Breaking the Curse

It’s been a few weeks since our race in Aiguebelette, and I’ve had some time to reflect on the 2015 season.  If you’ve read my writing over the past few months you know that this year didn’t go exactly the way I had hoped.  Like any other season I’ve had with the National Team, there were highs and lows, and ultimately they were some of my highest highs and lowest lows during my time as an elite athlete.  Between the wins, losses, retribution, vindication, surprises and letdowns, I would say that this year has been far and away my most interesting season.  And it all started one day last fall, while we were out for a row in the eight.
After the team returned from Amsterdam last summer, we got right in to fall training.  We were set up at Mercer primarily to row singles, but we also did some practices out in the big boats.  One morning we were out for a short row in the eight.  I was riding in bow, and during some low rate power strokes (probably only at a 22 or 24), I caught an over-the-head crab that stopped the boat, and the entire practice.  It was embarrassing but I was fine, and we finished the row.  When we got back on land and were meeting as a group, Tom asked me in front of everyone: “Is this your first time?”
I replied: “Catching a crab?”
Tom laughed, and said, “No. Being Athlete of the Year.”

It took me a second to figure out what he meant, but it dawned on me just as he said it:  “You know. The curse.”

I hadn’t given it much thought since I had been notified of the AOY vote some weeks earlier, but it had been lurking in the back of my mind:  the curse.  It’s been a part of PTC folklore for several years now; maybe it started as an inside joke with the athletes who received the award, but ended up getting enough of a foothold that even our head coach has acknowledged its existence.  The Athlete of the Year Curse.  It covers anything and everything from dropping your sunglasses in the lake, to putting a hole in your boat, to catching crabs during practice, to having a season-ending injury.  There are examples from any number of the past winners achieving great things in their award year, and then having some unfortunate event or events befall in their next season:  It’s real.  And in 2015, as my coach had just jokingly pointed out, it was going to be all mine.
I left practice that day shaking my head and laughing it off.  Maybe it was good that we got it out there and laughed about it early on.  I went home, and I let it go.  I thought the best way to avoid falling victim to the curse would be to refuse to accept that superstition would genuinely impact what I did and how I performed in 2015.  I accepted that there would be some failure and probably some embarrassing moments in my 2015 season; I’ve never had a season without them.  But even with my firm belief back in October that I could beat the curse simply by being positive and rational, there were a lot of moments during the season that gave me pause. It’s not… or is it?  

NSR 1

While we escaped equipment failure, yellow cards and misadventure, I still walked away from the 2015 NSR feeling heartbroken and disappointed.  Our result was still a good result – a quick time for early season racing, and a clear second place finish. As I’ve written before, there were lots of pairs that day who would have been really happy with that result.  But knowing that there was really only one result we could have gotten that would have allowed us to achieve our goals, falling just short of that one result made it harder on me than if we would have come third, or fourth, or last.  To be so close, but to still miss it, made our NSR result infinitely more difficult to accept.  Walking away from the course that day, knowing that I had been set up to be successful, but I hadn’t been, I had a twitchy notion of, could it be..?  No…

Spring 2k Test

A few days following the NSR, the team pulled a 2k erg test.  It was only my second 2k I had pulled since returning after London, and in light of my results the week prior, I was confident and motivated to pull a really solid piece and get myself back within striking distance of my 2k PR–and also in to a more competitive position on the erg ladder. My test the year prior wasn’t terrible for “old lady getting back in shape” but it definitely wasn’t where I wanted to be.  I thought this year would be different.  I had had big successes on fitness markers throughout winter training, and I felt ready to let that training manifest itself on this test.  I sat down, dialed in, and went 6:42.  I was crushed.  I had barely gone faster than my slow test a whole year earlier, and was still miles off of my PR.  My score was one of the slowest on the team.  There was no reason I shouldn’t have been able to perform on that 2k, and I just didn’t.  I’ve never been so devastated after an erg test.  This disappointment combined with missing out on the NSR all came to a head that day and I was probably as emotionally low as I have ever been during my decade of elite training.  I didn’t have a way to explain why the test had been so poor, or why I couldn’t bounce back from it until days later, when Tom told me I needed to get over myself.  That helped, but if there was a time that I had started to believe in the curse, this was it.

