Tuesday, September 12, 2006

To stroke or not to stroke

Last night, at rowing, I had to cox. The coxswain (often shortened to "cox") sits in the stern and steers the boat. She encourages (yells at) the rowers during a race or gives auxiliary instruction during a practice. Ideally, the coxswain is a small person because you want to minimize the extra weight you have to row around and the seat for the coxswain is very narrow. Our club doesn't have a "dedicated" coxswain so the rowers have to take turns. Sometimes, someone will volunteer, but if not, there is a rotation. It's been months since I coxed so I was planning on taking a turn this week. For a while, I've only been able to practice three times a week—that's the minimum number of times I want to row a week. This week, I knew I could make it to four practices so I figured I'd cox once and still get in three practices.

I don't remember if I've mentioned Betsy, but she's someone on the team who I really like. For a while, she was sculling, but last night, she was back with our group. She was very friendly and I was pleased. In the past, I'd engaged in some gentle teasing and joking asides with Betsy, but I wasn't sure if she thought I was funny or annoying. Last night, she made some jokes of her own. And she asked me if I'd stroked. (Why are so many rowing terms near-double entendre?)

I've always wanted to stroke, but I've rarely been selected for the job. The stroke sets the pace for the boat. She sits in the stern (which feels like the front of the boat) and the other rowers are behind her. The stroke has be steady and have excellent technique. It's a tough position and a lot of pressure.

I've always considered myself to be a technique rower. I'm reasonably strong compared to non-rowers, but I'm definitely below average strength for a rower. As a competitive rower, I had two things going for me: consistency (I never missed practice) and technique.

After my first year of competitive rowing at Chapel Hill, I went home to Seattle for the summer. I joined an intermediate team (much like the group I row with now). When the coach found out that I'd spent the last year in a collegiate rowing program, he put me right in the boat. I also told him I wanted to change sides—I'd been a starboard, but I wanted row port. Fine, he said. And that summer I became a port. I also became the stroke of my boat. At the end of the summer, we rowed in a small regatta at Greenlake and my boat won our race, with me at stroke. It's the only race I've ever won. The ribbon is on my fridge at home.

When I got back to Chapel Hill in the fall, my switch to port guaranteed me a spot in the boat, as I'd anticipated. (We'd had a shortage of ports at the end of the school year—I took a gamble on who would return in the fall.) It also opened the possibility of a move to stroke. My coach knew I wanted it. We had three eights that fall. I sat four in the "B" boat. The coach planned to move me to stroke in the spring, when he would likely combine the B and C boats after some rower attrition.

Unfortunately for me, we didn't have two eights in the spring. Only nine rowers and one coxswain came back. I sat six in that boat—it was basically the A boat rowers and me. I stayed at six all spring. The ninth rower who didn't have a seat in the eight was also a port. (Why I was in the eight and she wasn't deserves its own post. Short version: she was stronger, I was more reliable. Reliable was rewarded.) She had a seat in the lightweight four, our winning-est boat. I liked sitting six and I was only a little disappointed that I didn't get to stroke my own boat. The coach even apologized, but I understood.

The next year, there was a new varsity group (the returning novices from the previous year) and only a few of my varsity class were left. I was in a four with three of the new varsity women. And, finally, I was stroke. Unfortunately, our new coach was a macho ass and spent almost no time coaching us. I had very little experience in fours or stroking. After our first regatta, where I stroked a terrible race, I'd had enough and I finally quit the team. I hated the coach and I needed to finish my MA thesis.

I must have told some of this to Betsy, because when she saw me on Monday, she was hoping I'd gotten a chance to stroke. I told her, no. Rowers more experience than me were around and that it was only right that they stroked. Then I looked around at who was on the dock that day and I said, "Well, if I were going to stroke, today would probably be the day."

Betsy said, "You should!"

"We'll see. If Mary or Chris is here, one of them will stroke."

"Oh, but you should!"

When the coach arrived, her first question was, "Who wants to cox?'

Betsy said, "She does!" And pointed to me.

The coach said, "You know, you have to cox, just for saying that!"

I had to laugh. I said, "It's ok. It's my turn anyway."

Betsy said, "No, no, I can do it if you don't want to."

"No, it's ok, really. I was planning to take a turn this week anyway." I walked into the boathouse to get the cox box. A couple of minutes later, Betsy ran into the office and said, "I'm so sorry! I thought she said stroke! I wanted you to stroke, not cox! I can cox, really, I don't mind." She seemed distressed.

I was amused. "No, no, it's really ok. It really is my turn. Anyway, we don't get to volunteer to stroke. And Chris is here, so he always strokes."

The coach walked in and said, "That's right, you don't get to volunteer to stroke."

Betsy said, "But sometimes…"

But no. You can refuse to stroke. You can't request to stroke. After you are a well-established presence on a team, it is barely acceptable to suggest that you would be willing to stroke. I told my old coach that I'd changed sides and stroked a winning race over the summer. He got the message.

I've stroked once since I started with my current club and I was slated to stroke a four at a regatta in June, but the boat was scratched. Eventually, if I'm consistent, if I continue to improve my technique, if I keep showing up, I will get a chance to stroke. But probably only in a women's boat. Why? Because I'm short! All those tall men would have a hard time following me, even if I have the slowest slide in the world. Then again, we won't know until we try.

I didn't mind coxing too much even though I can't steer a straight course to save my life. I considered not hitting anything a triumph. And tonight and tomorrow and the next day, I'm rowing, as is only right.

Grateful for: opportunities.

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