in knowing that they are there to help me if I shoot too high. During the weeks of training prior to England as well as on the beautiful course at Henley-On-Thames, I have achieved goals that I thought I couldn’t quite attain yet. In a two week period I dropped my overall 2K testing time by 17 seconds bringing my score down to a level I didn’t think I was capable of. I also can reflect on one 500-meter piece in which my split was so low I couldn’t believe I was looking at my own screen and that my body was able to produce that number for so long. It is the moments when your teammates are counting on you that you must rise to the occasion and prove to yourself that you have more to give. Whether it be power, faith, or dedication, when you really want something you must force your mind to unleash the reserve you hold deep down.

Number 7. Rowing will connect you to many other incredible people.

Now this is a point that I have heard repeatedly from our coaches over the past 18 months. I would always nod and agree but had my doubts. Our presence on the other side of the pond however proved this to be true. First of all, on our 2-week adventure I found myself in the presence of more than one Olympic medalist. Super casual. I even met girls that race at Cambridge, and women that went ahead to receive medals and trophies throughout the two weekends of racing. (Including our Waddell-8 who took some shiny hardware from Reading back to the U. S. of A.) This was just the tip of an iceberg.
As a team we had the pleasure of meeting Liza, a Bowdoin College (Brunswick, ME) rower who volunteered to race with us when we were stuck in a situation of possibly being a rower short of two complete boats. Her personality completed our boat perfectly and she even rowed with us one afternoon, her first time in an 8-oared shell. She was more familiar racing in a 4 person boat. She connected us to the rest of the rowers on her team as well. Now that we are home from England and don’t see them at the boat house every morning, we can look forward to seeing the girls on the water in the upcoming seasons as we typically race their boats every year.

We also had the pleasure of meeting rowers at the several receptions we attended including women from Drexel University (Philadelphia, PA) and Trinity College Dublin (Dublin, Ireland). A couple of girls from Drexel University rode in the umpires launch during our race to watch and support us against the University of London Senior eight boat. Some girls from the University from Ireland even traded shirts with some of our rowers providing each other with a one-of-a-kind souvenir unique to our sport.
Lastly, we had the pleasure of staying with a family that lives full time in Henley. It was an unique experience to be able to sit down after dinner and ask about what the schools are like and what is considered to be “the normal”. I learned that in England you don’t get a driver’s license until you are 18, and that the television is referred to as “the telly”. Wearing uniforms and taking a train to get to school in the morning is standard. We had crumpets available for breakfast and blackcurrant juice at our meals. As nice as hotels can be, living with a family allowed the trip to be that much more rewarding in the end.

Number 8. Always Dream Big.
Holding a 2012 Olympic Torch

The Friday night before the weekend of racing in the Henley Women’s Regatta, athletes are treated to a short reception of refreshments at the Rowing Museum on the Thames and given the opportunity to mingle with other crews racing that weekend. Meeting members of other crews that went on in the next few days to produce enormous speed in their boats, I was surprised by how many of them looked just like me. Normally you would expect a boat breaking a course record to consist of jacked individuals who appear to do nothing expect lift weights and row. This was not the case. Even the main speaker of the evening, an Olympic champion, talked about how she had never dreamed she would race or even win in a worldwide event. She pointed out how she was just a person, just like us, and even joked how her Olympic torch was dented from where she accidently closed it in the car door. She provided inspiration to reach higher than you think you can achieve and then work hard for it. Goals aren’t worthwhile unless you have to earn them. I learned that I can’t do big things unless I believe I can do big things and push full force towards that achievement.

Goals for the Future:

"Your thoughts must be directed to you and your own boat, always positive, never negative." - The Boys in the Boat

1.      To return to Henley a second time for the Regatta weekend.
2.     Create an unbreakable Game Face.
Almost There?

3.     Break my personal records for the 2k and 6k distances. I am stronger than I think.
4.     Let rowing continue to mold me into an opportunistic, hardworking, and dedicated individual.

I’ve learned that there’s nothing to lose and everything to gain. I can thank Rowing for that, 110%.

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