It’s summer in Florida and that means unpredictable weather season has begun again!
After several years of summer drought, storms and winds plagued practice in the ten days or so leading up to Sunshine State Games. I’d planned to row a women’s 1x with another teammate, but she scratched since she could never get on the water to prepare. I kept the entry despite only one practice session.
The last week of school led up to Sunshine. The crazy weather persisted by randomly forming Tropical Storm Andrea. I secretly hoped it cancelled the last day of school.
Alas! Not meant to be! Thursday I woke to wind, rain, and school. I couldn’t believe the county didn’t cancel. And later that day, when the principal announced the first tornado warning–I really couldn’t believe they had not cancelled school. I hunched over in the world’s most uncomfortable position on the hard tile floor staring at dirt and dust bunnies thinking, “This is crazy!”
“Are we going to die?” someone asked.
“No, you’re not,” I answered. Someone became bored and made wind noises; I shushed them. With each creeping minute, the ache in my legs increased exponentially. I tried shifting my weight back and forth on each leg. My nose began to run. I was disgusted, but at least in the hunched over position, no one could see it dripping on the nasty floor. A half hour later, we were released from the warning and I was able to blow my nose. And when the school returned to a tornado warning twenty minutes later, I made sure to grab some tissues and my phone. My students snatched up all pillows I’d set out after the first warning–just in case–so I had to suffer hunching on the tile floor for another half hour.
I suffered through a runny nose that evening, blaming it on the dusty floor I’d had my face in for an hour, plus all the cleaning I’d done in the closet after school. The next morning, the truth became evident: I was sick. Coughing, hacking, headache, sore throat, aching muscles and all, I’d caught a bug.
And I had to race. Tomorrow. On my birthday.
Alan said I shouldn’t go, but you can’t just drop out of rowing unless you’re in a single. Someone has to take your seat. I registered for four races and two of those boats were depending on me to race. I refused to leave my team scrambling to fill my seat.
I slept terribly, woke up early, bought more Allegra to clear my sinuses so I could breathe, and headed for the middle of no where outside Gainesville. The venue is classic real Florida–massive Southern oaks draped in moss, rolling small hills, and a wide, flat lake surrounded by reeds and so full of gators you could hopscotch around the lake. The spectator area was hemmed in by cypress and tall cattails so that, besides one small slice of clearance, no one could see the races. If you sat in the right spot, you might be able to catch the boats drifting past the finish line, but that was it. No spectator docks–just launch and recovery and weeds. An announcer spottily came on the PA system to call races, but sometimes he wasn’t even sure who was in what lane or what team they were (I heard he butchered my name when I rowed the 1x). It was partially a guessing game to see who was in the lead, and then hoping they’d maintain it to the finish.
To measure how I would feel rowing, I opted not to scratch the Women’s 1x. Only three competitors entered the race; as long as I rowed from one end to the other, I’d get a medal. I expected to be third. While sitting on the water, the other women and I made rowing small talk. I confessed to being a novice and sick. The woman I expected to win said not to count anything out–but she was being nice and I knew that. She’s an amazing sculler with years of highly successful 1x racing experience.
We lined up with the buoys and the starting ref clicked on his megaphone. “Lane 1–please stay in your lane. There are other boats coming down the course in the opposite direction and we do not want any collisions, okay?”
Looking over my right shoulder with trepidation, I realized I’d been placed in the least optimal lane for me. In my first novice race two months ago, I’d veered to port the whole race course. I’d nearly ran into the girl from Lake County two or three times–I felt terrible about it, too. Steering is something I’m still trying to master and now the ref just gave me a nice reminder about why to stay in lane 1–no rowing shi-ka-bob, please!
After butchering my name, the referee called the start and off we went. For a while, I could see the trail of the superstar sculler in lane 2, which surprised me. I thought she’d be off the starting line and gone in a breath. I quickly glanced left and could see her boat about two lengths up on me. Using the buoys to guide me between the lanes, I focused on steering as straight a course as possible. At the halfway mark, I noticed the third place boat struggling. She was six-seven lengths back on me, so I decided to ease off the power and save some for later races. I was guaranteed a second place medal–so why not? I wasn’t in a condition to even attempt chasing down number one. When I heard someone shout 250 left to go for Wonder Woman, I knew I was still pretty close to her, and I slowed down a bit more. With the still increasing gap between myself and third place, she’d never catch me by the line.
Despite being sick and easing off, I rowed what I’d consider a decent time for the 1x, given my first race was 4:21, AND I managed to stay in my lane for the whole course.
The Women’s 4+ rolled up next. Our racing boat was the “tippy canoe,” as one teammate calls it, or a Lightweight Hudson 4+ that none of us had practiced in since who knows when. The boat is more unstable than a pregnant woman and we had a cox’n we didn’t know with dubious racing experience. After rocking and rolling our way down to the start, the four of us took off fast and furious. Around 500 meters it became clear we were competing against Jacksonville in lane 1. The referees called us to move over despite being in our lane. The other boats had shifted over, so we did, too. The cox’n became disoriented. The buoys on a race course are symmetrically laid out and in the heat of racing, it’s easy to do. I noted our diagonal, off-course path as we moved away from the other boats in our field.
“Cox’n, pick a lane!” I gasped.
“What?” She whipped her head around while our stroke seat shouted, “You’re rowing us off the course! Straighten up!”
She realized she’d overcorrected when the referees moved us. She quickly adjusted course and now we were rowing straight in lane six. In the meantime, Jacksonville had caught up to us. We had 250 meters to go and we weren’t going to let them cross first. Even while rowing an extra 100 meters, we still won.
Gold for the birthday girl.
In between our Women’s 4+ and our Women’s 4x, one of our teammates heard one rival team say, “I hope that’s not the same four ladies rowing the quad as the four. They’re fast. They must do nothing but work out.”
Nothing like a reputation to uphold!
Despite my screw-ups, which include letting go of the port oar TWICE ,(but catching it to recover) our women raced strong and powerfully. My muscles felt fatigued before we even started by the end I couldn’t breathe my heart pumped so quickly. Still, our bow-woman kept our course very straight, knocking only one buoy, and we held on tight to our oars to push our way to a second gold. It was by far our best row in the quad to date, and not bad for not having practiced for this race.
Racing finished, there was one picture I wanted to snap. Last year I earned three-of-a-kind: gold, silver, and bronze. The regatta happened before I started losing weight and about a month before our team began training for Nationals.
One year after this journey began, I’m about twelve pounds lighter, two inches smaller (except in the legs,) two pant sizes down, and one tough seven seat. Last year we were a recreational club, just like most other clubs, and now we have a target being stitched on our back. People know we are faster.
And now that school is out, I plan to become even faster.