Every Nordic skier secretly thinks they’d make a good rower, at least since Matt Whitcomb and the US women’s team all read Boys in the Boat. I, especially, had a bloated idea of what a great rower I’d make. Standing at 5’ 10’ with wide shoulders and a not-awful cardiovascular system, I always wondered what would have happened if I had tried crew in college.
I got my answer yesterday: a lot of flailing.
Now, in addition to my broad shoulders and mitochondria (thanks, Mom), I also have a healthy competitive streak (thanks, Dad) and really, really, do not like being bad at sports, trivia or menial tasks. Yesterday, as I climbed into the flip sculler for the first time, it became painfully clear to me that no, I am not a naturally born rower, and no, I was not going to be good at it.
To begin, everything about crew is counter-intuitive (I have the agreement of my teammates to back this up). To go forward, you go backward. Want to turn right? Row left. Left hand goes over you right (unless you’re Canadian, apparently), and the deeper your oar (no, NOT paddle) goes into the water, the less leverage you’ll get on your return. Think about all of that, while also using your legs, arms, back and core in unison to push, no wait, pull, yourself forward backward. Oh, right, and you’re also balancing on a pin floating over water. Ready? Go.
As all of these realities were hitting me, smacking me, nay, punching me in the face, one of the community crew coaches rowed up to me to help me get going and I very nearly dismissed him. I wanted him to go away so I could suffer alone. More accurately, I didn’t want anyone to watch me fail.
It’s a hard thing, letting people see you fail. Because I’m a full time athlete, I act like I’ve signed some contract to always be amazing at any athletic activity. I feel like I’m supposed to be quick, strong and agile at all times, Citius, Altius, Fortius, am I right?
Wrong. That contract does not exist, especially not in my own sport. As I’m learning, failure is a big part of professional athletics. Once you’re doing something this hard, you have to fail again, and again, and again before you reach any semblance of success. In a sport like this, the true endurance its making it through all of those hard sessions, new skills, techniques, and big weeks while keeping your eye on the goal.
When we do our sessions with the young kids, there is always one or two who feels hesitant because they aren’t as strong on rollerskis as the older kids. “I”m not good at this,” they say from the back seat of the car, and we respond by saying that, once, we weren’t good either and it takes practice to feel comfortable.
Yesterday, I was that kid sitting in the back seat. For the first time in a while, I let someone talk me out of the car and took a chance at being completely and openly bad at something. After many tumbles and catches, I finally got my oars in the water the right way and started cutting through the water. It didn’t last long (three? four strokes?) before my limbs caught up to me and I almost ate water, but those moments were redeeming. They proved to me what I always preach: practice makes a little less imperfect. In Pete Vordenberg’s words, “It’s ok to suck today, as long as you suck less tomorrow” (Inspirational REG speech circa 2010).
I still don’t like failure. I’d like to avoid it as I can, but, maybe, next time I’ll accept it, rather than fear it.