Excerpted from Course Correction: A Story of Rowing and Resilience in the Wake of Title IX by Ginny Gilder (Beacon Press, 2015 ). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press. Check out Gilder's conversation with Only A Game's Bill Littlefield.
A well-rowed shell is art in motion. It moves smoothly. Stroke after stroke, oars drop in the water and come out together. The rowers’ bodies swing back and forth in sync, performing the same motion of legs, backs, arms at the same instant; no extraneous shrug of the shoulders, flick of the wrist, turn of the head, shift of the seat. The result—perfectly spaced swirls of water trailing the shell’s wake—offers the only visual cue of the speed these on-water dancers live to create.
It’s a deceptively pretty picture, because an all-hands-on-deck battle rages deep within the head of every rower. Forget the wind and the weather; ignore the crew in the lane next door; the real fight pits your single-minded desire against the trio of your physical limitations, your intellect, and your fear.
During a race, the question always boils down to this: How badly do you want to go fast? How much pressure can your body tolerate as the pain crescendos past uncomfortable to excruciating? How completely can you ignore your rational self, which chooses this moment to conduct an in-depth analysis of the importance of rowing and the imperative of speed? How much fear can you stand when its loud voice shrieks of losing and losers, reminding you how hopeless your dreams are and empty your future?
Depends how desperate you are. Because you love this stupid sport.
When it came to rowing, I was a sucker from the start. The heart wants what the heart wants.
The first time I saw a shell in motion, I was sixteen, a high school junior who had slipped the chains of my fancy boarding school life for the briefest of respites. I stood on the Boston shore of the Charles River watching a meandering race, the synchronic back and forth of the rowers’ bodies; the fluid, controlled motion; the play of light on rippling water and polished wood; and I was a goner.
I can easily imagine what I looked like, a landlubber standing by herself. A brown-haired girl with hazel eyes that sidestepped direct contact, dressed in drab thrift-store clothes and a torn, faded blue-jean jacket. My second-hand clothes disguised an upper-middle-class background, and my usual scowl suggested I was just one more defiant, troublemaking adolescent; only a careful observer would see my face already trained in the practice of worry, the sadness in the downward cast of my mouth, and recognize how out to sea I was. Lost and floundering.
Yellow leaves swished through the air as I watched the boats. The river sparkled in the fall light as they rowed by, dark streaks in the star-studded water. The well-varnished wood hulls were nearly submerged, but none of the rowers seemed to notice. A driver hunched in the back of each boat, issuing orders through a small megaphone held by a thin canvas strap wrapped around his ears. He steered with white plastic handles attached to thin wires that disappeared into the boat’s interior and connected to the rudder in some manner both mysterious and invisible to me on shore. Occasionally he rapped the sides of the boat with the handles, as if for emphasis. Eight rowers faced him, sliding back and forth within their allotted spaces, dropping their oars into the tannin-stained water at the same time, pulling to the end of the stroke, and popping them out.
How do they make it so beautiful? I wish I could do that.
Follow the person in front of you, do what they do, hands extend out in front here, legs compress against your chest there, oars arc into the water now, and you can create beauty. Not just beauty, but harmony, too, reliably predictable. You can count on the future, stroke after stroke, as long as you repeat the same set of motions. An endless circle of perfection. Safe and secure in the knowledge of what will come next.
The calm of the scene washed over me, muting my internal drumbeat of anxiety. I had lived with the constant jibber-jabber of my insides, like a hamster scuttling around scenting hidden danger, for long enough not to notice it anymore. I’d have stoutly denied I was uncertain or anxious if you’d asked. But now, desire pierced me with a stabbing suddenness. I didn’t think about who I was: an asthmatic, uncoordinated city girl with the briefest of sports résumés, on the run from my family story. I wanted in to the world flowing by me: peaceful, controlled, synchronized. Give me a big helping of order and routine, splashed with sunlight dancing on water and everyone pulling together.
A careful observer might have noticed the slow ignition of a new passion as I stood in the autumn sunshine, staring at the oars flicking the water. No jumping up and down, no diving into the water and swimming out to claim a seat; just the creep of anticipation across my face as I turned to the sunrise of a new possibility.
In my delight, I missed the pain etched on the rowers’ faces, and overlooked their labored huffing and puffing. Maybe they were too far away. Or maybe the sunlight shimmering on the water obscured the full picture. Perhaps the constant yelling of the coxswains distracted me: Power ten . . . hard on starboard . . . give way . . . ten for concentration. . . we’re moving, gimme their two seat . . . we’re open water up. The phrases lifted off the water like fog, a foreign language crafted from familiar words. I may not have understood what I heard, but I was mesmerized by the beauty in motion.
It didn’t take long for me to discover the hidden story of that beauty, even though I never thought I’d have a chance to step into a shell, no matter how smitten I was that day. It was 1974. Title IX was barely two years old; the federal legislation mandating equal access hadn’t yet forced open the gates to sports complexes of all sorts to girls and women, commonly viewed as the gentler sex, a euphemism for fragile and weak. Although I didn’t see myself that way, I saw only guys on the river dancing in the sunshine. I didn’t know rowing could be for girls, too. Besides, I had dreamed of escaping my family for years and nothing ever happened to set me free. I had no reason to think the dream of rowing would end any differently. I didn’t know yet that dreams precede reality, a precursor to creating something from nothing.
Six months after that afternoon by the river, I tore open my college acceptance letter from Yale. Weeks later, I mentioned my interest in rowing to my father; maybe I could try it in college. He responded with an offer to buy me a pair of rowing shoes for my upcoming birthday. Neither of us knew that rowers come barefoot to their shells, sliding their feet into shoes bolted into place, a standard feature. We knew so little about what lay before me.
Rowing’s truths were out by the end of my freshman year at Yale. By then I had stumbled into its demanding embrace, succumbed to its brutal glamour, and accepted its preeminence in my life. I was in a full-blown love affair with the sport. I wanted it all. I would do whatever it took to be great.
It took me a long time to understand what propelled my leap into this hard, wet world. Initially lured by unfamiliar beauty, I stayed because I found myself in unexpectedly familiar waters: like the world I came from, this one trumpeted the picturesque, easy on the eyes, but hid the pain, hard on the heart.
I grew up among experts in deception who lived one way behind closed doors and another in open spaces. I knew how to buck up and shut up. I knew all about swallowing hard and putting on my game face. I knew how to swim the oceanic emptiness between private terror and public confidence.
Ornery, brash, successful at keeping the world at bay, yet I felt helpless to defend against the endless internal incursions that undermined my poise. I set myself on course to learn how to be tough, how to protect myself. Best defense: strong offense—that was my life, until rowing launched me on my journey of eventual discovery. Rowing taught me toughness, but it turns out I had much more to learn to row my own race.
Looking back, I see the sirens calling from those flimsy boats. I see why I dedicated ten years to going fast.
It wasn’t about winning or Olympic gold. It was about survival.
Of course, at the time I thought it was all about rowing. And really, for a long, long time, it was.
Excerpted from Course Correction: A Story of Rowing and Resilience in the Wake of Title IX by Ginny Gilder (Beacon Press, 2015 ). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.