The Boy in the Boat

paul-rowing

People who know me know that I row. A lot. As a consequence, it turns out I’ve gotten very good at talking about rowing. A lot. Or, if I don’t watch out, all the time.  Sometimes, and lately especially, now that I’m aiming for one of Skøll’s[i] novice[ii] boats it can feel as if rowing is my “main thing”, and that all the rest (studies, Writer’s Block, friends, family) is almost peripheral. “Oh, right, need to take care of all of that stuff, too.”

And now, don’t get me wrong: that’s probably not the right attitude to have. I do think my studies are important, and I do take my task as editor-in-chief very seriously, and I do try very hard between juggling all of the aforementioned to keep in touch with all of the wonderful people whom I’ve got the honor of calling my friends and family. So sometimes I find myself taking a moment, dropping what I’m doing, and wondering: why do I love rowing so much?

Well, it’s not the training on the erg[iii], let me tell you that much. As much as I seem to have found a boundless drive to improve – and goddammit the erg will help you do that if nothing else – I also recall moments I’m not as proud of on the damned machine. As in: “Can I please leave and go cry in a corner now because everything hurts and I can’t breathe and these are the longest twenty minutes of my life.” The erg is not your friend, and it definitely does not care how much pain you are in.

Speaking of pain… yeah. There’s that. Just this past weekend my boat (a men’s eight) finished third in a race we were honestly hoping we could win, and around the 1000 meter mark (halfway) you could feel everybody around you straining under a single collective thought – “Shit. This is too far. This is too much. I’m not going to make it.” Your body is telling you “f*ck this shit, I’m out”, and your head is telling you that you’re going to lose because the other boat is already so far in front of you so you might as well give up now.

And that is where the beauty of rowing shines through, like a blazing summer sun through dreary autumnal clouds: because you don’t give up. Rowing is taking all that pain, all that weakness, all the shit-talking you are giving yourself, and showing them all the finger. Because you do go on. Because despite the pain, or even because of it, you know there are seven more guys pushing through, pushing hard for every single meter, every single stroke, every single breath. And you don’t just hold on, you go harder. You give more. Because at this point, you are past the halfway point. Hell, you’re basically there already – and if you now just give it your all on every single stroke, you’re either going to get there faster or knock yourself out. Literally. In which case: you’re not conscious to notice how goddamned much this hurts, so really, sounds like a fine alternative to me.

You don’t win a rowing race through physical prowess. You didn’t win because you were stronger than the other boats, or because you rowed that much better – and yes that might play a role, but in the end you won because you won from yourself. And you did that not just this one race, but you did it every single training, faking your own strength until you made it and you realized you actually had that strength all along.

And then, as you push out a final, ragged breath, you hear an elated cox[iv] shouting: “Through! Light paddle.” And you know you have, somehow, survived this. You see the guy in front of you barely holding on to his oar’s handle, and the guy in front of that slouched over his own oar at an uncomfortable angle, breathing heavily. But you made it. You all made it. And whether you won or lost in the end didn’t even really matter – what mattered is that you rowed the best race you could. What mattered, in the end, is not whether you beat the guys in the next boat over, but whether you beat yourself.

paul_wbkaartjes

[i] Skøll is a student rowing club in Amsterdam.
[ii] At Dutch rowing clubs there is a ‘competitive’ and a ‘recreational’ department, with Rec consisting of the more casual rowers, while the competitive guys are training seven times a week or more to try and compete at the highest (national) level. The Novice boats are the first year of the competitive ‘carreer ladder’.
[iii] An ergometer, or erg for short, is a sophisticated rowing machine that tries to emulate the experience of an actual boat as well as possible. Also used as a torture device for novice rowers.
[iv] A coxswain, or cox for short, is the tiny midget either in the front or the back of the boat that makes sure the boat keeps going straight (which can be harder than it sounds) and that’s responsible for keeping the rowers going steady and keeping them motivated (which is definitely about as hard as it sounds if you’ve read just about any of the above).

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