Friday, January 07, 2011

Home Bodies

I'm convinced there's nothing funnier than coaching juniors, especially when the girl to guy ratio is 10:1.

Five minutes later: "wait, what days are we talking about?"

"They're on the board."

"Wait, what?"


I think it's only natural that fans and athletes develop connections to the places they grew up near, or train in, or spend most of their careers in. Sports are more than just competition, they're a secular communal experience that can bond a community. One needs to look no further than the New Orleans Saints win in the Super Bowl last year to realize how much sports can affect a group of people. Inspirational sports movies would have no stock if this were not the case.

The level of devotion to a specific site varies from sport to sport. The money sports (football, basketball, baseball, hockey) in America each have their own shrines to worship in; even ones that no longer exist inspiring devotion. Mention the names of any of the great ball fields, and you'll find people who revere them. The Polo Grounds. Fenway Park. Candlestick Park. The old Yankee Stadium. The new Yankee Stadium. I'm sure even Miller Park (Milwaukee Brewers) has its own group of devotees.

Runners, on the other hand, seem to be less specific about their sites. Most of the runners I know remember specific places they've run, or places they want to run, like the Chicago or Boston Marathon. Some of the more serious runners I know cite the Penn Relays in Philadelphia or Track Town USA, Eugene, OR, as places to make a pilgrimage.

I think American rowers tend to fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. We're very territorial of the differences between, say, the Charles and the Schuylkill, and Eastern Sprints vs. PAC-10 teams. However, with the explosion of junior rowing in the past ten years, training sites and teams have spread out to a larger number of areas (rowing in Tempe? How about Alaska?), and loyalty to a certain region seems to be less of an issue than where you're putting your boat in any given season.

There are, of course, places that transcend such characterization. In my mind, Olympic water is sacred. The luckiest people in the US, in my opinion, are the members of the Lake Lanier Rowing Club, who get to train on the course used in the '96 Games. The budding Lake Casitas Rowing Association isn't far behind on my envy scale. Beyond this, there are regattas that should be held in high esteem: the Head of the Charles, the Schuylkill, the Harvard-Yale Regatta, Stotesbury; races that have so much history behind them that they're impossible to ignore on any level.

Growing up in New England for almost my entire life and rowing exclusively in two New England states made the Head of the Charles the pinnacle of achievement in my mind. I rowed for seven years before picking up the megaphone, and have never rowed at the Charles. My high school didn't race there, and I wasn't strong or fast enough to make the Charles boat in college. Maybe someday I'll make the comeback and get into a masters or club boat, but as of right now, I've accepted that the Charles was not in my past and may never be in my future.

Before moving to Boston, I had never even actually rowed on the Charles. I like thinking about the places I've dipped an oar in and the places it's taken me (see this post), and I don't need to list them all here. But the Charles was never one of them, until this fall.

It was mid-September. A friend of mine was coaching a group of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans learning to row at Community Rowing, and I happened to be there checking out the boathouse when word came that they needed an eighth for their practice. I borrowed some workout clothes, and hopped into the stroke seat of a beat-up Pocock eight.

I don't think I'd ever been that excited to row before in my life. Not only was I finally getting a chance to row on the Charles, but I was STROKING? I'd stroked in fours and eights maybe 20 times in my life, primarily being a bow four rower.

We pushed off, and, despite the fact that the rowers had only been rowing since the latter half of the summer, they had picked it up quick and were very eager to row well. We did drills by sixes up to the Lars Anderson Bridge, where we spun around. The sun had started to set by the time we had launched, and we were obscured by the shadows of the city. The coach told us that we were going to head back by sixes, and a few of us wanted to row by eights.

"I don't know if you guys are ready for that!" my friend told us. "What do you think, Oarsman?"

"Feels good to me," I replied. "Let's do it."

We started by sixes, and after rotating through the boat once, my pair and I added back in and we went up to eights. It was a little shaky in the beginning, but my God, the power that that boat had. We rocked back and forth from port to starboard for the first twenty strokes or so, but we were still clearing our puddles by a distance that was quite impressive for a novice crew.

We kept cranking, through the bridges that serve as checkpoints on the Charles. We went by Cambridge Boat Club, the BB&N boathouse, and Henderson Boathouse in short order. As we passed Henderson, our coxswain called a twenty. Before she even gave the two strokes into it, I could feel a surge of power through the water behind me. I wouldn't necessarily call it a moment of swing, but we were moving. We took another twenty as we cleared the last bridge right before the CRI boathouse, ending the piece right in time to spin and head back in.

Through the second half of the row, I began to form an impression of the group that was backing me up. I'm not here to debate politics and regardless of your views on the War on Terror, being in that boat served as an allegory to the type of teamwork that has to work in a military unit. A number of them were just discharged due to injury or their own predilections, and still retained that military mindset. After we got off the water, the seven of them were joking about doctor's appointments or Reserve or Guard obligations that they still faced, and there were a few jokes displaying the inter-service rivalries that they still carried. Even though they were from different units and different branches, they were still able to come together and perform a task well.

After my friend gave the crew some feedback, he turned to me and asked if I had anything to say. I told them that for all I had done in the sport, I had never rowed on the Charles before that night, and that I was humbled and honored that my first time out there was with such a group. Two of them asked if I could come back and stroke them at a race CRI was holding that weekend. I would have loved to, but I was I was honored enough that for one practice, they allowed me into their community of warriors to practice, and for all my rowing experience, I was not worthy enough to step into a boat to race with them.