I decided to walk on to the Princeton rowing team as I stood on the stone bridge of the Forbes golf course, on a late night excursion involving an economics textbook and a vial of Mexican seasoning powder. Struck by the strange insight that often comes under darkness, I realized that I needed a social anchor, some established group to keep my conception of Peter from floating too far astray. I returned to my dorm that night determined to start rowing the following day. Lying in bed, I indulged visions of myself as an Olympic athlete with a gleaming medal hanging from my neck. It was bronze, though; one can’t expect too much, even from daydreams.
I emailed the coach the next morning: I am six feet two inches tall, I fudged, passably active, blood pressure 110/70, eyesight 20:20, WASP rating 98 percent. His response arrived that afternoon. I would report to the boathouse at 4:30 p.m.
I arrived at the boathouse ten minutes early and was disappointed to find other walk-ons waiting there. I had more or less imagined myself skipping down to the dock, hopping into the A boat and promptly pulling abreast of Yale and Harvard at the head of the Charles to claim the Ivy Title. The real athletes bustled around like robots in their skintight uniforms, carrying their skiffs to the water and not once looking at our motley assortment.
For all of the mere mortals who haven’t stepped in Shea Rowing Center’s holy inner sanctum, I’ll describe it here: it is a long, windowed room with a phalanx of rowing machines waiting silently for their next round of victims. These machines consist of a track, along which the seat slides, an enclosed fan, which provides a variable level of resistance, and a pair of stirrups to strap down your feet. At the front of the dungeon, our high-cheek-boned coach-cum-taskmaster demonstrated the sequence of positions that we should assume with each stroke. The whole thing seemed easy enough, in theory.
We would be rowing for five minutes at a cadence of twenty-four strokes per minute. My neighbor informed me that all I had to do was keep my eyes glued to the top-right corner of my screen and keep the digits there as close to twenty-four as possible. I thought that there were plenty of other ways to sweatily exert oneself while gazing intently at a screen, but I had no time to consider their relative merits because, at that moment, Mr. Discipline barked “Begin!” and we were off to the races.
I use that idiom loosely. It’s a strange sensation when your heart rate informs you that you should be moving but your eyes reassure you that you are not. Thirty seconds in, I was disappointed to discover that I was right where I had started, in a room with twenty other boys grunting and sweating, rather than cleaving through the mirror-polished surface of Lake Carnegie at dawn.
Nevertheless, I did my nickel and kept my mysterious digits exactly at twenty-four. When coach yelled, “Time!” we released our bars and wilted, all puddled sweat and heavy breathing. A coxswain made the rounds with a clipboard and noted our data.
After toweling my masochism machine clean of sweat, tears, blood and all other ghastly secretions, I followed the rookies into the next room for water. It was darker in here, and intensely humid, with three varsity rowers training near the water fountain. I watched them compress like pistons, in perfect unison with the pounding techno issuing from the stereo, not even noticing my presence. I could not help but feel that I was witnessing some sinister eugenics experiment lifted straight out of 1940s Germany: glue some electrodes to their temples and assign a thin-lipped scientist to observe them with a clipboard and the effect would have been complete. I left the room without drinking any water, feeling uneasy.
The next morning, I was at the boathouse right on time. The varsity men bustled around in their tight uniforms and I wondered if they ever take them off, or if they sleep in them at night, get dressed in the morning, and then steal into a telephone booth to rip off their mild-mannered disguises and emerge triumphantly for practice.
I sat there, a landlocked foreigner feeling stranded and alone, until our coach wandered outside and saw me waiting. He told me that practice had been postponed, to go get some sleep, that I should really check my email more often. I smiled and thanked him, and he left me there.
I lingered a moment as a boat glided past on a row of headless shoulders. A group of rowers returned from their run, and another eased a skiff into the water. Watching this human clockwork, I felt very certain that it would continue once I left, and that not a thing would change in that boatyard for my having been there. As a first-semester freshman, the temptation to bind myself to a stable group was overwhelming, but even this felt like too great a sacrifice. Thoreau’s words came to mind: “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.” Whatever rhythm my drummer was playing, it wasn’t twenty-four beats per minute.
In that moment, I realized that I dreaded returning. So I didn’t. I walked up the hill to my room and carried on. I can’t say for sure, because I haven’t checked, but I would bet that the boatyard still bustles with oars lifting and rowers jogging along the same trajectory as when I left them.
I accepted the fact that a bronze medal in rowing was overambitious. Still, the image of Olympic glory kept me up at night, so I dedicated myself to a more realistic goal.
And that’s the story of why I joined Princeton’s winter bobsled team.