Rowing: synergy and blindness


What an interesting and ironic reminder of my days rowing at Binghamton University...

Thinking about those days conjures up a rather strange combination of feelings, ranging from absolute bliss at the good times and the laughter shared with good friends, as well as gratitude for fascinating and enduring friendships, to the moments when you feel yourself lose control over your own body, and when you literally and seriously wish for death, especially during 2k "sprints."

I never quite understood the term sprint when applied to a 2k... But then again it is difficult to characterize a 2k with any other single word I can think of. It is not an endurance race: that would require covering long distances over an extended period of time while maintaining a steady aerobic pace, like running a marathon. It is also positively not a sprint: that would require exerting all your energy while covering a short distance in something like a minute, thereby producing, with every single stroke, the most intense muscular explosions that your body is able to generate. I believe Ashleigh Teitel put 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, not like the windedness of a runner, or the leg burn of the biker, but an all-over, savage unpleasantness. As you pass the 500 meter mark, with 3/4 of the race still to row, you realize with dread that you are not going to make it to the finish line, 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. Welcome to this life.
Yet, it is difficult to imagine my life without such an experience. It's not that I think everyone who rows really learns all the things one should learn, or acquires the character traits of discipline and responsibility that one ought to learn from years of following a strict schedule and being constantly accountable to one's teammates. I, for one, have certainly managed to evade those lofty personal characteristics. Unlike most rowers, I am not competitive, so I never got to develop the devotion and fanatism that many rowers do.

I rowed because it was fun, because there is no feeling like that of gliding through water; because it is elegant; because even though the only thing anyone ever gets to see is someone else's back, you are somehow connected to the rest of the rowers by the same feelings and goals; because the unison sound of oars locking at the end of a powerful stroke can really send chills down your body and intimidate your competitors, even if you're not a strong crew; because in those rare moments when you achieve perfect balance the pain magically disappears for a few seconds and you finally understand, you get a sense, a physical epiphany, of what it really is like to row... I didn't row to win medals or get a scholarship or to make anybody proud...

I rowed because it is a rare experience to speed through water when it is pitch black at night, or completely foggy in the early morning, not that we rowers ever get to see where we're going, as the above picture shows, but what we do get to see is simply amazing: at moments absolutely nothing, then the corner of your eyes catches something in the water directly next to you, and when you focus your gaze, you see in the almost disappearing still water the reflection of the moon and the stars, on clear nights, of course. Who ever gets to experience such a phenomenon? And this is to say nothing of the fact that in front of you, toward the stern of the boat, you see nothing but the two-dimensional silhouettes of your teammates, moving in perfect unison, and every now and then the steam emanating from their bodies, as well as the fierce breath flowing from their lungs, reminding you of a bull ready to kill the matador.

Crew is also, to my mind, the most synergistic sport there is, for the whole really is greater than the sum of its parts. This is an insight that I have experienced first-hand, but that I am still unable to fully explain or comprehend, and which completely baffles me.

And it is true that we don't know where we're going, that we must rely on someone else to guide us, and I guess there is a sense in which this can seem ridiculous. Yet our blindness may signal something deeper than our ignorance and our stupidity... it reflects our freedom and, more importantly perhaps, our faith in letting go and our trust in one another.
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