The Last Unicorn

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When I was very young, there was only ever one thing that I wanted in the VCR:  a 1982 animated film adapted from the book by Peter S. Beagle,  The Last Unicorn.  My family never actually owned a copy of it, but we may as well have purchased the local library’s copy for how often I had my parents check it out for me so I could watch it over, and over.  I had a fantastic imagination as a child and a healthy obsession with anything equine, and so was happy to be lost in a fantasy world where unicorns were anthropomorphized and, indeed, heroized.  At times, I imagined I was the Last Unicorn, adventuring through unknown territory to take on the Red Bull and restore peace and freedom to the world.  Little did I know that in the not-so-distant future I would be facing a world where I truly was the last of my kind, setting out into the unfamiliar, on my own.

Ok, so maybe I’m not a cartoon unicorn, but hear me out.  When I arrived in Princeton in 2006, it didn’t take long for the coaching staff to reassign me from the 4- group into a single.  I, along with several other athletes at that time, didn’t have the skills, size, fitness or “potential” to make the US Women’s Eight, and so were tasked with learning how to scull.  When I joined the Team, being a part of the sculling group wasn’t something you bragged about.  Mostly, it was a collection of clueless development athletes flopping around in singles or other rebels and castaways who were either sinking, floating, or for a few of us, swimming.  Being a sculler was to be relegated; almost no one ever chose to scull over the glory of sweeping in the US Women’s Eight.  Well, until we got there.
We may have arrived by way of being pathetic, but once we got our feet under us, there was a collective decision to do absolutely everything we could to make sculling as competitive and rewarding as our sweep component.  The scullers didn’t like the idea of a seat in the quad or double being akin to wearing a “not-fast-enough” scarlet letter around the boathouse, and so our little group of undersized, outspoken, ruthlessly competitive athletes worked, and pushed, and suffered through miles in the singles, of being ignored and overlooked in pursuit of our goal.  We were never deterred by our events being more competitive, or by our historical lack of success in sculling boats.  We didn’t let it bother us that we had a fraction of the sculling experience of our competitors.  If anything, that motivated us even more to be the ones who did it.  As time passed and we gained more experience and perspective, the sculling team bonded over being smaller, being more vocal on the water, fighting for the bottom spots on the erg ladder, being largely disregarded, and having to buy, insure, house and transport our own boats (whereas pairs are provided by USRowing).  In a lot of ways we felt like second-class citizens just trying get by and to do more with less, all the time.  It made us stronger.  We were never made to believe that we were “good” or “talented”.  But what we learned better than anyone was how to be underdogs.  We were fighting, scratching, clawing, for absolutely everything we got.  Training like that, with those women, has absolutely made me the resilient, brash, demanding athlete that I am today.  And as of today, I’m the only one left.

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An Olympic year will always bring with it more athlete turnover than most.  Many of my teammates from the past several years did not make the London team.  Many of those who did, have since retired.  A few have relocated to other training centers.  And at the start of the 2014 season, I am the last of the scullers at the Princeton Training Center.  In addition to being tasked with starting again without the teammates who defined who and what I was over the past four years, I am also undertaking a new challenge: sweep selection.
For 2014, the US Women at the Princeton Training Center will all be participating in pair selection through the winter and spring.  That means hanging up my sculls, and trading them for a starboard oar.  For me, it also means jumping feet first into the most competitive group of sweep athletes in the world and starting almost nearly from scratch.  To say that it is daunting may be a bit of an understatement, seeing as how I will be expected to make up for the past seven years I’ve missed out on in the pairs in about the next seven weeks in order to be a contributing member of this team.  Many of the women on the sweep side are people that I have never rowed a small boat with before, and on top of that I have to figure out the social strata of being a starboard in a large group of large people with large personalities when I am used to sculling with people my own size and who are all similarly invested in being able to tolerate and row with every other athlete (not just half of them).  I have no baseline for a personal pair performance, and I have absolutely no ranking criteria or pedigree in the pair.  It’s a challenge.  I’m taking it on.

For now, the hardest part is the nostalgia and the nagging sense of disloyalty I feel for straying from what I’ve come to think of as the pure path:  selection in sculling boats for sculling boats.  I think about what me from two years ago would think of me today, and I’m not sure she would understand.  But this is where I am, and this is my means to an end.  As of this year, USRowing selection procedures now dictate that invitations to both 8+ and 4X camp will be based on pair results at NSR1.  The top two singles will also earn invitations, but statistically speaking, my chances are much better in the pairs.  Residency at the training center is also now conditional on an athlete’s ability to sweep and scull interchangeably, and disciplinary specialization will no longer be allowed.  In short: if I want to be here, and if I want to be in the 4X, I need to row the pair (and preferably row it well).

Whether I’m rowing with one oar or two, I know I belong with the Team in Princeton, working collectively across all boats and all disciplines to bring home as many medals as we can each year for the US.  Even though we struggled with feeling segregated at times as scullers, or feeling slighted, or bitter, or frustrated, we all knew that at the end of the day we were all one Team.  And we all wanted the same thing:  to win. Fighting together for that was what made us stronger.  Now, this, in the pair, will be more of the same.  And in some ways, I get to start over and be whatever kind of athlete I want to be.  Maybe taking the best parts of myself as a sculler, and bringing them to the pair unhampered by expectations or any pressure except that which I put on myself.  I have a lot to learn, but I have the best group of teachers I could ask for.  Things are absolutely not going to be like they were before, but that doesn’t mean it has to be bad.
This is a new approach for our Team.  And as far as I know, no other Team selects this way.  Maybe it will work, maybe it won’t.  The only way to find out is to give it what I’ve got and try to get faster every day.  If I earn it, the 4X will be waiting for me, somewhere down the road.  Until then, focus on the task at hand and lean left.

Long Live the Dream,

–MK

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for Ellen, Stesha, Natalie, Meg, Jen, Margot, Sarah, Meg, Kate, Christen, Jessi, Ala, Liane and Lia 

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2 responses to “The Last Unicorn

  1. Well-written post!

    Though I’m an American, I only started rowing when I moved to the UK 10 years ago. I’ve gotten to know a few of the GB squad and how the GB squad selection process happens. And every time I read your blog on the US selection process, I’m fascinated.

    #1 – I have no idea how/why US Olympic selection is done so late. The majority of the GB squad boats are set waaaayyyy ahead of time (except perhaps for the last couple seats in big boats). That US Rowing expects to throw together boats at the last minute (perhaps outside the VIIIs) strikes me as insane!

    #2 – Why in the world does US Rowing base key selection trials off of a discipline in which you likely won’t compete?? That just doesn’t make any sense if you really want to maximize the *squad* performance.

    Anyway, best of luck with trials and the coming season! Really enjoy reading the experiences of an elite athlete.

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