The unforgiving 90-degree sun is beating down on you and your boat mates. A scrawny kid in a “US Rowing Masters Nationals Volunteer” t-shirt is holding your racing shell in place at the starting line. You’ve been rowing only for a year, and this is your first big race. And, it’s The Big Race. You’re staring at that flag, waiting for the flourish that lets you – at long last – go with all your might. You feel a sudden kinship with stock car engines revving at the starting line, with thoroughbred horses kicking in the starting blocks, you know that if they don’t wave that flag soon, you might just take off anyway, such is the adrenaline coursing through your veins. And, then, before you can fully swallow the bile that is rising in your throat, you hear “Attention! Go!”
Pry! Half Stroke! Three Quarters! Lengthen! Lengthen! Go! Go! Go!
The coxswain is yelling at you with all her might, cajoling you and your fellow rowers to go as hard and as big as you can, get off the line fast and first, and Make! It! Happen! Your teammates are on the shore screaming for you. Your coach is right along with them, leading the cheer. This is going to be the race of your life. You’ve never been in stroke seat before, and it’s your responsibility to set and keep the blazing pace for the full 1000 meters.
You’ve sized up the competition ahead of time. You already know that first place will go to a team who is far superior to the entire pack. You are unlikely to take second, given the experience and dominance of the field. But there are two more boats in your race, and if you do this thing – this thing you’ve never done before and certainly never at this level – and if you do it better than anyone (including you) even expected, you might, just might, have a shot at third. You are responsible for setting the pace, and the women behind you are responsible for having your back and pulling smooth and hard. You’re all in it together, but you feel the pressure in this race like nothing you’ve ever felt before. You’ve all worked hard for this moment, this four-minute all-out press of heart and guts and muscle. And, more than anything, you just don’t want to let down your boat mates.
And, somehow, you don’t. The coxswain yells out the strategy, the boat rows together, the pace works, and you row well enough to take a bronze medal. All four rowers paddle back to the dock, chattering with equal parts relief and excitement about what they all considered to be a victory.
Your coach greets you at the dock and takes your oars. He says, “Nice job!” to the boat. You all beam with pride. He looks at you and says, “Laura, next time: harder, faster, sooner” and walks away. And, you are more than slightly crushed.
But, you are a grown ass woman, and you shake it off. You pull yourself together. He had other teammates to tend to, and you know it’s not personal. You know he’s right so you go to school on the feedback. You have more racing to get your head around, including another boat you are stroking in an even harder race two days hence.
And, in that one, you manage to earn a silver. Your boat mates have your back. You can feel them making you better every time you press your oar through the water. The coxswain is cool and experienced and tells you exactly what to do. The boat surges forward, again and again. At one point you lose your edge and are in third, but you claw it back, stroke by stroke, and together you chase them down. The pain cave is real and together you go deeper into it than you thought possible. For you. For them. For the coach. To go harder, faster, sooner, and you all at once love and hate every second of it.
You can’t wait to get back to the dock and hear that you did better, that you improved, that you acquitted yourself in such a way that the coach feels his insanely placed trust in you, this deeply inexperienced rower, was justified.
And, what does he say?
The real question is: why does it matter?