What Was It Like Rowing In College?

Here I am.

I’m dragging myself up the stairwell to my room on the third floor of my dorm. All of the get-to-know-you games I played in my classes today burnt me out. A poster catches my attention as I rounded my way out of the stairwell. It doesn’t really jump off the wall, but it catches my attention. It said “ROWING” in big, block letters at the top. My cousin had rowed in college and always raved about it. It  intrigued me. I stared at the poster for an uncomfortably long time, reading each word on the page. That evening, I decided to email the coach and note my interest.

I sat through an information meeting two days later with the head coach, assistant coach, and four of the team members. They hooked me. The videos of the past teams rowing made my heart race.

As a novice rower, I did not expect to need much commitment. A couple of practices a week, mostly on an erg (indoor rowing machine), nothing too fancy. I learned quite soon that I was actually signing up to be a varsity athlete, giving up most of my social life. I didn’t care though. There was now some meaning in my college experience.

It wasn’t easy.

If you haven’t read the book Boys in the Boat, I would highly recommend it. The author captures just how consuming the sport of rowing can be. My first season, I have to admit I was not exactly two feet in, meaning fully committed. I thought I was. My teammates thought I was. On the erg, I was the fastest novice. But my lifestyle was not yet reflecting that of a rowers: staying up too late, eating poorly, not staying hydrated. Most novices will say the same thing: you are not really sure just how much of yourself you are ready to commit to the sport.

Even if I hadn’t been fully committed, I was hooked from the first time I planted my blade in the water. I loved the feeling of rowing with seven other girls, swinging in synchronization, propelling the boat through the water,  feeling as if the oar were an extension to my body, hearing the coxswain yell out the numbers of just how fast we were going.

In the spring season, my commitment level was uncanny. I turned into a robot. And, I was so far up rowing’s ass. I went to bed at 9:30pm every night, didn’t drink a drop of alcohol, hardly went out, turned down dating someone I had had a crush on for months because, “I just didn’t have time to fit someone in,” and the best part is I didn’t even care! I was so weird. All of my friends who didn’t row made fun of me. Sickeningly, I loved it. I didn’t care that I was missing out on the night life. It didn’t matter if I blew someone off for rowing. I, literally, just shrugged and kept on rowing.

Now,

all of the energy I put into rowing was not for nothing. I ended up in the first varsity boat my freshman spring. I will say, there are a lot of politics that went into the seat I took in the 1V–politics I won’t get into. But, our varsity boat, honestly, wasn’t that fast. I was the fastest novice, which was a source of pride for me, but it was not as if I had fought tooth and nail in a blood bath to get that seat. It always sort of, unfortunately, felt handed to me. Something I didn’t deserve. I was constantly looking over my shoulder waiting for people to realize I didn’t deserve the seat. Waiting for them to take it back.

Coming in the next season, I was ready to further my rowing career, but something had shifted over the summer. For this reason and that, I was not in the same mental space I had been the year before. I realized how cold hearted I had turned, not just to be a good rower, but to block out my past. Most of high school, I ignored my emotions, ignored emotions that could have lead to an astronomical break down. The breakdown never happened. It just didn’t. I would talk about how much the things in my past sucked, but I never truly felt them.

If I was Britney Spears, you could say, these were the “Oops I did it again” years. You know, like, Britney’s probably aware that her career is a sham and she’s basically a puppet, but she’s famous and living the life, so she grins her way through it. That was me, except I wasn’t wearing skin-tight, red, pleather jumpsuits. Sophomore year was, without a doubt, the Britney Spears shaving-her-head phase. For lack of a better term, shit had hit the fan.

Before I could stop it,

my life was spiraling out of control. I tried to throw myself into rowing again, putting in the same amount of discipline and passion, but it wasn’t working. Unfortunately, I lost my edge. I tried to make it work, telling myself how much I still loved rowing, telling everyone who would listen how devoted I was. But it just wasn’t happening. I was able to hold on through the fall, getting moderately good numbers on the erg, convincing everyone I was still two-feet-in. But, by spring, it was apparent my head wasn’t in the game. I was getting slower, I was losing muscle from starvation, I was not sleeping. I looked awful too. My eyes were sunken in, I wasn’t taking care of myself. I didn’t look clean anymore

Part of me

was waiting for my team, the girls I had spent the previous year supporting, to notice and to reach out and help. Instead, my closest friends on the team turned away from me. However, there were four or five girls who really were there for me, and I love them infinitely for it. But, as a whole, the team’s mentality was selfish. Everyone was in it for themselves. They didn’t feel they had time to sort out anyone else’s problems. Suddenly, the girls who had let me in my freshman year, my teammates, my family, felt like strangers to me.

Aside from my own mental change, there was also a shift in team dynamic. Our coach was pitting us against each other. It was dog-eat-dog. I found that freshman year was like us sitting in a boat giggling and braiding each others hair. And, that dynamic worked. We loved rowing for rowing’s sake.

