Hey everyone, I’m finally learning how to post my own blogs so I don’t have to rely on “Mommy Sean” to do it for me. ☺ This is an article I wrote in 2003 after US Rowing Club Nationals. Hope you enjoy it. I’ll have another new one up soon – thanks for all your support and kind words.
Desperately Seeking Coolness: A Masters Rower’s Perspective
on the Nationals Buff-Fest
“I’m just here on a tourist visa,” I told Igor, as I purchased my fourth souvenir item, a US Rowing Nationals t-shirt. Igor Belakovskiy, one of my training buddies at Riverside Boat Club, roomed with me at the 2003 US Rowing National Championships in Camden, New Jersey. I explained to him that my wife had given me a limit of no more than one item, and that I had already blown it wide open. I had a visor, a long sleeve t-shirt (slated as a Christmas present), a tie-dyed t-shirt, and now a regular t-shirt. Though I knew I was probably going home to a world of trouble, I felt pretty certain in my belief that racing at Nationals was not something I would be doing again.
First impressions. When I arrived to register on Monday afternoon, I knew something wasn’t quite right. I had that distinct chaperone feeling. I was definitely the only competitor around, that I could see, who had grey hair and crow’s feet. Even worse, my uncoolness was extremely evident. But, other than a few odd glances from the registrars, I didn’t get too many strange looks as I got my packet and headed for our trailer. The Riverside trailer was in a prime spot smack dab in the middle of everything. Jeff Shafer, our intrepid driver, had once again done a fine job. He flew the Riverside and American flags from the trailer, as he always did at away races, using Riverside oars as flagpoles. You could see the trailer from anywhere in the boat area. Unpacking my boat, there was a fun sense of excitement in the air. Walking all around the area, however, were young, extremely buff rowers all of whom were tan. I knew what they had been doing all summer. They were fairly intimidating to me, so I stuck close to the safe haven of our trailer.
On the first morning of competition, I had my first race — the heat for the Men’s Lightweight Intermediate Single. I felt pretty confident, but in the starting area I immediately noticed that the other guys in my race were all extremely muscular, with fancy unisuits, brand-new high-tech boats, and cool shades. They all had crew cuts and were just plain mean looking. Other than my fairly cool Oakley’s, I didn’t really cut it, coolness-wise. I was rowing in my wife’s 10-year-old, never-been-rehabbed, wooden boat. I had on an ill-fitting tank top and old-fashioned crew socks that gave me an extremely uncool tan-line well above my ankles. And, of course, there was not a small amount of gray hair providing some frosting upside my head. I also noticed an air of seriousness at Nationals that was definitely lacking at other regattas. Even the Head of the Charles, a much bigger and maybe even more serious race for the top athletes, has a kind of carnival feeling to it. I noticed this austerity everywhere. Everything is highly regulated and precise. Take the weigh-in. You have to weigh in no sooner than two hours before every race and no later than one hour — if you miss it, you don’t race. When I weighed in the first time, I made some lame joke like “149? Damn, I knew I shouldn’t have had such a big lunch.” They didn’t laugh. There’s not a lot of laughing at Nationals, at least among the US Rowing officials (though they were always cordial).
The serious atmosphere was particularly evident at the starting line. There were launches and umpires everywhere, and a tower in the middle of the six-lane course with several people on it making ominous and somewhat scary-sounding announcements in Darth Vader-like tones (e.g., “eight minutes to go, five minutes to go…” etc.). I observed that other rowers were doing practice starts with eight minutes to go, so I did one – again doing my utmost to try to fit in. But after I did mine, I didn’t want to turn my boat around, row back to the line, and then turn it around again, so I decided to “back it down.” This was a big mistake. It took me quite awhile to get back, and by the time I got there, there was only about 30 seconds to go. The holder grabbed my stern, and I bumbled around, trying to get ready. Before I knew it, the scary announcer had started calling out our names individually, beginning with lane one and ending with lane six. I thought, “Well, that’s nice. After they’re done, they’ll probably say something like, ‘It’s great to see you all here today. We wish you luck and hope you have a fine race.’” That wasn’t quite what happened. About half a second after he read all of the names, the guy said, “ATTENTION, GO!” I barely got out of there, and it was due more to luck than anything else.
