In 1513, Ponce de León landed on the coast of Florida near modern-day St. Augustine during his storied search for the Fountain of Youth. His quest was violent and exploitative, not unlike many early explorers’ searches for wealth, power and immortality. Ponce de León never did find the Fountain of Youth in Florida–despite what the tourist traps will tell you–and instead was dispatched by one of the local residents of the area during a return trip in 1521, rendering his search ironically counter-productive, and the magic of the healing waters to remain lost in time and legend. 500 years later, and about 230 miles southwest of Ponce de León’s landing site, I’m sitting in my air conditioned hotel room in Sarasota, thinking a lot about how I didn’t have to sail anywhere, or dodge any arrows in order to uncover my own Fountain of Youth during the past year. And unfortunately for old Ponce, but lucky for me, it didn’t end up being in Florida, after all.
It all started in the few days after my Olympic final in Rio. My own best advice that I’d been giving to athletes younger than myself over the past few months was ringing loudly in my ears every morning when I woke up in the Village: if you want to come back after Rio, DO NOT GET OUT OF SHAPE. My experience in my first months back after London had been humbling, confusing and incredibly difficult, for the simple reason that I was not fit, and that compounded all of the challenges of training tenfold. So I started erging. I had no idea how I was going to make it work, or whether or not I would still want to keep rowing a month after Rio, or six months after; but I knew that if I wanted to have the option to row, I needed to stay in touch with rowing and my strength training so the next year wouldn’t be wasted while I struggled to get back in shape. So I erged. And I kept erging. And for a long time all I could think about while I was erging was how angry, and sad, and disappointed I was, and everything that we should have done differently so my teammates and I could have left Rio with medals. I can’t even begin to count how many hours I spent since meditating on these feelings of disappointment and regret, to the sound of the flywheel. And for the first time, maybe ever: the erging made me feel better.
I took the month of September off from any organized training while I packed up my house in New Jersey, and set out West with my mom as my co-pilot in my Ford Ranger. Leaving Princeton, my home of the past ten years, was fraught with mixed emotions and a rush of memories from the many people who had passed through my life during my time there. All of that collided with the excitement of relocating to one of my favorite places with one of my favorite people: my boyfriend, Peter, got a fellowship position at a hospital in San Diego which began in July. We made plans to move to San Diego together well before Rio, and those plans originally did not include rowing. Both of us had been looking forward to spending more time together now that I was potentially retired from sport, and he had finished the grueling process of medical residency. And then I told him I was thinking about continuing to train.
As I progressed in to the fall, I arranged to have my single transported to California following the Head of the Charles, so I could begin training in Chula Vista–my home away from home for the past thirteen years, which had now become just my home. I spent October on the erg and in the weight room waiting for my single to arrive, and was pleased to see that patient planning and progress was yielding familiar numbers, and that I wasn’t going to have to start from nothing for the 2017 season–if I made it that far. It was my first time training on my own for any extended period of time, and I was shocked to find that I absolutely loved it. Arriving at an empty boathouse every day does indeed have its perks; but mostly I found myself presented with the opportunity every day when sitting down for more AT work to ask myself: “is this really what I want to be doing?” and the answer was always: yes. No noise, no distractions, and most importantly, no voices or expectations except my own. There was no group, no bond, no palpable sense of committed collective purpose pulsing through the room. There was no one to lock eyes with in the mirror to get me through. Just me. I thought about my teammates, past and present, from time to time, especially when things were uncomfortable, or hard. But no matter where I go from here, I will always remember those few months of solitary training after Rio as some of the best of my career, because they really brought me back in touch with myself as an athlete and my athletic instincts. I wrote my own training plan, my own lifting plan, and I was totally accountable for all of the progress I would or would not make between October and January. It was exhilarating to have some agency in my growth and progress as an athlete after having none for so long. I was rowing the single better than I ever have; I PRed on all of my big lifts in the weight room; I felt confident and healthy and strong. I met with Tom in November to confirm with him that it seemed like I might not be retiring, and that I was interested in joining up with the USRowing training center group when they came to Chula Vista in December. He said ok.
A small group of veteran athletes arrived in January, and we all trained in singles together for several weeks. Most of the women training in January were returning Rio Olympians, or women who had been at the training center but just missed out on making the Rio Team. We were all familiar and comfortable with one another, and the expectations for us for January were very low, so training was simple and routine. We passed quietly through the first two weeks, until the new athletes arrived (aka “the babies”) and that was when everything changed.
