I’m suddenly awoken by a harsh ringing sound. This can’t be right. I grab my phone to turn off my alarm, and to my dismay, see the time displayed as 5:15 a.m. I groan and struggle to get out of bed. My head is in a fog as I dress in the dark while attempting to make as little noise as possible. After all, my roommate is still sleeping, as is much of the Gonzaga campus.
I race out of my dorm, knowing I only have five minutes to walk to my carpool. Someone is inevitably late each time, and thankfully, this time it wasn’t me.
I jump in the car to escape the bitter cold of a morning that has yet to see the sun rise. As soon as everyone arrives, we begin the drive. I lean against the car door in a futile attempt to gain just another 20 minutes of sleep. Everyone else in the vehicle must have the same idea, because the only human voice that I hear comes from the radio.
By the time we arrive at our destination, I’m slowly starting to gain consciousness. As much as I would love to crawl back under the sheets of my bed, I’m also starting to feel a sense of excitement. I’m ready to start the day in a rather unique way.
I’m ready to start rowing.
I call it the sport of paradox. My first semester followed that same morning routine nearly every day. Every day, I questioned why I forced myself to wake up at an ungodly hour. Every day, I felt the utter exhaustion of a rower’s life. Yet every day, I kept coming back, propelled by a new passion unlike anything I had experienced before.
It started with an email I received over the summer from assistant coach Mark Voorhees. It reminded me of an old army recruiting poster. “Be Part Of Something Exceptional” it proclaimed. I was invited to try out for GU’s men’s crew team, and no experience was necessary. I was tall, athletic and looking to compete in a high level of competition, something I had done all my life while playing soccer and baseball.
Once tryouts began, I found myself in unfamiliar territory. It was a foreign world of ergs, 2ks, feathering, squaring, starboards, ports, coxswains and other rowing jargon that made little sense to me at the time. After a couple of days of orientation into the sport, we got to try the rowing machine (erg). I had experimented with an erg in a gym over the summer. I watched instructional videos, and thought I had it down pretty well.
I was in for a huge surprise.After just a couple of minutes of foundational instruction on the erg, I discovered that my form had been almost completely wrong. I had done more harm than good by using the erg over the summer. Along with many of the other walk-ons, I started the process of forming a proper stroke. An amazing aspect of rowing is that it can be picked up in a short amount of time. My coaches transformed a group of novices into fairly competent rowers. Of course we were far from perfect, but after about a month of practice, we were able to row an eight-man shell down a river without falling overboard or sinking the boat.
My first days on the Spokane River initiated my love affair with the sport. The running water, the tall green trees on the riverbanks and the sunrise combined for a peaceful and magnificent sight. An eight-man crew, racing in unity like a well-oiled machine, added to the beauty. I experienced a rush of adrenaline as I felt the boat move beneath me, and fought my hardest to keep pace with the man rowing in front of me.
I had been told that a number of rowers would quit before the semester was over, yet I was still surprised to find that the team started to shrink as the fall season progressed. Some teammates were faster and stronger than I decided to move on from a sport I was just starting to get the hang of. I was having fun and it was hard for me to see why someone would walk away from such a unique opportunity.
Slowly, however, my mind changed. The honeymoon phase came to a close, and I was left facing reality. I grew weary of the busy schedule and the punishing work on the erg.
The fact was, rowing was hard, and much harder than I ever thought it could be. Rowing was without a doubt the most grueling sport I had ever experienced.
A quote by John Seabrook in his 1996 New Yorker article titled “Feel No Pain” explains it best: “Marathon runners talk about hitting ‘the wall’ at the 23rd mile of the race. What rowers confront isn’t a wall; it’s a hole — an abyss of pain, which opens up in the second minute of the race. Large needles are being driven into your thigh muscles, while your forearms seem to be splitting. Then the pain becomes confused and disorganized … an all-over, savage unpleasantness. As you pass the 500-meter mark, with three-quarters of the race still to row, you realize with dread that you are not going to make it to the finish, but at the same time, the idea of letting your teammates down by not rowing your hardest is unthinkable. Therefore, you are going to die.”
By the time Thanksgiving break ended, I decided that I was done prescribing to the daily doses of death. I had to admit, my passion for rowing wasn’t deep enough to sustain me. I wanted to pursue other facets of GU and so I joined a steady tradition of rowing dropouts. I wanted to try new things, sleep in and regain my life.
For some student-athletes at GU, rowing is life. It’s a lifestyle that takes tremendous perseverance, endurance and will power. Victory is sweet in every sport. But for rowers, who accomplish a day’s work before most have even started the day, victory is that much sweeter.
For them, I have nothing but respect.