I wrote this post originally for Community Rowing, Inc. in March, 2020.
In the past week, we have been exhorted repeatedly to practice social distancing and yet not self-isolate. In order to achieve the latter objective, it becomes powerfully important to affirm our connection to each other and to this wonderful community. If you are like me, you may be experiencing a sense of loss and bewilderment. Almost every day of my life for the past several years has begun with a trip to the boathouse, a walk across the parking lot, and an entry into a world of people I know and love, who have come together to be known and loved in the context of rowing. Our rowing community has been a constant for many of us as we have experienced the various ups and downs of life. We have come together day after day against backdrops of joy and sorrow, certainty and uncertainty, and the magnificent and the mundane. The throughline of our love for this sport and our love for each other has nourished us and sustained us. And now, temporarily, our typical mode of gathering and communing has been paused. And I know I need to be refreshed. So, I made a list of some certain truths we know as rowers, truths not relevant only to rowers, but truths familiar to us in that context.
We do not need to see each other to feel our collective power
When you row in a boat with other people, with few exceptions, you don’t see their faces. You face the back of the person in front of you and may not be able to see much of anyone beyond that. There is a moment before we all get in the boat and shove off, where you take your last looks at one another and commit, silently or audibly, to the practice ahead, knowing that you will not see the faces of your teammates until the end. In these days, we also can’t see each other’s faces, at least not in the flesh, and yet, we know we are together in the same boat, and we believe that each person in the boat is as committed and engaged as we are. This knowledge is motivating and empowering.
We don’t pull for ourselves but for the team. “For You, I Will”
There is no question that rowing is the ultimate team sport, which is why separation from our team is particularly painful. Yet, we are engaged in a “race” of sorts, and it is good to remember that we don’t pull merely for ourselves but for our entire team. A couple of years ago, someone circulated the phrase, “For you, I will” and it made its way to the wall of a bridge tunnel and the back of a tee-shirt. This phrase captures well, the reality of every rower. When we are in the boat, we pull hard for the person in Seven seat and the person in Bow seat, even as we pull hard for ourselves in Three seat. There is a commitment to the work of the boat and surrendering of our own perfect stroke for the movement of the whole. Today, we practice social distancing for each other, for each person in our community. For you, I will stay home. For you, I will wash my hands. For you, I will maintain my connection. This is our mindset as rowers. This phrase resonates with us deeply and profoundly.
We are stronger together than as individuals
But what do we do, when we areseemingly cut off from our teammates and from our community? Now is the time for us to come together in powerful and creative ways. Have you checked in with your teammates? Have you let people know how important they are to you? Sometimes we don’t have a strong sense of the value of someone, until they are absent. Let’s find constructive ways “to talk in the boat,” as it were, and encourage each other. Our connection is in a very physical space, but we have grown to love and appreciate each other in so many dimensions. We need to seek ways to continue to “gather” together to commune with each other. We are stronger together than as individuals, and for me, the CRI community has been a constant source of strength and encouragement. It is likely we will all experience highs and lows during this time of separation. Let’s remember our connection to each other and respond to any inward prompting to reach out to each other.
We believe in the power of our community, this community
“Rowing changes lives” isn’t just a CRI catchphrase. It is a phrase that is real for each one of us in ways both personal and public. We not only are part of a community, we also are the community. For the past few days, I have been contacted by members of this community, for various reasons and for no reasons. Maintaining a community requires care and attention. We need to reach out to each and receive the reaching out. We need to affirm and reaffirm what connects us beyond the temporarily-suspended rowing season. We need to see where vulnerabilities exist and rise up to meet the needs. This is OUR community, and we have a responsibility for its wellbeing during this time. My hope is that on the other side of this moment, we will emerge with a strengthened and fortified community beyond what we could have imagined.
We face backwards and push forward without sight
When I teach people how to row, one of the first hurdles is often related to facing backwards. In rowing, we don’t face the direction we are going, and yet, we push ahead without sight. This act of trust is monumentous. Every time you get in a boat, we are trusting, trusting that other rowers and coaches are paying attention to where they are going, trusting our coxswain, trusting our Bow seat. We are able to go as hard as we can in the boat because of this trust. We know that if we lost the trust and start looking around to try to see where we are going, we would disrupt the boat. Our current situation may outpace our ability to trust as individuals. It is hard to trust in times of uncertainty, and it is hard to trust when we are alone. So, again, we need to affirm our connection to the ones around us who are also trusting as we push forward into the unknown. Remember, you have done race pieces at 5:30AM in early October heading downstream and survived.
