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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Can you work through the pain? How sport helps us train for life


I can’t do this. No one can possibly do this holy god it hurts please make it stop hurting so much-

I’m at the freshman activities fair, lingering near the crew table. My internal monologue is being a bitch.

Why are we doing this? It conflicts with cross country.
That’s the whole point of college, trying new things.
What if I turn into a man?

“You’re the perfect build for crew. Are you interested?” The coach is smiling at me, somewhat creepily. She hands me a flier.

Two hours later, I’m wandering into the basement of the rec with thirty other girls. I am judging them, and it’s fun, but the voice again.

Practices are at 5 a.m.
At a beautiful reservoir.
You’re supposed to be focusing on school.

“In fact, the rowing team has the highest average GPA of any team at Mills.” The assistant coach resembles Cameron Diaz and looks decidedly feminine.

There’s no chance to shine, though. No one can tell if you’re better than a teammate.
Wouldn’t that just be the worst thing, Narcissus?
Shut up. Look at these girls.
One is asking, Do we have to run a lot?

“No. Unless the weather is really bad, we vary our workouts with other cardio.”

The girl nods and, glancing around, gives a relieved, portly chuckle. “Because I’m not into running.”

“That’s fine. But you have to understand, rowing is probably the hardest physical thing you will ever do.”

The head coach looks at me again, but I find myself returning the creepy smile.

“Because rowing uses all of the major muscle groups in the body, the athlete quickly enters a state known as lactate hell, in which acid builds up quickly in bloodstream and stays there for the entirety of a race…the rower builds up a fearsome level, as much as 50% higher than any other athlete.”

I don’t sleep anymore. Six days a week, I blink at 10 pm and wake to the inhuman screech of my alarm clock, flashing 4:30.

I’m quitting today. Right after practice. Just one more…

When we arrive at the reservoir, the landscape can only be seen through the sky: The stars silhouetting the hills, the moon on the water. We row through the darkness, watching an orange streak on the horizon spread itself higher and higher until suddenly, the sun breaks over the hills, and in every direction is rolling green. Next to us, a flock of geese skids onto the water, trying to seize the gold playing on its surface but only scattering, making more of it.

I want to be tired, but I don’t have a choice. I’m jarred awake by beauty. It’s happened so many times now I’ve almost learned to stop fighting it.

“…and bury your blades. Alright, let’s start at 24 [strokes per minute]…”

I settle into my seat and look up at our coxswain. It’s a gesture more intimate than a kiss. From a foot away from my face, she’s about to watch me suffer.

“The standard world championship race distance of 2,000 meters is long enough to have a large endurance element, but short enough to feel like a sprint. This means that rowers have some of the highest power outputs of athletes in any sport.”



Coach says it’s her favorite sound in the whole world. It’s the sound of eight oar blades feathering in sync. Sometimes we hear it across the water, a flawless echo coming from one of the UC Berkeley crews, but for us, it’s usually SHUNK-clatter-clatter-clatter, which is the sound of my patience running out.
Good rhythm comes painfully slow to novice rowers. In stroke seat, I’m supposed to set the pace for the entire boat.

From a physics standpoint, the slowest part of a stroke should be the recovery. When you reach forward to put your oar back in the water, you’re actually losing momentum, since you’re facing backwards. “Rushing up to the catch” is one of our biggest problems. If I do my job correctly, I often fight the movement of seven other bodies. I often get slammed around like a sock puppet. Today, coach doesn’t seem to notice.

“Three, more lay back! Six, hands high!”


“EIGHT! Head up! Stay focused!”

I’m just a number again. It’s a godsend.

“That’s it…seven, watch her shoulder…”

When our SHUNK happens, I don’t hear it. I feel it. It’s raw human power multiplied by eight and concentrated into one fluid motion. It’s like nothing I’ve ever felt.

“So, why do kids cry when they’re born? Ever ask yourself that? Well, it is said, Satan stabs a child at birth, as an introduction to pain. You know…welcome to the world, right?”


“500 TO GO!”

I want to scream in pain, but we’re not allowed. It’s a waste of energy.


The boat surges forward. It’s pure human heart multiplied by seven and concentrated into one fluid motion. It’s the most beautiful thing in the world. I want to cry, but we’re not allowed. It’s a waste of energy.

Five years later, I still have rowing dreams. Coming to a Frisbee school was harder than I imagined. Carleton athletes have tons of heart, but I still think very few sports do honor and sacrifice as well as crew.

Our program was somewhat exceptional because our coach had a degree in sports psychology. After a particularly brutal erg workout, she pointed out that some of us were subconsciously shaking our heads. It’s the body saying, “No” to the pain. By then, everything had changed for me. She said I was nodding.

I’m forever indebted to crew. It teaches you to embrace life even when it hurts.

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