The night before, I didn’t sleep–partially because of the idiots blaring America’s Funniest Home Videos next door, but also because I couldn’t calm down. The Novice 1x weighed heavily on my mind.
I made it to the park in the early hours before dawn and found the Green Peinert. I spent what time I could rigging before the cox and coaches meeting. There, I studied the map. Later, after finishing the rigging, I became so nervous I forgot where the launching dock was, despite having rowed at Turkey Lake twice before, and had to revisit registration area to look at the map again.
Everyone has different ways of coping with nerves. The best way I know is to give myself chores so I avoid thinking about what’s making me nervous. Once the Green Peinert sat rigged and ready, I moved on to finding a place for the tents, setting them up, studying the schedule, memorizing my event number, using the divine porter-potties, stretching, warming up, talking to people.
You can’t avoid the race call though, echoing up the hill to the baseball field loaded with trailers. The pit of my stomach dropped out. I sent Alan one last text–I’m in launching in 5. Love you.
The forecast called for extreme winds, but at launch time, the water was flat and gorgeous.
On the launch dock, I struggled to unlock the starboard rigger, afraid of careening face first into the water before I’d had a chance to get into the boat. And when I shoved off the dock, a helpful rower pointed out my port oarlock was facing backwards–in front of all my competition, also launching around me.
“Well–you can tell I’m a novice!” I exclaimed, half-laughing. My push off had caused me to drift too far for anyone to catch my oar and reel me back in. I had to do it on the water–unlock the oar, lift it out, swing it around, drop it back in, and re-latch it, all without flipping over. A four-letter word definitely flew out of my mouth as I almost lost my balance while the oar rested out of the oarlock and I reached over to swing it forward. The dock master had the courtesy to clap and cheer when I fixed it without eating pond scum.
Problem fixed, I scooted around one competitor–a nice woman my age in a fluorescent orange top representing North Palm Beach–and headed out to warm up.
Rowing across the water actually calmed me more than I expected. My nerves vanished as I went through my usual drills, worked on some pause drills, and kicked up the rate up and down while steering around the lake. I shrugged off my top as the sun warmed up. As I saw the distance between myself and Palm Beach while warming up, I thought, “Maybe I stand a chance.”
Everything felt fine until I checked the watch and read 9 a.m, 10 minutes to go time. The moment to queue up in my lane had arrived. As I made the turn towards lane 4 and saw the first buoys scoot by, the trillion butterflies living in my stomach kicked up a marching band. My whole body trembled, all the way down to my legs. I had to completely stop rowing, take several deep breaths, and mentally talk myself down before I could resume the slow row up the lane. I’d never, ever been so nervous for a race in my entire life–not track, and not rowing.
The three of us novices sat there, a lane between each of us, making small talk. The usual novice stuff I guess–I hope I don’t flip! Me, too! I’m going to name my boat the S.S. Chicken! You done this before? No. Me neither! I don’t even care if I win–I just want to make it down the course! That, too, calmed me a bit. We all felt the same and not one of us had raced a 1x before.
The marshals called us up to the line for floating start. I had to back it once, but then I lined up. The start line judge began calling our names–I’d forgotten, in the singles, they called last names instead of teams–and it caught me off guard. But then the flag dropped and off we went.
I felt straight off the line. Rowing dead center lane meant I had a competitor on each side. I could see the competitor in lane 6 drop off quickly in front of me, and the one in lane 2 vanish behind me. The first two buoys passed off the side and I felt good–I was in my lane. Then a buoy unexpectedly ran under my starboard rigger. Thinking I had gone off towards starboard, I started putting pressure on that side, when the following judge waved their flag, pointed starboard and screamed my name. In my haste, I thought surely they were wrong–they’d been following me the whole time, but I glanced over my shoulder and saw myself on course to t-bone Palm Beach. I had to wail on port side to turn myself and get clear water, costing precious effort and seconds.
The look mattered. I saw how close we were. And I knew if I could see her, I could catch her.
I fought for 500 meters against myself and the boat. Twice more the judges had to call me to steer, and each time, I was closer to her. We were running in lanes 1 and 2. I desperately did not want to impede her progress and I had to keep pressure on the port side. The steering was taking a lot of momentum out of me and panic was beginning to set in. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see her bow. In spite of all my course corrections, I’d closed in on her. I felt sick as I kept putting heavy pressure on the port oar to try and keep my boat clear of hers.
Then I heard Alan scream my name from on shore. I realized we were close to the finish. I put all my effort into relaxing and trying to keep our two boats farther apart. I remember passing the red buoys marking 250 left to go. Marlene Royle’s advice floated through my mind–just relax and connect with the water. I caught a crab. I recovered. Joe’s excited cheering reached me. I pushed harder and harder, knowing it would end soon. I don’t even remember passing her. I remember glancing right over my shoulder and seeing the long dock the referees warned us about, sticking far out into the water with some kid holding the white finish flag. Then I looked back and I was a boat ahead of her and ten strokes from the final red buoy. I pushed and pushed and pushed until the horn blared. I collapsed breathless over the oars, thinking–
I actually did it. I won!
North Palm Beach crossed seconds later and we sat panting and coasting on our momentum.
“Good job,” I called.
“You, too!” She said.
“I’m sorry about coming over–I couldn’t steer for the life of me!” I exclaimed.
“It’s okay. I caught a crab at the end.”
“Me, too,” I answered. “But hey–at least we didn’t flip!”
She laughed, in that exhausted post-race way athletes do when they’re relieved it’s done, and we waited until the other competitor crossed the line before turning and finding our way back to the docks.
From shore, I heard Joe call, “Way to put the hammer down, Casey! Woo!” I could see him pedaling his bike on the way back. Alan, who didn’t have a bike and was stuck on the peninsula about 300 meters to go, called out, “What did you finish?”
It felt delicious to hold up number one and mean it.
By the way, that was the hardest race I’ve ever done. And still the scariest.