We got to nationals that year.

And then, sophomore year happened, and the coach put all this pressure on us, and we cracked. suddenly it wasn’t about the team, it was about “me, myself, and I” to everyone.

I couldn’t handle this atmosphere. There was nothing I had in common with these girls anymore other than the time I was with them in the boat. So, I reached out to the coach. The coach loved me freshman year, and looking back it was not for good reason. She loved that my how much she could control me. She told me to pull harder, I did, told me to do three workouts a day, I did. As the saying goes, when she said jump, I said how high. So, she welcomed me into her office with open arms at first. Talking about all my mental blocks and my struggles, making me feel as if it was okay to feel depressed and heartbroken.

But,

once the spring season officially started, her attitude towards me shifted. I was met with cold comments about needing to move on and her not having time to hold my hand. Finally, everything came to a boil the morning of a 2k test.

A 2K test is a test of 2,000 meters done on the erg. I was woken up by my alarm at 7:00am, hit snooze, and didn’t get out of bed. Paralyzed, I couldn’t get out of bed. Practice starts at 8:00am sharp. At 8:26am, I got a call from my coxswain asking where I was. I told her I wasn’t feeling well, and then, I hung up the phone. Several minutes later, there was a text on my phone from the same coxswain. It said to get to the erg room before practice ended, the coach needed to talk to me.

I slowly forced myself out of bed, and got dressed. The outfit I wore that day, which I still remember, was pair of men’s XL dark, grey sweatpants and a light blue, baggy v-neck sweater I had been wearing for a week straight. I slid into my LL Bean boots and threw on my puffy, winter coat. Once I was bundled up, I started my walk of shame to the erg room.

It was mid-Febuary in Upstate New York, still a quite frigid time. To block the cutting wind, I ducked my head in my hood, treading carefully on the ice and snow drifts., I protected my hands from the danger of frostbite by balling them up in my pockets. The erg room was only several hundred feet from my dorm, but the walk felt like miles that morning.

Once in the erg room,

I was ignored by the coach for about ten minutes before finally she acknowledged me. She pulled me into a tucked-away alcove in the building. Then, she stated she couldn’t take care of me anymore. She didn’t have the energy to be there for me. I needed to stop lying to my teammates about what was going on. I needed to stop taking up her time. And then, she gave me an ultimatum. Either, I could tell the 36 girls on the team what was going on, which was slowly turning into a deep depression, or, I could get off her team. I was still convinced I needed the clarity of the team.

After they finished their tests, the coach forced us into a kumbaya-type circle where I cried, a lot, and told them about just how much I was struggling. I was met with a lot of encouragement and a lot of hugs. My teammates were supportive of me, they wanted to be there for me. About a week later, I realized they just couldn’t be. Because, in the end, not much changed. I still had those four or five girls to lean on, but for the most part, everyone’s lives went on. Of course they told me if I needed anything they were there, and I could always talk to them.

But I couldn’t.

Reaching out is one of the hardest things to do. So, what had my coach expected as an outcome? Was she really creating a selfish team dynamic and then expecting them to go out of there way for me?

I wasn’t expecting them to stop in their tracks for me. If anything that’s the last thing I wanted. I have had friends with depression. It’s draining. I know. Completely and utterly draining. When you’re in a good mood, it feels as if that person is sucking the life out of you. I wouldn’t want to put that on someone else. And, I wasn’t asking anyone to be that for me, but I must say, after explaining to everyone what was going on with me, I was foolishly, sort of, hoping…

I understood

why not many of my teammates were truly able to help. I had a dark aura around me. When you’re training and trying to be a fast rower, that’s the last thing you want. So, I don’t blame them. I don’t resent my teammates. I still have so much love and support for them. And, I know that they have love for me. Except, I stopped fitting into their world, into the team dynamic.

And then, one morning, I woke up, started going through the motions of my day. I sat up in bed, drank some water, went to the bathroom, brushed my teeth, put on a sweatshirt, and then, as I was slipping on my sweatpants, I stopped. Wait. I had to quit. I had to quit the rowing team. The thought sent a chill down my spine. Was it time? But there was no arguing with myself. So, an hour later, I walked into my coaches office, sat down, and said, “I quit.”

To which she just shrugged, and said I was draining to her and the team anyway. She told me I wouldn’t be missed and that she would never let me back on the team. She told me I had been selfish this year, and had a one sided relationship with rowing.

I cried,

and felt like shit about myself. But, I was sure of my decision.

It came as a shock to my teammates. They were upset that our coach had treated me this way. Some of them wanted me to go the Athletic Director and make a formal complaint. I never did. The idea scared me too much. Maybe I should have, to protect my team from her. But I was done. I was done listening to her and forcing myself to believe everything she said was the truth, when in reality, it was pretty deranged.

I had to: come to term with the fact that I did at one point love rowing, but that person just was not me anymore; branch out to make new friends; and get over the sadness. I had to move on, and within days I felt lighter.