Initially I remember balling up my fists and rolling my eyes at the thought of having to endure a brand new class of clueless, hopeless, green, inexperienced athletes who didn’t know any of the rules or “right” ways to do things. I shuddered remembering how irritating the new group was in 2013 and how long it took me to warm up to most of them because of my low threshold for tolerating mistakes and rule-bending. I had heard very little in terms of character reporting from my veteran compatriots back in Princeton, so was prepared for the worst.
And then the most amazing thing happened: I didn’t hate any of them. They were great. Again, just as with the returning group, the new group of athletes was small, so even though their arrival doubled the size of our group in Chula Vista, it was still a smaller number of us working together than a normal team during the middle of a cycle. It gave me the opportunity to get to know them a little more easily, and from there the camp went really well all the way through March.
Most of the women who are new to the group this year have populated the U23 team in some combination together over the past 3-4 years. Many of them have raced together on multiple junior or U23 teams before coming to the Senior Team, so had a much stronger bond with one another coming in to Princeton than I have seen in groups in the past. They have come in to this next phase of their rowing careers with an advantage that other groups have never had, which is that they have already sweat and bled for each other, and they’ve done it together for years. The diehard connections you form with teammates are usually things that can only be built and earned over time; part of the magic of the USTC group as I’ve seen it during my time there is being a part of that construction process and earning the trust and respect of the women around you so when you line up, the connections you have with each other after four years of work are completely unbreakable. These women have already started well down that path with each other, and it has been up to us old ladies to work our way in to the seams of the fabric that’s already there–already been there. It’s strikingly different, and the energy on the team is so much more vibrant and dynamic and positive than it has ever been. There’s a special quality to it that I’m still figuring out, and trying not to impede, as it has encouraged and uplifted me in my training this year right from the very start. Sort of like my own personal Fountain of Youth.
And so I have worked my way through the summer, energized by the younger athletes around me but feeling a little bit like I’m going back in time and doing things over, or maybe just in reverse. Instead of aging gracefully in to independence and stability, I have actively removed those things from my life when I returned to Princeton to rejoin the training center for pair selection in April. I spent the spring and summer living with a host family, away from my boyfriend, and not having a car. I’ve been slumming it begging for rides off people, and borrowing things I left at home when I came out to Princeton for camp. There have been days when I have looked around and felt that my 23 year old self had her shit way more together than I do now, but at least my 34 year old self rows a little bit better.
The biggest challenge for me this year hasn’t been getting back in shape; or fighting for the top seat in the pair; or coming up against the fastest women’s pair the world has ever seen. This year has really been defined by coming to terms with the reality that I still want to be here. And that it’s ok for me to not be ready to be done rowing (yet). I spent a lot of the 2016 quadrennium plotting my retirement and establishing the expectation for myself that I was not only going to be done rowing after 2016, but also that I should want to be done rowing, and that retiring should have provided me with relief or happiness of some kind that continuing to train couldn’t. The hardest part about my first days and weeks back training was just getting over the disbelief that I wanted to be training, because I’d believed for so long that I wouldn’t, and also on some level, that I shouldn’t. I’m 34. It is an age that, whether you like it or not, forces you to really think about what you’re doing, how long you’ve been doing it, and how long you think you can keep it up. Injury and recovery become more of a threat than ever before, and the realities of financial security as an adult American really can’t be ignored anymore. It’s definitely not easy to look at what I’m doing and scale it out to the long-term big picture and realize that if I commit to a fourth Olympic campaign, I’m risking long-term quality of life and straining my relationship, delaying any hope of establishing any kind of financial stability, and that someday I could be 37 and entering the work force for the first time. All with no guarantee of success at this point or anywhere in between. It’s scary. It always is. I have spent the majority of this year taking it day-by-day, and step-by-step as I continue to formulate an immediate plan, and one for the future. I’m not committed to 2018, 2019 or 2020, but they also aren’t out of the question, either. Going forward, I do know I’m going to have to be more creative and more resilient than ever before if I’m going to find a way to create more balance between rowing and the rest of my life. I don’t have all the answers right now, except that I’m sitting in my hotel room in Sarasota, the oldest I’ve ever been, but feeling young in my heart–and I’m right where I want to be.
Long Live the Dream,