There’s nothing like racing to make you feel positively adolescent in your emotions. Elation. Deflation. Anticipation. Fear. Hope. Disappointment. Joy. Despair. Envy. Frustration. It’s a giant melting pot of swirling feelings, actions and reactions – the worst and the best that it’s possible to experience. Goodness only knows how actual adolescents cope with it.
Anyway, this year’s British Masters Champs, where the old timers get to strut their stuff, promised to be no exception to the rule. I was deeply honoured to find myself in a couple of crews – a mixed 8+ and a women’s 4+ – and emotions (my emotions, anyway) were, as always, running high. Representing your club at an event like this is a big deal at any time, but this time I was in the only women’s crew from our club. I felt as unworthy as if I’d been asked to row at Rio.
Before I go any further, I’m going to let you into a secret. We nearly didn’t enter. With four hyper-perfectionists in the boat, we had spent several weeks in the run-up to the event tying ourselves in knots, analysing every bit of our stroke until we’d convinced ourselves we were not so much a crew as a masterclass in How Not to Row.
Rowing, as we all know, is as much a mental battle as a physical one, and we were in severe danger of losing the mind game. Thankfully luck was on our side. An injured squadmate was kind enough to spend her recovery time not only coxing us in the run-up to the race, but being our Number One Cheerleader. Endlessly patient and encouraging, she got inside our heads and re-ordered our thinking. Gently and good-humouredly, she got us sitting up instead of slouching, smiling instead of grimacing, pulling instead of yanking, and slowly, slowly coming together as a crew. We didn’t have nearly as much time on the water as we’d have liked – a combination of life, work, Monmouth Regatta and an ill-timed thunderstorm stole a frustrating number of training sessions away from us – but we did what we could.
Unnervingly, when we arrived at Holmepierrepont on Sunday morning the Monmouth encampment was already Bling Central. Every five minutes, it seemed, another crew from our illustrious men’s squad appeared dripping not just with water (it was very wet) but with silver and gold. Mostly gold. The pressure was on.
Even more unnervingly, although we rowed strongly – or so it felt – in the mixed 8+, we didn’t place. We tried not to let it get to us, but setting off to race in our 4+, it was hard not to feel fatalistic. Yet luck, once again, was on our side. A timely last-minute pep talk from our most blinged-up rower, positively jangling with medals, flicked a switch in my brain. I was going to row like a boss, right from the first stroke.
The final bit of luck came from the rather fabulous cox we were allocated on the day who, miraculously, got us on to the starting line in as good a state of mind as it was possible to be in. After a blistering start she made us believe, right to the last moment, that a medal was ours. And so it was. Not the gold – though we fought to the last stroke to catch the excellent crew from York who secured the win (chapeau, ladies) – but a silver, which did not feel in any way like a consolation prize.
So elation it proved to be. And profound gratitude to all the people who had kept my head together. Rowing is team sport, and this weekend never more so. Thank you, squad.