Rowing upstream

To paraphrase a Greek philosopher: “You can never step in the same river twice.”

For the past 13 months the river has sustained me while the rest of the world turned upside down. I’m so lucky to engage in an outdoor sport where social distancing is the norm. My happy place is a single in the middle of the river.

I’ve been rowing and coaching on the Anacostia River in Washington, DC since 2006. Every year, a new group of young people learn how to row. They learn new vocabulary: port, starboard, feather, catch, gunwale, coxswain, oarlock. And they learn sportsmanship and team work. They learn technical skills and how far they can push themselves physically.

Every year, we row the same river, but it’s always a different experience. The winds, the rain, and the currents shift the sand bars regularly. At high tide, we avoid the muddy edges, and steer through bridges carefully, following a known traffic pattern. Students who are too young to drive are guiding a 64-foot rowing shell expertly around kayaks, downed trees, and other teams out practicing. Every year I am amazed at how much students learn and grow.

On a school poster somewhere, a rowing shell heads into the sunset. There’s no I in TEAMWORK, it says. Rowers push themselves hard, and hold each other accountable. This year, I have focused on the novice rowers who are learning the technique and the culture of rowing. We do a distanced team cheer after practice. In a short time, some newcomers will show leadership, and others will come just to socialize with other teens. Some will develop amazing rowing skills and might earn a scholarship to college. Every year a different group of rowers will learn that it’s harder to row upstream than down, and they will figure out how to pace themselves.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, rowing and coaching has buoyed me when I felt hopeless or lost. The smells, sounds, sight, and feel of the river is in my heart and deeply ingrained in my memory. A river is constantly changing even while it remains the same. Everyone should have a place that pulls them like the river pulls me.

I hope everyone can find their river.

High school teams practicing on the Anacostia River, Washington DC.

Published by

evaksullivan

Eva K. Sullivan teaches English Language Learners in Montgomery County Public Schools, Maryland. She was an English Language Fellow with U.S. Department of State during the 2017-2018 school year, working with the Ministry of Education in Laos, Southeast Asia. She writes short stories, personal essays, and has completed a memoir about her experiences as an expat in West Africa in the 1990s.

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