World Cup II & W2- Nomination

Even with the disappointment of the spring, I refocused and kept moving forward, determined not to let the curse score any more points.  Kerry and I took strides together as a crew and had our best performance at the World Cup in June.  After some months of feeling like I was a failure and had wasted my months of training in the pair and on the erg, I felt like Kerry and I had a huge win together in making a real change to our racing.  I was so proud of how we raced, and felt like I had done everything in my power to make up for where we had fallen short in April. I felt like I had been justified for believing in us, and in the magic we had found in the pair. It was there.  There was more to find. I was right.  This was a big up.  And that made learning of the W2- nomination an even bigger down. There wasn’t a day for the rest of the summer that I didn’t think about it.  I wore myself out obsessively dwelling on my negative emotions.  Talking it through and writing about it in a SFW blog post didn’t help.  I continued to punish myself for weeks. This was the belly of the beast, and a big win for the curse.

The Big Boats

Then it was time for selection.  I had the great privilege of considering a seat in either the quad or the eight going to Aiguebelette.  This sounds like the best possible situation to be in, going in to camp selection.  But it brought with it the huge responsibility of creating one less opportunity for either a starboard teammate, or a sculling teammate.  I had to really consider where I thought I could do the most good, and the least amount of damage.  And it wasn’t immediately obvious, once selection started.  I don’t suppose I’ll ever get the option of choosing between two really, really good things like this again.  For the first time ever, I had some say in my own camp selection, and with no experience or precedent to fall back on, I struggled with that.  Most people would probably think I’m crazy to say choosing between the American eight and the American quad would be bad luck.  But it was one of the biggest challenges I faced this season–because in the end it had very little to do with me, and everything to do with the three or eight other women I would be rowing with; and also the one or more who would miss out on a seat in an Olympic boat class because of me.  It weighed heavy on me, there wasn’t a way not to feel some level of guilt about that, and there also wasn’t a way not to show it.

For a while it seemed like no matter what I did, I wasn’t quite able to get things right.  I was coming close and falling short, or in some cases, going above and beyond, but still not getting what I wanted.  I ended up with a lot of reassuring pats on the shoulder letting me know “it’s not that bad.” After all, I had a lot of good things going for me, and still found success while in dark places as I made my way through the summer.  But I couldn’t shake this persistent and utterly annoying sense of “almost” or “not quite” lingering around everything I was doing. It was odd, and exhausting.  On darker days, I would think about the curse, whether or not I actually believed in it, and how I was starting to become resigned to the fact that it might actually be shaping my path this summer.  I thought about how pathetic it was that my curse was one bad erg score, or getting too good a result at the World Cup; whereas others had ended their careers, or come close, with theirs.  I thought how lame that my curse was really just an ongoing bout of self-pity that I was languishing in, and not even something serious like a major injury or failing to make the team.

How could this be it?  How could making the team be a curse? Couldn’t I just be happy? On the outside, things looked pretty good: I had the support of my coaches and of my teammates; I was healthy; and I was poised to challenge for medals in the scrappy, underdog boat I have grown to love during my career. I really didn’t have any reason to believe I was suffering the curse.  But I realized that’s just it: the curse isn’t the same for everyone.  What’s your worst fear?  Is it pain? failure? losing a friend? self-doubt? I realized that the curse had come to me in a lethally unsuspecting form, because it was also what has allowed me to achieve and be my very best:  my own stubbornness.  It was me.  For every time I felt a nagging, irritating feeling of single grain of sand in my shoe that was something else slipping through my fingers, my inability to GET OVER IT and move on to the next thing was right there waiting to bring me down and keep me there.  I wanted these things so badly–an erg score, a pair result–I was fighting as intensely to be cursed, and to suffer for my failures, as I was to succeed. There was no act of God or twist of fate that cursed me this year.  While I tried to blame other people, or even the curse some of the time, ultimately I was the only one who had control over my curse, all along.

