I’ll never forget how smooth the St. Lawrence River was when we went to the boathouse for the last time. It was March, a few days before we departed campus for online learning. We were there to put away the boats that were supposed to be heading to Florida for our training trip over spring break, but we could have rowed right then and there in Waddington.
North Country winters are fierce, and the ice on the river is typically thick until long after spring break, even in April. Our spring season is usually a waiting game of “when will the river be ready?” I like to think that the glassy, ice-free water was the river’s way of sending us off.
Our program is unique because of our limited water time. Many of our competitors are just a few hours south, but that small difference in latitude results in several more weeks of time on the water. They get more time to practice technique. In turn, we spend more time training indoors. The St. Lawrence River is windy, too. So windy, in fact, we have a boat named the Cold North Wind. But as our head coach Nick Hughes reminds us, rowing is not a beauty contest; it’s a race. And we are more fit and grittier than nearly every other crew.
At first glance, this spring wasn’t what I expected my last semester at St. Lawrence to be. But, it didn’t take long to realize that, in some ways, this spring has revealed one of the qualities that defines our team: responding to adversity with grace, humor, strength, and love. Perhaps the events were unusual, but nothing about our team’s response has been surprising.
I love rowing because it challenges the individual in the deepest way. In a race or a hard practice, rowing seems to set off panic alarms in your brain and you need to choose how to respond to them. “Poise” is a word we use a lot on our team. Our ultimate goal is to learn how to respond to pain and difficulty with a clear head and quiet confidence: to learn how to keep pushing.
To do this, we need to trust ourselves and our teammates. We race in boats of eight or four people, and the most successful crews do everything in unison. They put their oars in the water at the same time, they take them out at the same time, they “swing” on their hips together, and they push their legs together. This level of connection requires us to be connected outside of the boat as well.
Every one of my favorite rowing memories has to do with my teammates. I love them because we’re able to have fun with each other, but also push one another. We challenge each other to be better athletes and teammates because we care and have a shared purpose. It’s imperative that we go out of our way to show we’re invested in each other. It can be as simple as sharing a meal or a laugh together. Just like a family, you can’t choose your teammates. But you can choose to respect and love them, because even the teammates who differ from you the most are working toward a common goal.
Rowing requires you to be attuned to your surroundings. What is the coxswain telling me? What is my body telling me? What is the feeling of the boat telling me? In a way, it challenges you to give up your sense of self in pursuit of collective success. There aren’t any individual heroes in rowing, because if it’s going well, everyone in a boat looks exactly the same.
I think a lot of people wonder why we row. We spend more time sweating away in the erg room than actually on the water. We wake up early and do a lot of work that no one sees. But I think this situation we find ourselves in this spring has helped provide an answer; rowing teaches us that we can do hard things.
As a team, we’re quite skilled at making Plan B look attractive. When things didn’t go our way, we got to work. Since coming home, we’ve collectively run hundreds of miles. We’ve biked, done bodyweight workouts, and made do.
It doesn’t really matter what the situation is, whether it is an opposing team trying to pass us or a wrench in our plans. The choice is important. Do you double down and rise above, or surrender to the circumstance? Rowing challenges you to set goals and find purpose, and then go do it. It asks you, “If not today, when?”
This spring has reminded me how lucky I am to be surrounded by supportive and tenacious people. I treasure what we’ve shared—the great successes and the times we’ve fallen short, because there are ways to grow from both.
I think this defines who we are as a program and maybe St. Lawrence as a whole. The people who are successful here are the ones who thrive when challenged. They are the type of people who are unafraid of hard work and are deeply invested in one another. They can have fun even in tough situations and commit to being there for each other. It requires courage, dedication, and a passion for what you’re doing. It’s not easy, but that’s not what we were looking for anyway.