I carry the picture in my head like a favorite family photograph. The picture is 18 years old now, but the image is still unclouded, the colors vivid, the memory of that moment still startlingly perfect.
I was a senior at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., about to turn 22, and I was attending the last spring practice of my last season as a rower on the school's varsity crew. It seems odd to me now that at that unconsciously youthful time in my life, I could have been so preternaturally conscious of time passing. But I was. My dorm mates in Haven House laughed at me during breakfast every morning of my senior year because I would invariably announce, mournfully, that this was the last January 21, or the last March 20, of my college life. It wasn't funny to me, of course. That sudden, sad realization of loss that most adults have in midlife was mine every day at age 21.
So on this late afternoon in the spring of 1977, as I rowed down the Connecticut River one last time, it occurred to me to take a picture in my mind. The cox of my eight-oared shell had just given the command to "Weigh enough," or, cease rowing. In unison the eight of us stopped, our scats pushed to the back of their slides, our legs extended in front of us. For a second or two I could hear the swoosh of our shell slicing through the water. We sat silently and drifted for a bit, our oars cradled in our laps.
At that moment, as I sat in the bow seat, I said to myself for the first and only time in my life: Remember this, remember what you see and feel, because this is your last time—your last time in this boat, on this river, under this sky. It was then that I noticed the peculiarly immature greenness of the trees along the riverbank and the layers of darkness in the water. Just downriver, off the port side, were mountains known as the Holyoke Range. Atop one peak stood an old abandoned inn, a favorite hiking destination of Smith students. The inn afforded a great view of the Connecticut River Valley, the crisscrossing fields, the oxbow we once rowed on before our new boathouse was built out on the main river, and of course the Connecticut River itself. It is an old river. I had learned that in geology class my freshman year. You can tell a river's relative age by the course it takes: The older it is, the more serpentine, the more meandering its course. The Connecticut River swings out lazily in great wide semicircles, as if elbowing for more room.
Our coach, Miss Benson (she was always Miss Benson), was motoring the skiff nearby. She was in her 60's and she had been a coach all her adult life. Following in our wake, Miss Benson sat hunched in her trademark trench coat, her hand in a death grip around the tiller. The sun, hard against a sailor-blue sky, seemed to sharpen everything around me. I feathered my oar for a moment and watched the water drip quickly, then less quickly, off the yellow blade. We sat there rocking in our slender wooden shell for what in my mind seemed forever. It was important to take the picture just then, to remember, always, the sun on my face and the water lapping softly against the sides of the boat, and these women here, these friends, whom I loved.
I don't remember today how we finished in the races we rowed that spring. I remember very little of any of the races I rowed in college. But I remember the practices. I remember the joy of leaving my books, neatly stacked on my desk in Haven House, for just a few hours; I remember racing my very tall, very athletic friend BJ down to the boathouse. I would complain to her, in mock disgust, that I had to run twice as far as she did because my legs were half as long as hers. Three years later BJ would be invited to the 1980 women's Olympic rowing selection camp.
It was the release of those few hours on the water, all of us straining together against inertia, in the sun or the rain or the cold, that I remember best. It was not about competition. It was not about conditioning. And it certainly was never about a particular race. It was about this gift of grace—about the privilege of being here, together, in this particular time and place.
I will be 40 years old this month, and I remember that grace now, even as I realized it then. Some athletes don't remember such a moment, a few still have never felt it. But most of us did. Most of us do.
Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who while a student at Harvard Law School in the mid-1800s may have rowed beneath the arching bridges that cross the Charles River, was only 43 years old and not yet even halfway through his long life when he remembered: Through our great good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched with fire.