I’m not proud of how long it took me to get over some of these things.  I punished myself without really realizing that’s what I was doing for weeks and weeks out of the summer.  It helped a lot to be selected to the quad, and to have a new goal to focus on in August and September.  Having the drive to grow and improve in a different environment with new athletes gave me a healthier outlet for what I was dealing with during the spring and the summer.  But it wasn’t until the night before my final in France that I was really and truly able to put things away and break the curse I had cast on myself.

Earlier that day, we had our last paddle on the lake that we were going to have as a crew before we raced our World Championship final in Aiguebelette.  We knew what was at stake.  We knew that we had to qualify the boat, and in order to do that we were going to have to have our best race.  We were going to have to commit to significant changes in order to execute them the next day.  The practice was only 8k, but it was intense in the best possible way.  Everyone was focused, sharp, and purely committed to what we were trying to achieve.  I could feel it.  I could feel a physical energy in the boat that I hadn’t felt before, and I loved it.  It could have just been the taper, but I could tell that we all were ready.

I spent the rest of the afternoon thinking about that feeling.  I wanted to make sure that when we launched for our final the next day, it was there. Somewhere in my gut, I trusted that if we could find that feeling for our final, we could do anything. It was an openness, a readiness.  And looking back on how I had been thinking and feeling for the several months prior, I didn’t want to risk being the one that prevented our crew from fully engaging with that energy.  I didn’t want my selfish, shitty internal curse to bring down my teammates, all of whom had worked so hard to be there.  So I had an idea.  After months of avoiding writing in my training journal about how I felt about what had happened that summer, I finally put it down.  I wrote it.  The catharsis was real.  What I wrote was not pretty, but finally taking ownership for what I was feeling about my season and my performance as an athlete changed me.  The feeling I had had in the boat that afternoon made me realize that I didn’t want anything to stand between these women and their goals for our final.  I would do anything to give them the best possible chance of being successful, and I couldn’t go to the line with them, knowing that I hadn’t done everything I could to free myself from the toxic shit I had been lugging around all summer.  I didn’t know if finally writing it down would make a difference or not.  I ran the risk that it would only make me angry, or sad, going over details and digging up feelings that I just wanted to leave behind.  I’m not actually sure now, looking back, why it took me so long to finally do it.  When I closed the cover of my journal and put it away, I knew I had done the right thing.  I could feel it.

The rest, is history.

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Photo credit: USRowing

We did everything we wanted to do.  For the first time in months, I stopped thinking about things I shouldn’t have been thinking about, and I devoted everything I had to these last few minutes I had with these women.  It was perfect.  That electricity–the palpable confidence and trust we had been searching for–was there.  I’ve never felt anything like it. We charged in to the race with a focus and determination that I knew, from the beginning, was going to change everything.

2015 W4X World Championship Final

Weeks later, it’s still sinking in. I’ve had congratulations and celebrations to keep me aware that something very special happened in Aiguebelette.  But what I can’t stop thinking about, is how I got there.  Cursed and all, I somehow miraculously figured it out, just in time.  Even when it seems dark, it’s never too late.  I don’t have anyone to thank but my teammates.  Without them there every day, inspiring me to be better; never giving up on me, and trusting me as I did them; going all in, I couldn’t have found the guts to break my curse.  I did it for them as much as I did it for myself.

And it looks like I’ll get to do it all again, next year.  Although in the end, maybe it wasn’t so bad.

Long Live the Dream,

–MK

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4 responses to “Breaking the Curse

  1. Rowing at a championship level is such a head game. We find new levels of pain tolerance, concentration, and internalized muscle memory. Then we find ourselves. Glad you were able to get it out, and then get it on with your team mates in Aiguebellette. I loved watching that race-probably the best example I’ve seen high performance RACING! Rick R. UW ’78, and K-Rob’s (USA 2011 LW4X) dad.

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

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