We know that pushing against limits only opens new possibilities
Among all the athletes I have coached, there is a lot of variety. However, there is one observable reality. Everyone has made progress. Rowing is a sport that requires practice and repetition and pushing against the limits of frustration, fear, and physical ability. Without exception, every athlete whom I have had the privilege to work with has pushed against their personal limitations and challenges and has opened new possibilities for themselves. Countless people have told me that they never thought they would be able to [FILL IN THE BLANK]. Those blanks are filled with carrying boats, racing in the Head of the Charles Regatta, rowing with other people, completing a 2k erg piece, practicing yoga, waking up before 5AM, rigging a boat, racing in a costume, traveling to a regatta, competing after beating cancer, overcoming fear, standing up without the use of hands, planking every day, becoming a competitive athlete, learning a new skill, doing a sport after a spouse died, seeing the sunrise and sunset from a boat on the same day, competing in CRASH-Bs, etc., etc. etc. We are a community of people who push against limits self-imposed or society-imposed and achieve again and again. We aren’t that familiar with the word can’t, and we know the power of the word yet. We aren’t a group of won’t but of how and when. It is powerful and inspiring.
We know the truth that what the mind believes, the body achieves
Physical activity for many of us is healing, restorative, invigorating, and glorious. We have become familiar with our bodies being active on the water or on the erg. We have completed intense workouts together with our teammates. And now we are completing those workouts alone. It’s always easier when you have a teammate with you to push you on to that faster split and encourage you to finish the piece. Let’s find ways to continue to encourage and push each other. Let’s share workouts and circuits; let’s share beloved hikes and bike paths; let’s share our successes and failures as we navigate these uncharted waters together and yet apart. Physical activity is good for the mind and the body. We will take care of our minds by taking care of our bodies and vice versa. Let’s support each other with compassion and understanding, finding new ways to believe and achieve.
We have all seen the beauty of a sunrise or a sunset on the Charles River and know its healing power
Have you ever taken a picture of a sunrise over the North Beacon Bridge or a sunset over the pond because it was so beautiful you wanted to be able to share it with someone later? I had an idea that maybe we should scroll through our photos and make a collection of these sunrise/sunset pictures. There is nothing that could ever capture the wonder of being in a boat when the water is pink as it reflects the sky. We have had moments of stopping in wonder in the midst of a hard workout just to look at the sky and marvel at the beauty, which only we are privileged to behold. It is similar for me when we row in the rain. Who else gets to hear the sound of rain hitting the river? Or when the bevy of swans takes flight over the pond? Indescribable. And yet, we have experienced this beauty and wonder regularly. Now there is a temporary pause, it seems, on our access to this beauty, but I would encourage you to get outside and seek it. The birds are singing and the trees are fuzzy with buds. I was walking outside yesterday and discovered a blooming crocus. As rowers on our beloved river, we have been attuned to notice the beauty of nature. We know its healing power. And our senses know how to perceive it.
We always have another stroke
One summer day a few years ago, I had the privilege to teach a group of in-patient veterans being treated for PTSD how to row. One of the guys was really struggling with the stroke or rather his lack of perfection in taking a stroke. I had a brief moment of epiphany which I was able to share with him, that rowing was a sport in which there is always another stroke. Many of you have heard me encourage you in the single along these lines. You can’t just take a stroke and stop and evaluate and analyze. Otherwise, you will just keep experiencing that never-perfect-always-a-little-wonky first stroke. He started rowing, and as he began moving, his strokes became a bit more accessible and a bit more fluid. Strokes in rowing, especially in a team boat, come relentlessly. You can’t stop and you don’t stop. We are all reconstructing a new reality. There will be adjustments that work and some that don’t. The key is to not stop. If you need advice or encouragement or ideas, please reach out to your coaches and fellow community members. We need to encourage each other to keep on more than ever before. Again, this is familiar territory. We all know the value and power both of giving and receiving encouragement. Be generous and liberal with yourselves and with each other.
We are thankful, because “How Lucky Are We.”
Thanks to John Sisk’s indomitable optimism and expressions of gratitude, many of us are familiar with his often-repeated phrase, “How Lucky Are We.” It might be easy to quantify the losses these days. It might be easy to dwell on how much we are missing and lacking. I felt myself drift towards that slippery slope, and I was reminded of John’s booming voice as he looked over the river to a blossoming sunrise. We are lucky. We have much to be thankful for and much to look forward to. May these days of separation do more to reinforce our gratitude and appreciation for what we have (and have not lost) and for what we will soon enjoy again.
With all my love,