Life Lessons From the Boat

Ever been on a sports team? Softball? Basketball? Frisbee?

People make light of sports but being on the crew team in high school changed my life.

Even though I’d been active as a child both at summer camp and with dance lessons, I was intimidated by sports at boarding school. All the kids were EXPERTS having played squash, tennis, or field hockey forever.  There was no way I could compete with that level of mastery.

But sometime mid-winter of my junior year, my mother encouraged me to try out for crew.

So I signed up, sat at an ergometer machine – which I had NO idea how to use- and a month later, found myself at spring training at Rollins College in Florida.

After a week of blisters, jogs, and sweaty workouts in the boats, I was the only one cut from the team.

Feeling completely rejected, I signed up for lacrosse and was busy trying to learn how to cradle the ball one afternoon when my crew coach approached.

Shockingly, a girl had quit the team and I was on!

My coach, Mark McWhinney with me at graduation.

My coach, Mark McWhinney with me at graduation.

Before I knew it, I was rowing every day, working out and traveling to regattas on the weekends. I’d be lying if I claimed crew wasn’t stressful. The next year, despite having chronic bronchitis, I rowed in the varsity boat and ended the season an undefeated New England champion.

But – winning or losing- crew taught me so much about life.

Rowing’s one of those weird sports. When you watch from the sidelines, it looks so graceful and elegant, boats gliding along in the water. But inside, it’s an entirely different perspective. All you see is the back of the person in front of you, and you just grind away, in absolute agony, praying that you’re almost done.

That was my first lesson, you can do more that you think you can.

I never considered myself terribly strong or capable. In fact, if you’d told me my senior year that my team was going to be undefeated, I would have laughed and said, “No way!”

Because at boarding school, all I ever felt was inadequate. Everybody there was way smarter than me, more athletic, and clearly capable of handling the stress so much better than I was. The recurring image I have when I think about my time there, is of me treading water, trying desperately to keep my head above the water.

But clearly I was capable of so much more. Yes, there were races where my legs hurt so bad that I thought I couldn’t keep going, that I simply had to stop. And yet I didn’t.

Why not? Because I’d be letting all of my teammates down.

Sometimes it takes a willingness to sacrifice yourself to a larger goal.

Which brings me to the second thing I learned: it isn't about me.

I had to surrender myself to be a part of the boat.

In this way, crew is the ultimate team sport. If everyone sitting in that shell is not completely in sync with one another, the boat isn’t balanced, someone will catch a crab, and you can actually grind to a halt.

Instead, when you, as one of nine people, work in complete harmony with each other, listen and feel, and do your job perfectly, the boat practically levitates off the water.

It’s true. And when you feel that, it’s magic.

With good coaching, preparation and concentration, it’s amazing what can be accomplished.

This was the third lesson, the power of preparation.

My coach was serious. Daily, we were on the river, doing drills, mock racing and working out in the boathouse. Every day we were required to give 100%.

When we’d arrive at regattas, he wouldn’t allow us to socialize, we were there to “work.” No chatting with the other teams, heck, we could barely talk to our families! As a team, we were required to wear our uniforms- clean and crisp, white and blue. Then, when we were ready to race, we had a specific routine about how we put the boat in the water and even how we carried our oars.

The preparation we undertook was extremely physical but it was also mental.

In fact, before a race would start, we’d often do a guided visualization. One Saturday afternoon, we were huddled by the side of a lake at St Andrews School in Delaware. Our coxswain laid out the race, first by telling us what lane we were in, who was next to us, etc. I closed my eyes and saw us right in the middle. Blow by blow, she led us through the race.

A half hour later, we were in the boat and the gun went off. Because I sat in the bow, I had the most expansive view, and what transpired was exactly what we had visualized. Not only did we win, but the way the boats spread out… it was uncanny. 

At another regatta in Philadelphia, I sat under a bridge, waiting for the race to start. Cars whizzed by overhead. I was so nervous. This was a giant regatta, high stakes. That’s when I realized I’d stopped breathing and the race hadn’t even started!

This was yet another lesson, to breathe.

Breathing is critical. It oxygenates your body and keeps your muscles from cramping.

I’d stopped breathing because I was so scared. I had to consciously force myself to inhale and exhale and then BANG! We were off.

To this day, I remind myself to breathe.

Sports can really make a difference in life. Despite feeling less than and not terribly capable or athletic, even I succeeded at it. Of course I had supportive teammates and an excellent coach.

In many ways my years at boarding school were some of the hardest of my life, but crew really saved me. Not only did it teach me so many life lessons, it got my off campus every weekend, allowed me to feel successful AND be a part of a team.

What about you? What’s your sport or what great advice did you receive from a coach?

Leave a comment under the blog!

And it isn’t too late! What fun activity can you get involved with today? Pickleball? Tai Chi? Horseback riding?

Having fun and staying active keeps us young. So go have some fun today!

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