The competitive rowing world revolves around regattas. It’s where you race against other clubs and all your hard training pays off— or doesn’t. Spring season is about the sprint distance, Fall is about endurance (or head races). With the crisp sounds of blades in unison and peeps of fall foliage, it’s a damn wonderful spectacle, even if you’re not racing.
And for my Rec rowing team, it wasn’t something we’d ever considered doing. Despite the fact that our club was throwing their first regatta at our new boathouse and all the other teams were busily preparing for a race, we were preparing just to volunteer.We weren’t what you would call race ready. This Fall came with a new coach, a bunch of first season rowers, and lots of line up changes. And none of us had ever rowed 4000m continuously before.
But when our coach asked if enough of us were interested to fill an eight, we were like HELL YES WE WOULD LIKE TO RACE.
Because we’d never been asked before. Because if you’re going to enter your first race, your home course is a good place to do it. And because racing! On the Chicago river!
By the time our entry was officially accepted and we figured out our eight, there were only three practices left. At night. We managed to do the course twice in total, and they weren’t our best rows. Yet we had improved incrementally, and hey, at least we knew that we could row a hard 2.5 miles without falling apart.
And Then… Race Day
As the coxswain, I showed up early to attend the coaches’ meeting, where all the rules were laid out for us, the rough weather discussed, and questions asked. I’d been excited. But now I was nervous. With 11 other clubs, 60 boats and a crowd of spectators watching on live stream monitors and along the banks, it was dawning on me. Oh yeah. This IS a race.
And with our coach busy in the start line launch boat, we were on our own. Looking around before our team meeting, everyone seemed to have caught the same jitters. But — I was prepared. With freakin notecards. As calmly as possible, I referred to these freakin notecards, describing what was going to happen, and our race plan. More than anything I wanted us to be comfortable and have a good row. I wrote down the cues they wanted to hear… on freakin cue cards. We might be the nerdiest boat, but we were ready.
Now, we race. Minutes before our launch time we found out we were hot seating the “Dinze” – hopping right into our boat as the previous crew climbs onto the dock. Yes! Navigating a boat to the dock through a crowd of spectators was one thing I could leave out of this “life experience.” The incoming crew docked, we hopped in, I plugged in my cox box and immediately shoved off as our dock captain yelled for us to move move move.
After a little traffic we were free to row up the course unmolested, keeping things light and casual. Don’t mind us, this is totally a practice, definitely NOT A RACE. At the start we took our position and waited, not really sure what the folks in the launch boats were yelling, but knowing that if we did something really dumb they’d yell even louder.
And we were on. Boats were started in 60 second intervals to avoid passing on our narrow, winding course. From the start the crew locked in and we just started following our plan. My number one goal was getting this boat safely down the course so the rowers could enjoy this special race. I didn’t want any distractions for them or close calls. My next priority was keeping them focused inside the boat. We’d been struggling with rushing the catch and rhythm during practice, and now adrenaline was mixed in. I’d stayed up late the night before listening to cox recordings and now all those silly sounding commands came tripping out of my mouth in the heat of the race… “PUSH. SENNNNND. PUSH. SENNNNNND. CHHHHHAAAAAA!!”
Then something amazing happened. The crew had locked in together, rowing in sync like never before. Blades catching water at the exact same moment, their drives long and strong. They were looking so good that I called for them to increase pace by 2 strokes per minute, as we’d discussed in our team meeting.
The meters whizzed by. 1000. 2000. 3500. As we neared the last bridge I could hear our friends and family cheering us on from above. We were having an amazing race, and I was suddenly overcome by how hard the crew was working and how much they deserved this. So I started yelling like a maniac. “ONE. REC TEAM! TWO. IS THE BEST! THREE. IT’S OUR RACE…FOUR. SHOW ‘EM!!…”
We passed under the bridge rowing strong and now I noticed something else. We had closed the gap on the boat ahead us. There was no denying it. We were unmistakably closer and we weren’t slowing down. There was about 250m left and everyone still looked focused and strong, so I bumped us up again. “ALL IN. LAST SPRINT. GIVE IT ALL YOU GOT REC TEAM!!”
And they did. To the point that I had a fleeting second of concern about how fast we were approaching the boat ahead. Then we were past the finish line and safely paddling out of traffic, in a post-race daze. As the folks on the shore cheered, I felt all that competition stress fade away. It was over, and the only thing on my mind was getting us back to the dock.
In a daze we spun our boat (whoops, wrong way) and docked, giving the Dinze up to another crew to hot seat.
Back on the dock we hugged. We cheered. We’d done it. Rowed our first race and had our best row EVER as a team. Proud doesn’t even describe it.
I proceeded straight to the beer tent (this was a Rowtoberfest, after all) to settle down. As we were celebrating, our team captain came up to me, excited. She was holding a plastic ziploc bag of medals and handed them to me to pass out. “Oh,” I said, “These are these for participating, cool!” She looked me straight in the eye, “No honey,” she said, “We PLACED. We came in second!”
Us? Our ragtag Rec Team is second place? We’d gone out for the experience and hopefully a good row, but had never even considered placing. Yet out of 5 boats in our Masters 8 race we’d somehow done it.
You better believe I wore my medal all damn day. We all did.