Things are starting to happen now that we are here and settled in to Aiguebelette for the second World Cup of 2014. We arrived in Europe on Sunday morning by way of Amsterdam and Geneva, and are now bunked up in Aix les Bains, just about 20 minutes out from the race site. All of Team USA are staying in a charming little place that maintains a lot of early-mid 20th century feel – layers upon layers of paint, moulded wall panels, classic french doors and windows, and enormous cascading crystal chandeliers in the lobby – and we are sharing the hotel this week with many familiar faces from Team China.
We spent our first two days in France acclimating at Lac Bleu in Paladru, some 60 km away. A small local rowing club opened their doors to us there, and we were able to get in a few training sessions on the water before the course at Aiguebelette opened on Wednesday. Yesterday was our first outing on the actual race course, and the promises of a spectacular setting for this World Cup came through. Despite being draped in a heavy mist and then thunderheads all day yesterday, Aiguebelette is a stunning location, and as the weather improves over the next few days, I think it will only get more impressive.
Now that we are only a day away from racing, I’ve had some time to think about what I want to get out of this weekend. I keep coming back to a conversation I had with one of my teammates before we left for Aiguebelette, when she asked me: “how do you feel now that your worst nightmare is coming true?”
She meant, of course, that I will be debuting in not just one, but two different sweep events for the United States this weekend. And because I’m a veteran athlete who has been set in her ways for all of my time with the Team so far, there isn’t really another way to say it: it’s a big deal for me. From the outside, switching disciplines may not seem like much. It’s still the same sport, after all, and the fundamentals are all pretty much the same. But making the switch this weekend will be the first time I will have rowed internationally with any of my sweep teammates; it will be the first time I have raced against many of these particular international competitors; and it will be the first time, in a long time, that I’ve only had one oar to get myself down the course. A lot of things will be different for me this weekend. I’m going to see familiar women launching quads and doubles, and carrying around sculling blades, and I’m probably going to feel a twinge or two. I never thought that I would be where I am now, doing what I’m doing, racing as a sweeper for the USA in international competition. I love to scull, and I will always love to scull, and I may even end up sculling again. Very soon, in fact.
But there is always this:
When I first started rowing for the national team right out of college, my dream wasn’t to row the quad or the double. With my sweep background as a true novice in a big DI program, my forte was hauling on sweep blades. I had spent a lot of time in eights, coxed fours, and even a straight four for a summer on the U23 team. But my real love was rowing the pair. Unlike many other programs, the University of Washington spends a huge amount of time training its athletes in pairs during the season. After novice season, rowers can count on doing long sessions in the pair several times a week, and selection depends largely on the ability to go fast in the pair. Being introduced to the pair was what made me really love the sport of rowing. Even though the eight is always the terminus of a selection process for a collegiate rowing, for me, getting there with the pair was the best part of that. Learning how to work closely with one other person – even if they were terrible, hideous, incompetent, rough, clueless, or absolutely perfect – was a fascinating and hugely challenging process for me. Multitasking the logistical aspects – steering, balance, communicating with other boats, getting places on time without a coach or cox – gave me a new level of confidence and accountability as an athlete. And feeling like my personal performance had a real, visible, tangible impact on the quality of the training or racing I was doing made rowing incredibly exciting. I looked forward to working in the pairs because for me it was an opportunity to blend athleticism with athletic intelligence in order to get the best possible result from your efforts. Those who have made a similar transition from big boat to small boat will understand this realization, though not all athletes enjoy it.
So when I got to Princeton, not yet knowing what sculling was, the dream was to someday row the pair for the United States. At that time, to me being the National Team pair meant being incredibly fit, confident, and gutsy, but also the most technically skilled and clever athletes in a group. When I showed up in 2006, relative to the other women at the training center, I was none of those things. So the pair was never a reality for me. That path led me to sculling, however, and when I realized that the double offered all of the challenge of the pair (and more — TWO oars!?) but went much faster, I wasn’t all that sad to leave the dream of the pair behind. But now that I’m several years down the road and find myself with the opportunity to race a boat I never thought I would – I’m going to enjoy it.
I have a great, athletic young pair partner who loves to race, and who I work very well with. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt this good about rowing in a small boat with someone. We have our own set of goals and expectations for ourselves for this weekend that will no doubt be bombarded by talk of favorites, experience vs. non-experience, medal history, pedigree and all sorts of other things that have almost nothing to do with me. As far as I’m concerned, I’m new here, and the world has seen me race in the double, and the quad (and the single, but let’s not talk about that). But you’ve never seen me race the pair. My biggest asset this weekend will be that I am not responsible to anyone’s expectations except my own, Kerry’s, and my Team’s. Lucky for me, I will have the strength of some of my fiercest teammates with me on the race course, as the US have entered an unprecedented four women’s pairs at this World Cup. It’s been two months since we all raced one another for our National Selection Regatta I at home, but we’ve only gotten fitter, stronger, and hungrier since then. We get to race each other, plus a few other ladies in this beautiful setting in France, and test our speed after a few months of training together. It is a great opportunity, and I am so glad to be here with my Team, supporting each other as many of us take on new challenges for the first time.
I’ve been doing this for a long time, but it’s never too late to do something new; to take on a new challenge; to realize an old dream; or to surprise yourself. Or maybe someone else.
Looking forward to racing.
Long Live the Dream,