Boys in the Boat

When I first rowed in college (1978), people said our boat had been in the 1936 Olympics. At the time I thought it was a joke, but now I’m not so sure. We were a ragtag startup team at WVU. We kept our shells in an old tractor-trailer truck behind the lumberyard on the Monongahela River. That thing was so heavy that our old coach made the men carry it for us! Of course, that could have just been because he was 70 years old and didn’t have a clue how to coach women – it had never been done before!

I’m excited that The Boys in the Boat is coming to PBS on August 2nd, just in time for another Olympics. I read The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown when it first came out in hard back. The oddly-stylized first 50 pages really annoyed and distracted me – as if Brown were writing a 1930’s news article instead of a book for a modern audience. It was also clear to me that he wasn’t a rower. But the story is so compelling and well told that I slogged through – and was immensely rewarded. Back then rowing was still the sport of gentlemen, and the strapping young loggers and woodsmen of the Northwest had a distinct advantage over their elite East Coast rivals. After all, it was only 16 years earlier that Jack Kelly, the father of famous actress Grace Kelly, was excluded from the Royal Henley Regatta in England because he was a bricklayer. It didn’t matter that he had won dozens of U.S. Championships; the fact that he was a manual laborer was enough to ban him from the regatta.

When I first started rowing it was still very much a sport for men, but things were changing rapidly. I moved to Washington DC in 1979 and joined Potomac Boat Club on the Georgetown waterfront. We had a small bathroom, but no showers or lockers for women were available, not yet. There was one group of women already rowing there; they had all graduated from Ivy League schools, where Title IX had guaranteed some access to the sport for women. They were much better than my motley crew of WVU graduates and friends of friends. I used to telephone about 20 people every night just to get enough young women to put together an Eight for the next morning. The women already rowing at Potomac Boat Club didn’t talk to us for two years – not until we announced that we were planning to race at the Head of the Charles in 1981. We hired a coach, added to our practice schedule and improved so much that we combined forces with the MIT-Georgetown-Wellesley alumnae for my first races after college. To prepare for Masters Nationals, we often practiced twice a day. I didn’t own a car, so I biked down to the boat club at 5:00 am, worked eight hours, biked back down to row in the evenings, then biked home through Rock Creek Park, straight uphill to my house on Military Road. I was in really good shape. Rowing was my life for an intense two years. Then in 1982 I joined the Peace Corps, moved to West Africa and didn’t row for another 18 years. Rowing has shaped my life.

Potomac Lights at Masters Nationals, 1982
Potomac Lights at Masters Nationals, 1982


Be careful what you ask for

This summer I’ve had the good fortune to get everything I’ve asked for. I really shouldn’t complain, but I am so busy now that the summer is flying past and I haven’t even been to the pool once! The To Do list hasn’t gotten any shorter and I’m almost in panic mode. So I’m taking a deep breath, metaphorically, to tap into an overwhelming feeling of gratitude.

First, I was able to spend two entire, uninterrupted weeks with my mother in West Virginia. She is elderly and getting more forgetful and frail. I cooked dinner, planted flowers in her front yard, and I fed the neighborhood cats that gather on her back porch. These little things make her so happy. We drove along the Ohio River up to Point Pleasant, where the Silver Bridge famously collapsed in 1967 following all sorts of paranormal activity. We went to the Mothman Museum and she was a good sport, posing with a 6-foot black figure with red eyes just for a good photo opportunity. Every moment I spend with my mother is a gift. What is it about trying to help other people that makes one feel so content?

Second, I was given a summer organizing job I applied for with the teachers’ union. It’s something that I truly support – going out and having conversations with new (and not-so-new) teachers to find out what makes them tick. I used to be in advertising sales, so meeting with people and listening to their stories comes naturally to me. Who knows what will come of these collective conversations? But I met a guy who lives in my neighborhood – on my street! I didn’t know him before and now I do. If nothing else, at least I can say hi when I see him around. I value the face-to-face interactions that become so difficult once the school year starts.

Third, I asked to teach one English class next year. Instead of a class with new ESOL students with interrupted education, I’ll be teaching an Honors English 12. I’m really excited and, I’ll admit, a little nervous. I’m rereading all the classics I’ll be teaching – Oedipus Rex, Hamlet, The Stranger. I’m looking forward to interacting with students who will actually read for homework, and aren’t afraid to share their opinions. It will help me grow as a teacher and a professional.

And finally, I’ve been asked to race on Saturday. I’m too out of shape to pull an oar through the water in competition, but I will be sitting in the coxswain seat tomorrow and taking charge of a 8x at Diamond States in Delaware. I’m excited and nervous because we might actually win and they’ll toss me in the water if we do. That’s better than swimming in a pool, isn’t it?

The way I look at it is, if you don’t put challenges out there to yourself – especially as you get older – then you risk getting stuck in a rut. I feel the clock ticking away the summer days, but each morning I wake up excited to start on something new.

Now I can cross one more thing off my To Do list.