Sunday at Master’s Nationals

Another before sunrise alarm woke me up in time to prep my gear for the final day of competition at Nationals and to shovel down oatmeal and bananas. I dressed in my cleaned uniform and signature red hat for the final time before grabbing my bags and hitting the road. Alan woke up with me and snapped this photo. 

I was nervous for our race today: Women’s 4+ B.  I knew the competition in the heats would be fierce and our chances of qualifying for finals were low. On the way to Benderson Park I blasted motivational power music with the sunroof open. I kept the power anthem going through my headphones while setting out my gear and sloshing through the water puddles under the tent.

My teammates were already there and preparing to go. I tried warming up, but struggled to properly warm my muscles.  I can’t run, our team doesn’t bring ergs, and the whole island was a swamp after yesterday’s downpour. I tried squats, jumping jacks, a little bit of plyometrics, but I never felt loose. As I waded through the trailer lot, occasionally I’d pass a team in huddle that I knew was in our heat.  I paused my music to see if I could glean any useful insight into their race plan, but when I walked by the women were never discussing race strategy.

We laid hands on the Rowed Warrior, probably our club’s best boat. It’s a sleek lightweight Hudson 4+ that is nicknamed the “tippy canoe,” but boy, can that boat move! With the boat in the water, I raced off the dock to get pick up our oars, and 2-seat went running for China. She eventually realized I’d moved our oars down to the launching area and returned.

On the water, we turned into our platform early. Our lane 3 stake boat holder happened to be Jeff K, who used to be our regatta chair and is a stand-up guy. He is walking rowing encyclopedia. He grabbed onto our stern as we glided by.

“Hello ladies,” he said in response to our greetings. “I’ll tell you this just once, because I have to be impartial, but good luck.  And that’s it.” We laughed and said thanks.

The crosswind this morning was rather fierce. I had to scull a bit to help keep us aligned as we waited for all boats to lock on and find alignment. I assessed the crews and breathed deeply. The referees began the polling of crews and I squared up my oar and whooshed all the carbon dioxide out.

“Attention! Go!”

Our start was wobbly but solid. I reminded myself just to follow and trust my inherit strength to get us moving. Our cox’n Jess called for the shift just as I noticed a boat with an oar sticking up drifting back from the pack and the referees desperately waving their flags.

“We’re being called back!” I shouted.

Jess turned and saw the boat several lengths behind us and the marshals driving onto the course.  I looked and saw we were in the fourth position off the start based on the drift of the other boats. Apparently Annapolis called an equipment breakage on a crab and all the boats had to turn and circle back into the course while the heat after us entered the platform.

Our 4+ rowed across the course and lined back up after the second heat departed the platform. This time I zeroed in on stroke seat’s back. Again, square as the referee began the polling of crews. I took a deep breath and held it. When I saw the referee’s arm move in the corner of my eye, I locked into stroke and jammed down on the foot plate.

The second start was solid and fast. All I could think was, “Follow! Follow! Follow!”  The ache came early in my quads and I reminded myself the pain would go away if I just kept pushing. The water around the start was rough until we passed into the wave attenuation zone.

“Give me a power 10!  Right now!” screamed Jess, leaning as low forward as she could get. I could barely see her with my gaze locked onto stroke’s back. I dug in and pushed through the power 10. I could see nothing but black and rowing. My outside hand because to burn from blisters popping open and rubbing raw against the plastic handle.  The pain motivated me to push harder. I began to perceive a movement to my left but I refused to look and zeroed in on every motion of stroke seat.

Jess began screaming seats, but I can’t even remember what she said now. The sprint came on and we moved up hard. By then I could see two boats drifting away from us and I knew we’d at least race in the finals. As we crossed the bubble finish line, I peered left and right. Our times were definitely close.

Our coach was in the finish line launch and seemed surprised to see us but gave us a curt, official “good job” as we began to row down the finish line channel. The delay in our start cut into our rest time and the wait for a spot at the recovery dock didn’t help. We lowered the Rowed Warrior back into slings after threading carefully between two parked cars just as the Mixed 8+ was heading out. One of the rowers asked for help at the dock, but I had to refuse. I felt terrible, but I only had half-an-hour to use the restroom, water, and rest, before hands back on the boat.

I ran into my Dad as I sloshed towards the air-conditioned portable bathroom. He gave me a congratulations, but I really needed to use the restroom! My stomach hurt from our row and it took a while for the nausea to subside.

For our half-hour rest, I said hello to my family out to watch me row again. I was glad that at least I’d made finals for them, although I knew the final race would be fast and furious with Capital City and Baltimore rowing lanes 3 & 4.

