By Brenda Bower
Rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I consciously refuse my body the stretch it desperately needs. I’ve been through it all before. The noise of the box spring under the mattress makes me cringe and echoes through the hallway filling my apartment with screaming noise, which, more often than not, wakes up my two roommates. Unfortunately, it’s 5:30 am on a Saturday morning and a deadly sin to wake the girls up at this ungodly hour. Fortunately, I’m already running late, leaving me no time to dwell or despair over the absence of my beloved morning stretch. I’ve got the routine down so innately I can pull drawers open, throw clothing around, fill water bottles and double-check the contents of my bag in seven minutes flat, and without a forbidden sound, no less. One last mental check: keys, wallet, cell phone. I’m out the door and into the cold. Not your average 10am cold, but the 5:45am can’t-breathe-in-because-it-makes-your-nose-burn, dread-riding-your-bike-because-the-winter-wind-numbs-your-fingers kind of cold.
The closer I get to the idling bus, the more welcome is the warmth from its billowing exhaust. Just as the last oxygen molecules are pressed toward my heart, I escape the stench of dirty air and inhale deeply the comparatively cleaner L.A. smog. I make my way aboard the more sanitary comfort of the bus to find my teammates. Comfortable athletes, curled into carpeted chairs, seats reclined and heads turned against the bus windows, tinted to slow the rising sun. Typical rower morning.
Once I situate myself on the bus, I pull out a text for my Political Science class. I’m in slow motion looking at the syllabus, really examining the ink on the pages, a tear in the corner, the roundness of the letter O. Did they use a compass for that circle? It’s so perfect and round and black and I’m closing my eyes and letting the hum of the bus engine lull me back to sleep. Just before a dream, I’m awoken. I’m hit with a feeling of self-control and discipline harder than a shot of caffeine. I’m overwhelmed because at the moment, while the only thing I want to do is close my eyes and stop them from burning so tired I know I have work to do. I feel like the kids in the library who’ve been there all night and just haven’t gone home yet. Then again, yesterday was Friday and how many people were really in the library all night on a Friday?
My attention drifts again, away from Rwandan Nationalism. What if I could be back at the apartment with the girls, under my down comforter? What if my body didn’t constantly remind me of my knotted muscles, and what if there were no blisters on my hands, so that turning the pages of my Poli Sci book wouldn’t make me want to beg for mercy?
I get over my self-pity rather quickly and content myself with knowing that I really choose to do this every morning. In a completely sane and fully conscious state, I manage to wake myself up, dress myself, and get myself to the bus on time. I could be late, or just not show up at all if I wanted. If I really, really wanted. But here I am on the bus, once again on time, dangling my legs over the seat in front of me, imagining that I can feel the lactic acid from yesterday’s workout slowly draining down my knee, into my thigh, pooling in my abdomen. The bus rambles around the bend and I see the woodwork of the boathouse peeking over the boatyard gate. So much for Poli Sci. I still have Sunday.
Girls start streaming off the bus, one by one, with sleepy staggers. A swish, swish sound of forty warm-up pants breaks into the silence. I’m watching the stoic faces of my teammates as they pass in a single file line, most of them now realizing they shouldn’t have gone out the night before, and it makes me think of a German military regime. We’re dead silent in our walk, and completely uniform in our Nike gear. All we’re missing is the training grounds of a base camp and formation orders blaring through a megaphone. I manage to squeeze into the masses and make my own way off the bus with a little swish, swish.
“The girls next to me whisper under their breath that the secret to the European motivation is rather simple. You’d row fast as hell too if you’re alternative option was to be sent back to your homeland to farm potatoes.”
A crowd of girls are gathering by the announcement board just inside the boathouse, so I take a seat on the floor at the other end of the meeting room and finally get to stretch. I’m avoiding the announcement board, and its posted results, for as long as I possibly can. We had a timed practice race on the erg machines the day before yesterday with Coach standing behind us. For a minute in the middle of the 1,000 meters I started praying for an asthma attack. Or at least nausea so severe I would throw-up all over the stupid monitor flashing my score every five hundred meters. I had imagined my coach would be so impressed. He would kneel beside me in awe. Never had he seen anyone pull with such vigor, he would say, submitting my body to extreme amounts of pain for the love of the team, for the love of the sport. I would beg to get back on the machine, faintly pleading him to let me finish my race. I would pass in and out of consciousness, heroic athlete that I am. But of course, that’s not how it happened. By the end of my daydream I had four hundred meters to sprint. Coach had already moved down the line to watch a couple of other girls finish before me. Heroic athlete I am not. Not this time at least.
Two of the girls come to stretch near me and assure me that I did ok. They laugh about the way the results read down the announcement board by last name, fastest first. Dacheva, Gachevska, Labzin, Darschkova. Obviously, foreign recruits are fast. Of course we’re jealous of the Europeans taking our spots in the boats. This is, after all, an American University. It’s hard to see the American part at a Regatta though, which basically breaks down to the Pac-10 schools racing their eight fastest rowers, seven of them from places like Moscow and Berlin. The girls next to me whisper under their breath that the secret to the European motivation is rather simple. You’d row fast as hell too if you’re alternative option was to be sent back to your homeland to farm potatoes. Amusing comment, and probably true, but all is fair in war and competition.
