Be Scared & Do It Anyway: How I Discovered Rowing & Started Living
Written by Rebecca Martin
Rebecca Martin is a journalist and editor who has spent the last few years in communications. Although most often found in a boat, she is currently challenging herself to a full year of no fear, meaning that she has engage in all sorts of things that would normally freak her out. Like responsibility.
I’ll be honest with you, for most of my life, when it comes to sports, I have been a bit of a coward. For at least thirty years, I successfully avoided anything that involved objects being thrown, kicked or in any other way aimed at me, as well as anything to do with the outdoors, or you know…mud, dust or dirt in general. Besides, being competitive was a risk. Because if you engaged in competition, you might lose. And THAT would be embarrassing.
Exercise really only had one purpose for me and that was to make me look good. Growing up, I did ballet. During the mid 90s I discovered aerobics. After having my two children in 2005 and 2010, hot yoga. It was hard. It was hot. It felt like a punishment. And together with a low carb diet, it DID make me look good.
In my late thirties, newly arrived in London after 14 years in Stockholm, I found myself feeling adrift. Every day I commuted into the city. Crossing the river, I would see (tall) people pushing off pontoons into the swirls of the Thames. Curious, I found a rowing club that was running a Get Fit To Row course. I knew nothing about competitive rowing apart from the Boat Race (Go Cambridge!). But the idea of getting fit appealed to me and the fact that it was loosely connected to rowing made it sound a bit more interesting than hot yoga (which frankly was getting a bit of a bad reputation at the time). There was no way I could have known, when I turned up to the first session, as I was baulking at the 1K WARM UP RUN (warm up? I was exhausted), that this was the beginning of what would be one of the most passionate relationships of my life.
Rowing is a funny sport. When you run an introductory course, it is almost never the eager beavers from the first session that will join the club past course completion. Every now and again, you'll get a cohort of newbies where the majority battle through, but most often very few remain after graduation. Out of those that do stay on, only one or two MIGHT be bitten by the bug so bad that it will change their lives.
In my case, I completed the first course (which basically qualified me to row a decent 1K on the rowing machine and MAYBE carry a couple of oars correctly), went on to the next one (where we actually got to sit in a boat) and suddenly found myself a fully paid up member of the club and signed up for my first race (we came last). If you would have asked me why, I would not have been able to answer. I hated it. I was not a natural. I spent a year being nervous and miserable. I knew I wasn’t very good and more painfully, so did everyone else.
There were many opportunities to call it a day. On our first winter camp I was told upon arrival, together with a few others, that we would not be joining the rest of the crew in their prep for head race season. We weren’t even good enough to be considered for the 3rd (and worst) boat. Instead we would be learning to scull (row with two blades) with one of the assistant coaches. Every lonely lap around the wintry lake with the kind but uninterested coach running on the shore made me fall further down the hole of no-hope. But round the lake I sculled, regardless. When the races came around, it turned out most of my cohort were unable to make time for them and I found myself in the 3rd boat in every head that season. I wish I could say I was triumphant, but really, I was terrified.
Although I was (sort of) happy to even be there, life in the 3rd boat was far from glamourous. We didn’t really see coach much, but when we did, he would sigh and tell us just to do our best. During the most important head race of the season, the club chairman scheduled a boat naming ceremony at a time which meant that our boat would neither make it back in time to take part, nor have the club support while rowing past on our way down the Championship course. Credit to the amazing lady, whose name was to grace the new Hudson shell, that despite the Chairman’s wishes she insisted on waiting for the 3rd boat and joined in the cheering as we struggled past the club at what is mentally a very difficult point in the race down toward Putney.
In my first year of rowing, I often found it difficult to meet the minimum training requirement due to work and family commitments (at the time, both my children were still in primary school). Everyone else seemed to be at the club every day. I just couldn’t do that. Why not just quit, I asked myself. You are rubbish. YOU know it. THE OTHERS know it. COACH says it quite openly.
But somehow, this was just not an option. I might not be good, I told myself, but maybe I could get better, given the right circumstances. Maybe I could do it somewhere else.
I took my first trial session with my current club a month or so later. Coming off the water, I knew I had made the right choice. At first, it helped that the minimum training requirement at my new club was somewhat lighter, although it soon became clear to me that you would only get out of the training what you put in. Before I knew it, I was training twice, if not three times, as much as I had done before. I had found my tribe.
Today, I am Deputy Captain for my club. I train 6 days out of 7. I have lost a lot of races, won a few, and I know what it feels like to see Temple Island disappear in the distance on a hot day in June at Henley. (Although, full disclosure, we were 2 seconds off qualifying for HWR) Am I professional athlete - no. Am I going to be an Olympian - no. But rowing has had as big an impact on my life as having my children, if not more.
During the last few years, I have learned a lot about what it takes to bring out the best in people, how to motivate them to identify and reach their goals, to develop grit and stamina. Rowing has made me both a better team member and a better leader - skills I have undoubtedly benefited from in my work. It has made me trust my abilities in more ways than just on the water and helped me find the courage to do things I would never have done otherwise. But I have also struggled a lot with direction and purpose, questioning why I am persevering with this strange sport that hurts so bad and that asks so much of me.
I have seen many people come and go, often wrestling with the same questions. Many have found the lifestyle impossible to reconcile with the partner track at work or the demands of family life. When people ask me how I manage training at this level with work and kids, my answer is in two parts. I have spent the last few years pursuing the kind of work life that suits me, choosing only those paths that will take me closer to the balance that I need. With varying results and consequences.
If my kids need me, I will drop everything and be there immediately. If they want me to come with to a competition or event, I will plan ahead and make sure I am there. But on a day to day basis, they might see me a little less than they otherwise would. I will just have to live with the knowledge that this is a choice I have made. My son is now rowing four times a week, and I take this as a good sign. My daughter wrote in her diary “My mum is the strongest person I know. She is a superhero.” This made me cry (and totally made up for the guilt of reading her diary).
So what do I, what do we, get out of it? As many other things in life, I suspect it is individual, but for me it is a mix of belonging, performing, surprising myself, and finding a new purpose at a time of life where many question the context of their existence. For many it is the first step away from a life that no longer serves them, whether this is caused by a breakdown in relationships or disillusionment with their life choices so far. Some start out wanting to lose weight. Others, like myself, end up finally eating carbs and gaining a stone. (All muscle though, I tell myself).
The one thing we all have in common is the need to get on the water, the need to feel the run of the boat, to lose ourselves in the flow of several bodies suddenly moving as one. In rain, in sleet, in sunshine. With blistered hands, aching limbs and soggy lycra, soaked through by sweat and wash.
We need to cackle at dirty jokes in the changing rooms and to share the pain of an hour’s slog on the rowing machines. We need to know that we will power through even when we feel like dying and we need to dare to trust other people in a way we haven’t trusted anyone since we were children. We need to watch the sun rise and set over the river we need friends that become family, and we need to go away on camp and eat like we've never seen food before and talk and laugh late into the night.
We also need to see what we are capable of when it really matters. Together.
This is why we row.