I’m standing on the stone bridge over Carnegie at seven in the morning. The fog is starting to rise from the glassy surface of the lake when a yellow boat emerges through the curtain. With each stroke, the oars clunk softly in their riggers. There’s a familiar swoosh as the rowers roll up to the catch, all in sync. The coxswain talks into her microphone, matching the rhythm of the boat, offering encouragements and corrections when needed. All the noises are muffled by the mist. They’re made gentler, quieter than they are when you’re actually sitting in the boat, feeling the water rush underneath you, occasionally getting splashed.
I’m not sure what I miss more: the rowing or my identity as a rower. I’ve been an athlete all my life, from elementary school until my first year of college, so it seemed natural to walk onto the crew team last September. I’d never touched an oar, but that wasn’t a problem—I would be taught to row in time for our first race at the end of October! And I was. My boat looked nothing like the one I saw the other morning. It was offset and choppy and slow, but we had fun. So, so much fun. The adrenaline and pure fear that another boat might overtake us propelled us through the three-mile race that day and the celebration that night.
I miss the bonding that can only result from that mutual suffering, the singing in the shower, the conversations in the ballroom while we stretched our exhausted limbs, the sprint up the hill to dinner before our hair froze into icicles. The friends I made in a single year of rowing have probably seen a greater range of my emotions than anyone else, and I think I can say the same of them. That’s the grounding anchor of our friendships, one I hope holds through life.
When I watch a boat fly by below me, these incredible memories crowd out the daily reality of the sport. As perfect and fluid as that team looks, it’s the result of months of constant struggle and pain. There are effortless moments, sure, and when you get there, it’s exhilarating and unforgettable. But much of the time, it’s about just grinding away so that you can reach that zone of perfection for a few fleeting moments. Some people live for that, but I just wasn’t cut out for it.
When I think about the winter, the hours spent on the erg and the sweat and tears and vomit that resulted, I do not miss rowing. I don’t miss the pit in my stomach every afternoon before a workout, willing my body and mind not to give out halfway through (they did anyway). I don’t miss the injuries that derailed my season and confined me to a bike in the bowels of the boathouse, watching boats go by with that beautiful swing.
My feelings about leaving the team are still mixed. I joke that I’m a “washed up” rower, because my identity is so inextricably bound up with my former team and teammates. We still go out together, get meals together, pregame together, and somehow end up in the same place at the same time multiple times a day. It’s inescapable, and I love it. I’d love to spend even more hours every day with them, like I did last year. But when I look at the free hours every afternoon that have opened up to me and the new people I’ve met and things I can do, I grow a little more confident in my decision. Sometimes I still feel like a rower, but that feeling is fading day by day. The identity I derived from being an athlete was such an immense part of my life for so long; it’s time to try on something else.