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Column: Rowing – the persistent struggle

Revised on: 07.17.2018 at 10:45 a.m.

Posted on: 06.25.2018 at 03:00 p.m.

 

By Margaret High

Rowing is difficult to explain. The most exposure people get is the rowing machine in the gym; yet, it is the most painful, difficult sport I’ve ever competed in.

It’s an almost unbearable mix of cardio and muscle. One stroke is the equivalent of a deadlift, and we race the equivalent of 250 deadlifts in under seven minutes.

My hands are callused and always have a blister somewhere. One time I was sampling hand lotions in a store and the lady helping me asked if I worked construction.

Even on UNC’s campus and within the athletic community, rowing is hardly understood. I’ve had to explain to friends on field hockey and soccer teams that our practices are just as intense, if not more, than theirs. We also don’t have a particular “season,” we workout full load in both fall and spring semesters. That means I’ve never had a spring break in college. We come back a week early from winter break and the top eight on our team stay for fall break to compete in The Head of the Charles, a big-time race on the Charles River in Boston.

During the school year, I wake up at 5 a.m., practice for two-and-a-half hours, go to class and chug coffee to not fall asleep, then head back to our second practice at 3:30 p.m., for another two-and-a-half hour practice.

Because the closest body of water is a 30-minute drive, I typically don’t get back to campus until 7 p.m., making time to shower, eat and complete homework difficult while also hoping to be asleep by 10:30 to do well at another early morning practice.

We practice twice a day, six days a week. Saturday’s are our only one-practice-a-day of the week.

It’s tough to juggle. My sport exists in the dark. Yet somehow I fell in love with it.

The rowing machine is my worst enemy and the water my best friend. When I graduate and have enough money, I’ll buy a rowing machine just to take a Louisville Slugger to it. I’ve endured a lot of painful miles on that thing.

Despite the bloody hands, sleep-deprived months and 75-minute non-stop rowing practices, there is nothing better than my oar cutting glassy water in perfect synchronization with the other seven teammates, surrounded by the morning fog as tendrils of morning light cut through.

The bond I have with the other women on my team is unlike anything else. There’s a unique friendship forged out of collective pain, something that transcends disagreements and misunderstandings. We have all hated each other, watched one of us struggle, and even cleaned up all the vomit from intense practices. I’m very grateful to experience relationships that don’t require talking. You can’t get that out of a classmate or roommate.

It’s hard to explain just how painful practices can be. Some of the infamous workouts are the hour of power, where you go as fast as you can for an hour, and eight by 750 meters. The latter sounds like short sprints, but it’s the equivalent length of eight football fields. Sprinting eight football fields eight times. It burns your legs up.

In the spring, we race 2,000 meters, which is a mile and a quarter. Each race is the cardio equivalent of two NBA basketball games played back to back. Crossing the finish lines takes every ounce of fight you’ve got, and it’s a hard place to take yourself mentally.

The start line is always a peacock show of puffed up chests and intense stares. My crew wears the same UNC hat, same one-piece uniform that looks like a wrestling singlet, and most of us have Oakley sunglasses that mark high status in the rowing world. You can only wear the sunglasses if you’ve reached a certain speed.

There are typically four boats racing at once, side by side, like swimmers in a pool. We have lane assignments, which can have a huge impact depending on the course and weather for the race. I’ve raced in freezing temps with sleet, in 25 mph winds, and 95 degree days.

An announcer tells coxswains, the person who yells in our boat, how to get perfectly aligned with the other boats. Each race starts with the same five words that make my heart jump to my throat:

“We have alignment. Attention. Row.”

It’s a flurry of rushing water after the first “r” is pronounced. Every coxswain is yelling, telling us how to get through our sprint sequence because already our brains have turned off. We are machines, unable to think for ourselves because all energy goes toward our muscles.

The starting sprint sequence lasts 250 meters for my crew, taking our heart rates to 180-200 beats per minute within 30 seconds.

The coxswain calls for our shift. The first person in my boat, the stroke seat, slows down her timing and we all flawlessly shift with her. My position is right behind stroke seat, so I have to be on the same wavelength to continue sending the message wordlessly through the boat.

Maria, the stroke seat of my crew, doesn’t have to say anything. She can’t, anyway. My eyes are locked on her left shoulder, focusing on nothing other than her movement so I perfectly match.

Roughly 500 meters in, your brain kicks back in but it’d be better if it didn’t. It’s telling you to stop. Your legs are on fire, already going into energy storage and filling the quads with lactic acid.  The brain is saying you can take it easier, it’ll be fine, you need to save yourself for the sprint.

That’s when my coxswain cuts through the clutter. She calls out my name, telling me directly to keep up the pace. She knows when I start to struggle in the race; she knows when all eight of us struggle.

Yet our boat keeps chipping away the inches of the race course. Each time our blades enter the water, the bow of the boat surges up and forward, creating a wake as we move in front of the competition.

She asks for more, and we try to give it to her. Our coxswain has the boat’s respect. We listen to her every command. We trust her to guide us, to tell us how to win the race, when to ask us for a move and motivate us to push past what our brain says we can do.

There’s 300 meters left in the race. We’re still battling inch for inch with the other boat. My teammates are struggling to breathe; some lose feeling in their legs. It’s time to sprint and leave the competition behind.

Ten strokes. That’s all our coxswain asks, but after two stronger strokes, 10 sounds like too much to ask. We’ve completed 200 strokes by now. Our bodies wanted to stop 150 ago.

The worst and best thing about sprinting is the fire in your belly. It hurts, yet we all welcome it. That means we’re reaching deep for our speed. It starts becoming noticeable, saying your body is going all out. The tank is about to be completely empty.

All eyes locked forward, we surge forward as one. Each individual is pushing as hard as possible, but at the same time as everyone else. If one person gets off sync, we lose significant speed.

For the last 10 strokes, we shorten our movement. This is our signal to go hard, to leave nothing else in our body.

Our coxswains’ neck veins are protruding, her voice yelling into the microphone and consuming our thoughts.

The horn beeps, saying our boat has crossed the finish line. In under a second, the horn blows again. In comes the competition.

Rowing races are a matter of inches. I’ve competed in countless races where the difference between winning and losing is less than a tenth of a second. That tenth of a second came from 1,000 meters in, when your brain said to hold a little back but the other woman kept pushing.

Every inch matters, making the sport incredibly mentally and physically demanding. But the reward is worth it.

I want nothing more than to win for my teammates, my university, and myself. Racing is the thrilling part, allowing you to sip victory if you’re willing to chug pain. Practice is the hard part, keeping the pain consistent but the taste of winning away.

And somehow, there are 70 women at UNC who all thirst for that cocktail. We lift weights and drink NCAA-approved protein, using each day to get faster. All the while, our team maintains a 3.4 average GPA.

Rowing isn’t for the lighthearted. It may look beautiful, but it takes persistent struggle to win.

No one gets into the sport for the glory. The ACC tournament is broadcast on ESPN3 and mostly gets views from family members. We get trash bags full of awesome Nike Carolina gear, but that’s not enough to keep someone on the team. You row because you love the water, value hard work, and create unparalleled friendships.

Four years ago I would’ve never imagined I’d be a captain of the UNC women’s varsity team, but somehow I’m waking up before the sun. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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