We go for our warm-up jog, and this time, the mass of red Nike gear is anything but uniform, more like chaos. Girls running on all sides of the street, different paces, some turning around early to head back to the warmth of the boathouse, others determined to make it all the way to the end. The faster I run the quicker my breath warms the collar of my sweatshirt. My hood is pulled down tight; only my eyes are showing, watering from the wind. I’m so impressed with all of us, foreign or not, for doing this. These girls in red are the girls that will pull my weight in a boat. I trust every one of them to not give up for two thousand meters, and I’m thankful they make it to the bus each morning on time. That’s dedication. That’s discipline, too. Whether you’re from the Czech Republic, Poland or Los Angeles, muscles, endurance, pain, and teamwork all mean the same.
Stretching circles are forming when the last of the joggers returns and oars are being taken to the dock. Coach is fiddling with his clipboard, writing and immediately scribbling out. Writing again, and scribbling out. He looks intense. His bushy brows fold over his eyes in a weird, intimidating way. We’re all nervous to hear the interpretation of the race results, and I wonder why we take it so seriously.
Of course this is a better option than moving back to the poverty of a Lithuanian village. But I’m not from a Lithuanian village. I’m attending college on academic scholarships, and I’m never going to row for the Olympics. Why am I here, making myself sick just reliving the feeling of the race the other day? The faces of the other girls, equally pale, expressions equally ponderous, makes the corners of my lips turn up. I can’t help but smile at our circumstance. I can’t help but stifle a laugh at the way rowing is life for Coach. And to me, the only important thing I can sift from it all is that here, all, these girls, unsuccessfully trying to bend and loosen their muscles, frozen stiff, deprived of sleep, with papers to write and assignments to read, sincerely care about a score on a bulletin board.
My illusion of becoming a heroic athlete now seems embarrassingly humorous. I know I don’t come here for the honor or the recognition. I will never be faster than a six foot four inch Bulgarian girl who is rowing for her life. And if my score isn’t amazing, I won’t be deported back to poverty and face disappointing my country. But I genuinely know this does not make my own pain and sacrifices any less valid, or rightfully earned. My legs have squatted metal bars just as many times as the Russian’s. My arms have carried oars and washed boats and tightened riggers right alongside the arms of the Russian. Besides a score, we’re equals, and none of our sweat smells good.
“Millions are obsessed with the NBA and millions bet cash on college football, watching religiously every Sunday, but who wrinkles the sports page in desperation, trying to find the results of the Royal Canadian Henley Regatta?”
I’m feeling a strain under my knees as I reach forward in my yoga-like stretch. The pull isn’t unbearable so I push it further. Will my muscles snap if they go too far? Will my tendons separate and my legs fall apart? Apparently I’m willing to take that risk, because for five more seconds I lean one inch further and hold. Breathing in and out I know it won’t hurt so bad in five seconds. Five. Four. I must pay attention not to fool myself from seeing the real absurdity of what I’m doing right here. Three. Two.
Maybe two of the girls in this room will row in the Olympics for their country. That’s two out of forty-five. What is there for the rest of us after graduation? No more morning weight sessions, no more erg tests that make you want to throw up. And what will I have to show for it?
Aside from those on the East Coast who embrace the tradition of Harvard and Yale rowing like an upper middle-class sub-culture, no one even knows what crew is. Millions are obsessed with the NBA and millions bet cash on college football, watching religiously every Sunday, but who wrinkles the sports page in desperation, trying to find the results of the Royal Canadian Henley Regatta? Let’s face it. My entire time spent in this boathouse is not going to compress into some amazing conversation starter I’ll be able to pull out for the purpose of networking at lavish company dinner parties ten years down the road. I won’t continue to train into my thirties, still striving for that National Masters Gold Medal. And I most certainly will grow out of this free Nike gear.
The absurdity of working out to the extreme baffles my mind. We’re pulling a wooden stick through breaking waves to cross a line of fluorescent orange buoys first. Our eyes burn from sea salt and sweaty sun block dripping, torturing, cutting into our pupils, but we can’t let go of the oar to wipe it away. We can’t feel our legs pumping or our muscles bulging, because immediately after the start, our bodies are thrown into anaerobic shock. It’s living with this commitment we’ve made and pushing ourselves beyond any point we have ever been, or will ever be again, that makes it worth it. Winning a race won’t make us rich, or feed starving children in Sri Lanka. No one around campus is asking us for our autographs and ESPN isn’t waiting in the wings for an interview.
I sit here on the concrete floor of the boathouse, listening to warm-up pants swish, feeling my calves stretch, watching Coach flip through his line ups. I almost feel the vibrations of the low murmur of voices of the girls all around me. Pieces of conversation stand out, namely, what club did you go to last night, don’t you hate that professor from bio 310, should we hit up that American Eagle sale after practice. These girls have lives outside the gates of this boatyard. Our legs may be tired, but they’re strong for dancing. Maybe we have sacrificed a part of our life to our sport, but it’s not a sacrifice in vain. Someday my babies will wake me up at 4am and I’ll remember then, as I rock them back to sleep in the dawn, the way glassy water made the brightest of morning suns a little less bright. My back and bones will hurt with old age, knees reminiscent of squats and sprints, but I’m ready for that pain. It will be my proof that after all, my tendons are still holding my body together.
About the Author:
Brenda is a senior Psychology major and Communication Law and Media Policy minor at the University of Southern California. A three year NCAA Division I Varsity athlete, USC McNair Scholar, and past board member for the Forensic Psychology Club, she hopes to begin working on her JD/PhD next fall, pursuing Government Studies and Juvenile Law.