Written by Matt Laurich
By My legs are burning. My palms are screaming in agony. My arms are weary. As I gasp for air listening to the coxswain berate us after a sub-par performance on our last piece, I ask myself once again, "Why do I row?" Every rower has asked himself this question; very few have sufficiently answered it. Why do I submit myself to this endless torture? There must be a reason; I hope there is.
It builds character; it’s something to do; I like the pain; chicks dig it. Or maybe it’s just the sake of being able to say you did it. "Yesterday I ran six miles, did a half-hour of wind sprints and three sets of cals." Some of these are true, but they can’t be enough to keep me coming back day after day, season after season. There must be something more. There is.
Every rower craves being in a good boat. When a boat is special, the rowers develop unity and continuity. They know each other and unite behind a common goal. The boat develops an attitude, a certain cockiness. "We are the Lightweight-8." We can clown around before practice together and then get serious when it’s time for the workout, become driven not just to pull for ourselves as individuals, but for the boat. Sometimes I have to count the rowers as we are standing in a circle to make sure all eight of us are there. The separate identities give way to the boat identity.
Crew is not an easy sport; practices are designed to instruct and to exhaust. Often, pulling full pressure can be a chore, a laborious and repetitious exercise in pain. Sometimes, though, when all eight are swinging together and concentration and intensity are peaked, it is totally different. When the boat is really moving you forget about how many miles you have just rowed, about how tired you are, about how many papers you have to write tonight, and that you’re soaking wet and already sick. All you can feel is the glide, the burst of acceleration at every catch, the send as your oar releases from the water, and the glide on the recovery again. You feel the wind rushing past your head and shoulders, see the trees flying past out of the corners of your eyes as your remain focused on the man in front of you. You hear the click of the oars in the oarlocks and the water lapping against the side of the shell as it slices through the current.
You can’t do it yourself, "OK, now I’m gonna get into the zone." It doesn’t work that way. Sometimes it can be induced by the inspiration of the coxswain, a gasping rally from an oarsman, a slur or slight from opponents, or the intervention of the coach. Once it’s started it’s hard to stop, and when you’re rowing against other crews, it is this kind of move that breaks the race. The momentum takes over and other crews are helpless to stop it. When you’re walking through another boat, you’re consumed by the momentum and the invincibility; you actually want to pull even harder than you did the stroke before, make the oar bend, and the legs burn.
When the race is over and you descend from the zone, you can’t help but be proud of what you’ve done. It is hard to describe the pleasure derived from pure exhaustion. It is the knowledge that you pulled as hard as you could, pushed yourself to the limit and didn’t hold anything back. When you look around and see that everyone else in the boat is exhausted too, you know it was a good day.