I rowed for about two years at UNC (including two summers in Seattle). I quit in the middle of my fifth semester (that is another story!). The first year, I was in a novice class of 100 women. By the end of that semester, we were 70. By the end of the year, maybe 50 were left.
The second year, 30 or so of us returned and moved up to the varsity squad. We got to buy jackets. I wore mine constantly when I first got it.
By my fourth semester, we were down to nine rowers and one coxswain.
Nine is an awkward number.
The solution was to break the eight into fours and have one rower out of the fours and one rower out of the eight.
I always had a seat in the eight. The port who was out of the eight had a seat in our lightweight four. The lightweight four was our best boat because our lightweights were tall and strong. (The cut-off for lightweight women is 135lbs.)
I had a seat in the heavyweight four (two, not stroke), but sometimes the coach put a starboard rower (she had to switch sides) in my seat in the four because she was stronger than me. Even though I would have liked to row in both boats, I was satisfied with my seat in the eight.
We never talked about it, but I knew the woman who was out of the eight was not happy about it.
I also had a pretty good idea why I kept my seat. I had a talk with one of the coaches during spring training that year (a week at a rundown "resort" motel in Cocoa Beach, FL on the Intercostal Waterway). I was expressing some doubts about my place on the team. I said, "Why am I still here?"
He said, "Because you're tough."
I'd never thought of myself that way. During my time on crew, I'd become strong. Dealing with the physical exhaustion, especially during the first year was daunting. Crew was the sport people chose because it was the hardest thing you could do at the club level. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I had no experience at all in competitive sports (except 8th grade basketball and 4th grade summer softball).
But the mental part might have been harder. I was almost completely shut out of the team's social life. I wasn't despised or ridiculed, I was just not considered. I had my own, independent social life so I wasn't lonely. And, for much of the first year, I dated a guy on the men's team. Yet most of the women formed close friendships with their teammates and I never did. (I was friends with two women during the first year: Pam and Kathleen. Pam quit at the end of the first semester. Kathleen quit after the first year.)
My coach also said, "You have be an example to the team."
"Me? How's that?"
"Yes, you are a leader. By always being there, you are an example."
I don't know if I was a leader, but by my second year—just by the fact that I returned—I gained some respect from my teammates. By then, they all knew that I'd never done competitive sports and they respected that I'd stuck with it for so long. That I didn't complain. That I was always there. That I'd grown stronger—they noticed a physical change in me. They knew I was busy, that grad school was harder than undergrad (heh), but there I was.
And the ninth rower? She was a slacker and everyone knew it.
Once she showed up late for practice eating an ice cream cone. She rolled up in her boyfriend's fancy red sports car and sauntered down the road to the dock—eating an ICE CREAM CONE. This was wrong on two levels. One, we were on this "don't eat too much dairy" kick. In particular, dairy two hours before practice was a big no-no.
More importantly, though, she was late to practice and she had stopped ON THE WAY to practice to buy an ice cream cone while the rest of us were waiting.
We said, "Where were you? We're ready to go."
"Oh, sorry." Her apology was about as sincere as her rush to get to the dock.
While most of the others had been friends with her, she alienated everyone with the ice cream business and the incredibly obnoxious, rich boyfriend who rowed in high school (but mysteriously never joined the men's crew at UNC) where "it was so much more intense than Chapel Hill." Well, you know what you can do with your elite Northeastern boarding school crew? I think you know. What an ass.
At one regatta that spring (post ice cream incident), our coach didn't show. Some of the women wanted to change the line-ups for the fours—which would put me out of the boat. Someone pointed out, "Dave [the coach] gave us these line ups. We shouldn't change them." She was ignored and the others decided to vote. They voted to place the starboard rower in my seat. No one looked me in the eye. I was furious. I didn't say anything.
Later on the same day, perhaps emboldened by the voting, Jessica said, "I don't know why I'm not in the eight. Why did Dave do that?" I said nothing. I looked at her and thought, "Fuck you too." No one else said a word.
On the ride home, I was feeling bad. I felt guilty because Jessica was stronger than me—her erg times were better—and maybe she should have been in the eight. The girls in the car said, "Look, we know why you're in the boat. NO ONE has a problem with that. You work hard. She doesn't. You put in the time and we can see how far you've come. You deserve that seat."
And that was that. We never spoke of it again.
I've always been grateful for that my hard work, my effort, meant more to my teammates than having a potentially stronger rower in the boat. They didn't want to deny me—and they didn't resent me—even though it might have cost them some wins. Is it common to find teammates like that? I doubt it. I was very lucky to find out how they felt. I still miss that group sometimes.
Grateful for: my old teammates.
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