Welcome to Princeton, Where You’re Never Too Old to be a Novice

There was a morning this fall that we all met at the boathouse at our usual time, expecting our usual workout, with the usual water and the usual boats. As we all groggily waited for the ok-go from Tom and attempted to position our limbs in ways that vaguely resembled stretching, Tom dropped the bomb that has since defined the way I consider my role at PTC. He said: “I’ll be going with the older group.” Then looking at me and some of my younger, newer cohorts he added, “and novices, Laurel is going to go with you.”
Jaws dropped.
Records scratched.
Novices was a term I hadn’t expected to hear in Princeton, and I certainly never expected to be directed at me or used in reference to my capabilities as a rower ever again. As far as I was concerned, novices were annoying eighteen year old women who erged in basketball shorts and traveled in packs, attempting to seduce the senior men. I was a novice? Really? After four long years of college rowing, three appearances at the NCAA championships, a run on the 2005 U-23 team, hundreds of hours in the pairs, and being captain of my Division I varsity team—I was a novice? I had no idea that this was the case, until that morning. I had known before I arrived in Princeton that I was going to be knocked down a few pegs, and that I was going to be starting from scratch in many ways. But… a novice?

It may have been that Tom’s predisposition to that particular term came from the fact that before the onset of our fall training, the majority of us “new kids” had very little (if any) sculling experience. Tom had warned us that coming in to the fall we were going to be introduced to sculling in a very big way, and the majority of our fall training was meant to be preparation for us to race the singles at the November Speed Order. Accordingly, the other novices and I counted on rowing singles almost every day. The few days that we did not spend in the singles were spent rowing a quad rather unconvincingly.

It is difficult to say which was more humiliating and revealing of statuses as novices: our acquisition of the skills necessary for carrying singles by ourselves, or the state of our hands for the next several weeks. For the first step to becoming a successful sculler is to be in control of your boat at all times and assume sole responsibility for its well-being, seeing as how a single only carries one athlete: you. That means understanding its construction and always being aware of the physical space it occupies in relation to other things in and out of the water. Given the number of times our sculls slipped, bounced, banged, rolled, floated away, collided, and came back to the docks with holes in the bows, our work was far from over in this respect.

On the other hand, so to speak, our boat handling woes were exacerbated by the painful sculling blisters new to all of our delicate sweeping hands. After our rows we would successively peel our hands from our oar grips and clumsily attempt to maneuver our boats from docks to rollers in order to wash them without aggravating our newest and most tender open-flesh wounds (see last entry on chemical content of Lake Carnegie). Then, all that was left was a careful tottering over to the far bays of the boathouse with pursed lips or gritted teeth to just eek the boats onto the racks before we dropped them, struck innocent bystanders, or took flight thanks to a good gust of northerly wind.

The proliferation of our not-so-minor flesh wounds stirred debate as to the most effective method of pain and blood/pus management while trying to complete a given sculling workout and maneuver the boats: some chose classic white athletic tape; some preferred the spongy self-adhesive “power-wrap”; but most popular by far was a method which had both hands almost completely covered in black electrical tape—I simply called them “mittens.” In most cases I am a purist and prefer not to use tape for blisters, but I can tell you with no shame that the lingering sculling blisters I had on my hands during those first few weeks in the fall were the worst I have ever had, and not even the mittens could spare me from shedding a few well-earned tears over them.

Once we all conquered our blisters and our hands became accustomed to death-gripping two oars instead of just the usual one, things progressed quickly. We were able to complete longer distances in our workouts without individual safety launches, or having to stay within shouting range of one another. Sometimes both of our blades went in the water. Sometimes both of them went in at the same time (allegedly). We rarely crashed, and no one ever flipped. I even learned how to carry my boat and my oars at the same time (a skill previously reserved in my mind only for the most seasoned, and coolest sculling athletes). We were pretty slick in those singles. In fact, working up to the Speed Order, I realized I was actually excited to have my first race in the single. It might actually be fun to row a race by myself and only focus on my speed, my rhythm, my technique. Maybe after this race we wouldn’t have to bear the shame of being referred to as “novices” any more because we’d officially be scullers! Racing 7k in any boat should give an athlete at least a small amount of authority or command over the skills needed to row it; this race could serve as a graduation of sorts. We could humbly join the ranks of the “big girls” and really be initiated in to the PTC family.

Of course those dreams were crushed when I became the star of the November Speed Order by crashing into the Harrison Street bridge at the finish of the race, snapping my portside Croker oar cleanly in two.

Graduation indeed.

I didn’t flip after the crash. I sat very very still, hoping to God that a safety launch would find me before the next boat came charging at me in a full sprint. Luckily Mary Whipple and Matt Imes were able to save me from a swim, but not from having to endure some friendly ribbing from my teammates (big girls and fellow novices alike), or having to tell Tom what I’d done to his sculling equipment.

After all of that, I discovered that maybe Tom wasn’t predisposed to the term “novice” simply as it pertained to our sculling abilities. Perhaps I would have liked to have thought that, seeing as how I thought I knew quite a few things about rowing when I showed up at PTC. Like knowing how to row, for example. Or how to steer blind boats around large immovable objects such as bridges. And this is the point in the entry where I could rattle off some very sound moral and philosophical insight as to what it means to be new and inexperienced while training with some of the very best athletes in the world. That would be very profound of me, indeed. But it would also be contrived, which is annoying, and after having read all of that no one wants to finish with being annoyed. So I’ll be honest, which at least counts for something even if it is annoying.

I love being the new kid here. Sure I was initially indignant that Tom called us novices because I thought that I was above and beyond that level of the sport. But what we’re doing here is an entirely different playing field than the one that I had come to know and love in college. And even though I knew Princeton would be different than Washington, I couldn’t know how different until I got here and started living it. Accordingly, my novice experience at Washington and my novice experience in Princeton are going to be different in many ways.

There are days that I feel lost, and that I feel that the people around me take for granted the fact that I don’t know exactly what I’m doing or what a particular adjective means in respect to a workout, or to rowing technique. I don’t fully understand the tics and compulsions of my coaching staff, and on the whole I know very little about my teammates. I don’t always know how fast I should be going or how much weight I should be lifting beyond “as much as I can” since the scores that put me at the top of my college team has me drifting around the bottom of the PTC crew. But I am learning. I am learning every day. Sometimes slowly…and sometimes at a 32, pointed at a bridge piling. But in the spirit of foregoing a multitude of other life-forming educational experiences such as entering the workforce, traveling, or going to graduate school in order to be here, I can say that I am happy to learn at whatever speed each day may offer, and that as long as I’m allowed to stay in Princeton, I’m going to hang tight, keep my mouth shut, pay attention, pull hard, and inevitably, watch out for bridges.

See you out there,

–MK

[This post was originally written for http://www.rowcoachmedia.com%5D
http://rowcoachmedia.com/node/310

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