Despite the rough start, I held my own in the first thousand meters and was solidly in third place, down to second by about a length or less. I knew I had to come in second to qualify, however, and one of the more buff-looking guys I had noticed at the starting line was ahead of me. Undaunted, I looked around as we neared the half-way point and saw that I was gaining on him. I decided to take a “psychological ten” (a cute little gimmick I thought of on the spot) to pass and, hopefully, demoralize him. That was the plan, anyway. I took ten hard strokes at a higher rating, and it worked. I passed him and he faded in the second thousand. I came in second place in my first race at Nationals and, most important, qualified to go to a semifinal.
Sardines. Our hotel room consisted of four guys occupying a space meant for two. Fortunately, we were in a “suite,” which was slightly larger than the average hotel room. One part of the room had a couch with a fold-out bed, and I brought an air mattress. So, when all the beds were out, there was barely room to walk to the bathroom. There was a small “kitchenette” which was crucial. But these were not exactly Martha Stewarts I was living with, and I can be kind of a neat freak (who me?). In addition to Igor and Sean Wolf, we had Pete Morelli, a very pleasant new member of Riverside who was built like a brick house. He was born around the time I graduated from college. When we weren’t racing, or talking about racing, we were sitting around watching the Tour de France. It made for a pretty single-purposed kind of a week. I ended up doing the dishes practically non-stop — partly to expend nervous energy; partly because I slept next to the kitchenette and the idea of vermin crawling all over me at night was horrifying; and partly because, well, I’m a neat freak.
Traffic problems. Camden is essentially a suburb of Philly, and you can see the downtown skyline easily from the racecourse. In mid-July, it is HOT and HUMID. Even more so than Boston – and that’s saying something. In my provincial Bostonian way, I felt as though we were practically in a foreign country. I recalled my uncle’s joke, “There was once a contest, and the first prize was a week in Philadelphia. Second prize was two weeks in Philadelphia.” The Camden/Mt. Laurel area was an endless wasteland in which you absolutely, positively, could not turn left — anywhere. If you need to make a U-turn (and I needed to make plenty of them), you could only do so if you were willing to drive for about half an hour. There were a few places where, if you read the signs correctly, you could turn right, go through some nondescript neighborhood of houses, and end up at a light which would allow you to turn left and then go the other way. I broke the law quite a few times that week and fortunately, I never got a ticket. Once I crossed over on a dirt path right near a rotary. Sean was with me, and he just stared out the window and muttered to no one in particular, “I don’t know this man, officer, but I think he’s been drinking.”
The last race of the week. By the end of the week, I no longer felt out of place or in the least bit intimidated. I felt more like a dog at the racetrack, actually — throw me in the boat & run me down the course again — I don’t care. Whatever. It was phenomenal experience for me. I had raced five times in four and a half days (including two semifinals) and, by Saturday afternoon, had made it to my only final in the Intermediate Lightweight 2x with my partner, Brian Morabito. Between the semi and the final, we both had had the same epiphany — we felt it was no longer good enough to be in the final: we wanted a medal and felt we had a good shot at getting one. As we approached the finish and heard the screams, it gave us both a surge of strength. We were in it for second place, and we just needed to hold on. The other boat was not giving up at all — they were right there. With the line approaching, Brian gave the signal and we went all out. We got the silver medal by a margin of one second. I could not have scripted a better result. I would have felt lucky to receive any medal, let alone a silver medal. After the race, I was walking with the “kids” who had gotten third place right behind us. I was listing all of the things in our favor, such as not having races in between our semi and our final (all the other boats did), having a good lane with less chop, etc. But then one of the kids turned to me and said, “Yeah, but you guys pulled really well.” That was one of the classiest things a fellow competitor has ever said to me. So in my last race on my last day of a long week of racing, I got to stand on a podium and have a US Rowing official put a medal around my neck. And although for the elite rowers of this world, a silver medal in an Intermediate event at Nationals is small potatoes, it was quite something for me. The best thing was that I got one more trinket to take home with me as a souvenir, and I didn’t even have to pay for it. I thought that was pretty cool.