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I ignored coach Claus's warning and glanced left at the University of Wisconsin's junior varsity boat. No one looked back at me. Only directions droned by the starter interrupted the silence: "Lane three, take a stroke. Lane six, back it down. Lane three again. Let it run, lane three. Lane four, take a very light stroke...."
I didn't think of the importance of this race. I didn't think of the months, even years, of training that had prepared me to row 1,500 meters in the next several minutes. Nor of the May sun warm on my bare shoulders or the breeze gentle on my cheeks. I didn't think. I yawned.
Before us on his platform, the starter was aligning the six boats. Meredith, our coxswain, raised her hand to signal that ours was not ready. "Bow, take a light stroke," she said into the microphone held at her temple by a headband. In response, our boat moved slightly sideways and forward. Meredith's hand went down; we were alert for the start.
"Lane two, back water. Lane two, hold water. All hands are down. All boats are even. This is the start. Are you ready? Ready all! Row!"
Through the sudden frenzy I hear Meredith shout,
"Three-quarters, half, three-quarters, full...."
I pull, oh, how I pull on my oar. Three-quarters of a stroke begins the race, followed by a quick half stroke to develop the momentum and then another three-quarter stroke to effectively leave inertia in our wake. From there the count starts anew, and we stretch out for our first full strokes, sure of the rhythm of a controlled, fast pace. The plan is a 3-15 and settle: Launch the boat with the first three strokes, lengthen and quicken to full speed in the next 15, and then settle the pace while maintaining pressure. By the end of the first 20 strokes, I feel that I have reached my limit.
This is the sprints of the Eastern Association of Women's Rowing Colleges. The first three boats finishing in this heat are rewarded with places in the Grand Final, the last three make the Petit Final. Five minutes have never lasted so long.
Symmetric, even, we skim across lustrous blackness. One last power piece flings us home past a wild dark island, past cozy family sailboats tucked in for the night, past immense sub tenders looming from a pink-lit Navy base. We are direct, true to ourselves and true to each other.
So begins my ode to rowing, penned one evening after a fulfilling, exhausting workout. That night I stretched in my room, depleted yet peculiarly content. Scientifically speaking, chemical endorphins had been released within me during a fierce exercise. I was naturally high and poignantly happy.