I caught a short bit of Mixed 8+ E as we headed back towards the boat, but I couldn’t stay to watch the finish as we were running a touch late. Alan came with me to collect our shoes, and I think he finally understood why I kept coming home covered in mud up to my shoulders. Every step flipped mud and dirt up our backs as we picked the driest possible path towards our trailer.  Once there, I geared up, tucking my socks into my bra and my seat pad into the back of my pants.  I became serious, laid hands on the boat, and out we went back to the dock. I knew the final race would be a war.

We dropped the boat into the water on the dock.  Other people ran to get our oars, so I stepped into the boat to reach across and open my oarlock. The next thing I knew, I was sliding out starboard and the boat was going with me. “F—, guys!” I yelled as the riggers titled underwater and I fought not to swim with the fishes.  I heard five/bow laugh about seven seat almost taking a dive before the race. I bit down my anger because the seat track actually sliced into my toe when the boat tilted down.

Someone had snatched one of oars, which was frustrating. We had to hunt down another oar at the dock. Consequently, we hit the water with three oars for a 4+ and one oar for an 8+.

We locked into lane 1 and waited. Nerves began to build and I slapped my quads. The referees announced it would a quick start, meaning no preparation by polling of crews.  We sat square and when the referee called “quick start,” I sucked in a deep breath.

I saw nothing but stroke seat’s back move and I synced in. Within 10 strokes, a siren wailed across the course.

“What the…?” Jess turned around in her seat. All the crews looked fine. We were all drifting to a stop. With a sigh, we turned back around and rowed back around to the pink marshaling buoys using the zero lane on the far side of the course. The referees never announced why the call back, but later we heard there was a collision at the start.

Our second start was much better and solid. We left in line with Community Rowing in lane 2. We tried to hang in there, but it quickly became apparent we were falling behind. I felt the sore on my left hand break open. With each stroke, I tried to bring it but no magic happened. Even in the sprint, I refused to row across the line slow and as we crossed the buoys for the last time, I collapsed over my legs. I never needed to look to know we were last.

Once our boat was back in slings, we all hugged.  Alan took my hand as we navigated our way back to the booth. I was sorry no magic had happened at the end, but at least our boat made the finals. We’d never practiced together as a 4+ and none of us gave up, even in last place.

I hugged my parents and grandparents before they left. I was sorry I didn’t get to win a gold medal while they were there. I handed out some sweaty hugs. After they left, I dug right into the jello shots.

I don’t remember all I ate, but I know it included four jello shots, one shot of chartreuse from France, and some chocolate. I hunted Dunkin Donut munchkins, but apparently they were all eaten over before I got back from the women’s 4+. Finally rested, I began packing down. The air mattress was deflated and rolled up with the frame left out to dry in the sun.

Our trailer had to be loaded. With many hands on deck, the process went very smoothly. One of new rowers from Carnegie Lake took charge of oars and riggers and did a fabulous job organizing everything while the rest of us broke down the 4+ and 4x and moved the singles up a rack. The portable racks were loaded and all was tied down and off we went to finish celebrating.


The whole stands area transformed into a party as the final races plowed down the course.  Five/bow bought us a celebratory beer/margarita at the beer garden and we toasted to our success. Stroke seat was interviewed about her five medals out of six events and we watched Saugatuck Rowing plunge into the lake in celebration of their overall team points win. Watching them bouncing in their black unisuits into the water, splashing around and cheering was hilarious, but they certainly deserved the celebration.

Stroke, five/bow, and I finished breaking down our team tent. Five/bow went to pull her truck as close as possible to drag our gear around.  I thanked stroke seat for everything. I really believe the push for medals at Nationals would have never happened without her driving the team forward with all the training for the W8+.

Unfortunately, despite a raging sunburn, I had to fly down to Osprey in the hopes of meeting Miami Beach to load a quad our club plans to donate to Jamaica Rowing. Miami never showed up, but with the assistance of our coach, Sculler’s coach, and another club member, the “lead sled” was lowered into the slings and the riggers pounded off.

At home, I quickly scrubbed off the dirt before I headed off to a celebration at a member of Sarasota’s Crew house. I pigged out on pizza (three delicious slices), a brownie, and cookie dough ice cream, with more vodka mixed with lemonade, champagne, and jello shots. There was no salad to be found on my plate. Everyone toasted to both rowing clubs hard work over the past few months and the earning of medals for Sarasota Rowing in general.

It’s difficult to believe that this journey is over and that tomorrow, a Monday, I will not have a 4:45 a.m. alarm blasting into the darkness flashing “rowing alarm.” I’m sure it will take a few days to process all the emotions, the pain, and the pictures.

Thank you to everyone who supported this journey. I know I’ve had many people rooting for success. I tried my best against the best and walked away with two bronzes and a silver, eighteen pounds lighter, and with a new appreciation for elite-level athletes. The coming time off is well-deserved and I can’t wait for my fried chicken, green tomatoes, and chocolate lava cake.

About camckenna

I write; I row.
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