I had never raced for money before, nor to improve my bargaining position with sponsors. I race to uncover the person I really am, to provide a reason for my existence other than making money and aspiring to a nice house. Rowing has given me a safe arena to work off my anger.
I had never won a major single-sculling race east of the Santa Ana Freeway. Most of my success had come in team boats, the double scull and quadruple scull. The single scull is much harder, and in 20 attempts I had beaten Tiff only twice.
I kept telling myself that I didn't need the money. Just relax. Enjoy the pleasant company of my rowing friends. But my anger was starting to take over.
A thousand meters is only half the Olympic distance, and into this head wind I figured it would take about 3� minutes to complete. A man can go through a lot of changes in 3� minutes—a raging bull might crash and burn 10 strokes before the finish line. Should I try to lead from the first stroke, I wondered, or hang back and let the others burn out? About 10 seconds before the start I made my decision: keep close to the leader and when the time was right, blow on by.
All six racers were firmly locked onto their stake boats, moored boats that serve as starting-line markers. I have always enjoyed the twilight zone right before the start when everything is quiet—library quiet. The referee's launch had stopped growling and the racers were pointed toward the finish line. From this perspective the finish looked about a mile beyond the horizon.
Through his megaphone the starter barked the international starting command: "�tes-vous pr�ts? Partez!"
I rowed carefully off the line. First 10 strokes for technique, I told myself, just like in the Olympics. Out of the corner of my eye I could tell that Greg and Kujda had jumped on it, and after a minute I chanced a look at them. They were both a length or more ahead. Tiff was even with me, and Paul and the other finalist were way back. I couldn't believe the way Kujda was sculling; maybe there was less wind in his lane. He was really flying. But anyone can hold his breath for a minute—the second minute is where the fun begins.
I took a few deep breaths as I passed the 500-meter mark and then I started to lean on it. Head down. Lean on it. Think dead lifts. Try to snap the oars with a powerful drive. Lean on it more. The gap between Kujda and myself was closing and I could hear the spectators screaming at the finish line. Greg had run out of gas and now was a length behind. So was Tiff. Kujda was still leading, but not by much. Fifteen strokes left.
I didn't need the money, I needed to win. Take the anger and funnel it through the oars and into the water. Make it work for me. I thought squats: 315 pounds, 15 repetitions, all the way down, head up, eyes forward, no looking around. It must have seemed to Kujda that a dozen gold bricks had been dropped into the cockpit of his boat. The thought of all that money had to weigh him down. Ten more strokes. I took it higher. My little stroke meter was off the scale—I left it at 39 strokes a minute and now it was at 44. Water was flying—it was really rough and very easy to lose an oar. That must have been what happened to Greg. He and Tiff were way back. Paul and the other finalist were probably talking about where they should eat breakfast. The fight was between Kujda and me. He needed the money. The only thing I felt was anger. Two more strokes. Head down. One more explosion. Then I heard the finish-line judge call, "One! Two!" It was that close.
A few seconds later I heard Kujda slapping the water and cursing in Polish. That told me the whole story. Someone on the finish line said to me later that I passed Kujda in the last two strokes.