All’s Fair in Love and Rowing

Another Valentine’s Day has come and gone. This year, I got to spend it on a 155-acre athletic compound, romantically isolated from civilization along with several dozen other elite athletes. The center’s Valentine-card workshop, strategically-placed baskets of chocolate and cookies, and then the ongoing “Slow Jam” satellite radio feed blaring through the main foyer of the dining hall had me feeling like the OTC staff were hoping to help things along for those of us stuck on-site. My only Valentines came from my teammates this year, but in light of their thoughtfulness I realized that not every Valentine’s Day I’ve had since becoming a part of the rowing community has gone as smoothly and without incident as V-Day 2007. And so I began a minor meditation on rowing romances, and how their comings and goings play a not-so-minor part in our experience with the sport.

When I began rowing one of the very first things I noticed in spending time at the boathouse was how tall the men were. And fit, too. That combined with the rowers’ tendency to wear primarily as little spandex and other close-fitting clothing as possible, had me realizing before long that I had found home. Despite my joy at having discovered my own personal man-candy mecca, I swore early on that I would keep a look-but-don’t-touch policy: dating my teammates was only going to cause undue annoyances and distractions that I just didn’t need. Based on the Monday-morning gossip I eavesdropped every week from my female teammates, I kept reassuring myself that I was making the right decision. Crew boys were nothing but trouble.

Maybe it was the beautiful Seattle sunshine. Maybe it was the excitement of my first racing season. Maybe it was just time to get my hands dirty. Whatever it was, my determination to avoid crewcest was shattered in May of 2003, after surviving nearly an entire year without faltering. He was charming, blonde, irresistibly cute, and a freshman. I was exuberant for a few months, and then it ended quite badly. A lot of self-dosed I told you so’s and bitter head-shaking later, I did it again. This time a tall, attractive senior, with whom the highlight of our friendship came in my swatting away a leggy freshman girl inconveniently attached to his face at the 2004 Windermere Cup party. Things only got worse before they finally got better, and I met my first rower who decided it was ok to treat me well. Two years later I moved to Princeton and had to leave him behind, while I hurtled headlong into what I envisioned would be akin to a kind of human candyland.

I was a little disappointed. Unlike my college boathouse community, for the most part the men’s and the women’s teams stay pretty segregated while we are in Princeton. I mentioned in an earlier post that the men have been training at the Mercer Lake Training Center for the past several months, while we have been training solely at PTC. Likewise, the men’s trip to San Diego was staggered with ours so that they returned to Princeton the day that we were supposed to arrive in California. Fortunately, every once in a while we are able to see some of the men’s team socially outside of practice hours. As a group, rowers don’t seem to hesitate in taking full advantage of what little free time we get, so with few exceptions these gatherings of both sides in their civilian clothing are when rowing romances tend to crop up. And so there are a number of national team couples currently working together in Princeton spanning all sides, genders and weight classes.

Rowers choosing rowers has never surprised me, for a few reasons:

  • Most people have heard about Time magazine’s cute little quote about “physiological changes in certain hormone producing metabolic pathways during aerobic and anaerobic exercise [which make] swimmers and rowers […] the most sexually active athletes.” Biology aside, this has always made sense to me since we work out twice a day, every day, during which time we are wearing spandex or less, and oftentimes staring directly at ourselves in full-length mirrors. Erging utilizes most of the major muscle groups so every stroke is, in effect, a rippling, rhythmic full-body flex repeated over and over again. Throw in the way sweat on skin shines in the PTC erg room’s characteristically dim mood-lighting for sixty minutes or more per workout, and what you’ve got is more than just a cardio base.
  • Partners need to want the same things in order for a relationship to work. Given that we are in the same places at the same time doing the same things with the same goals almost all the time, a little co-ed interaction is bound to prove fruitful from time to time.
  • Things don’t always go as smoothly as they may be implied here, however. Dynamics between male and female rowers continue to be as mysterious and elusive at this level as they were for me in college. Yet it’s not just a matter of do or don’t, despite the obvious answer being: if you aren’t happy dating people who row, then date people who don’t.

    Unfortunately, there are some major flaws in dating non-rowers. How do you explain a bad erg test to someone who has never done one? How do you explain losing a seat race—and more importantly, why you’re brooding about it three days later? What about constant aches, pains, sunburn, track bite, blisters, calluses and other forms of chafing? And that’s just communication. My sleep/waking schedule is really not the preferred one of normal 20-somethings since I don’t “stay up past ten o’clock” or “go out drinking” several nights a week. Though even if I were able to go out on all those nights, there’s a good chance I wouldn’t be able to wear my favorite pair of heels since the general male population is too short to look tall next to me if I did. What’s more: it’s never that exciting to be able to squat more than your boyfriend can (or, for good measure, just squat your boyfriend).
    Dating non-rowers may have its perks in avoiding whatever it is that predisposes many male rowers* to being socially awkward, but everything else about it kind of sucks.

    Rowers are still my type of choice. I have always been a sucker for tall skinny guys, so I don’t hesitate to admit to being happily hooked since day one. There are and always will be disadvantages to being hopelessly attracted to my male counterparts; few things rival the awkwardness of interacting the morning after at the boathouse while both wearing spandex (who are we kidding, where there was once “little left to the imagination” there is now nothing), or being hyperaware of another person’s presence while trying to go about your normal routine (don’t drop the boat—don’t trip—do I have sweat marks on my butt—say something funny—act like Maria just said something funny so I’m not scowling—I hope he doesn’t see how slow my steady state is—is my hair messed up?).
    I don’t know if I’ll eventually end up with a rower man or not, but my guess is that I’ll have fun figuring it out.

    See you out there,

    –MK

    *in contrast to male coxswains, who are nearly always charming as hell.

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