2016 has been a dramatic year for many of us, so I thought I’d end it on a positive note. Falling into conversation with a rowing pal about the strong feelings that rowing inspired in us, I realised it was high time I explained our passion on the blog. A quick survey on Twitter and Facebook revealed that rowers LOVE to talk about our infatuation with our crazy sport and it wasn’t long before several themes emerged. So here are the seven things we love most about rowing. If I’ve missed one out, let me know – there’s always room for more love in our lives.
1. The beauty
We’re uniquely lucky, as rowers, to have a sport that takes us out on the water at all times of the year (water levels and ice permitting, of course). I don’t think I’ve ever had an outing where I didn’t see something in my surroundings that lifted my heart. Even on a wet day with the rain drumming on the water, there’s the sight of the droplets pock-marking the surface and the wind forming steel-grey ripples as it races across the river. On a freezing morning when your hands are aching so much you could weep, there’s the mist hovering in the air, the sight of your breath pluming above the boat and, if you’re lucky, the sun glowing weakly through the trees. And oh, on a summer’s evening, with the insects dancing over the water and the light glinting on the spray and the swans wha-wha-wha-ing as they fly overhead. Which brings me to…
2. The wildlife
I was lucky enough to be taught to scull by the wonderful John Prince at Ross Rowing Club who would stop the boat to count the cygnets or point out the kingfisher. Ever since, the abundant wildlife has been one of the great joys of the sport. We’re incredibly fortunate at Monmouth, where I now row. In the spring time we have lambs skipping on the river bank, calves taking their first shaky steps to drink from the river, awkward cygnets, tiny, fluffy, darting ducklings and that bright flash of blue as the kingfisher skims the water before disappearing as fast as it arrived. Heaven.
3. The focus
Rowing requires intense concentration. Once you push off, you can’t think about what your boss said to you this morning, or what you’re going to have for tea, or whether you left the oven on. The slightest lapse in your attention shows itself in your stroke and in the boat. The great paradox, of course, is that you have to stay relaxed at the same time – something I’m still working on. It’s the greatest distraction from your worries, the ultimate escapism, the perfect balm for the soul.
4. The racing
There’s nothing quite like it. The adrenalin, the rush, the white heat of pain, the feeling of your mind narrowing down to just one thing, the sight of the other crews in your peripheral vision, the attention, the go, the start, the lengthening, the stroke after stroke after stroke, the pulling away, the last ten strokes, the crossing the line, and the sweet joy or bitter disappointment of the result. It reduces life to simple, black and white terms. Just don’t ever tell a rower it’s all about the taking part. It isn’t. (Pic by Ben Rodford)
5. The mystery
Call it harmony, call it grace and power, call it serenity, or flow, or zen. Whatever you call it, until you’ve experienced it you’ll never really understand what it is. Rowers talk about it in almost mystical terms – the mysterious lifting-off when a boat is running well, when you have that blissful, magical feeling of rhythm and movement and elegance, of power and grace. Some feel it most in a single scull, others when an eight is flying, still others in a pair. And once you’ve been to that place and heard and felt the boat singing, you won’t rest until you’ve found the way back.
6. The fitness
“You’re a rower? Wow, you must be so fit.” Well, yes, I guess I am fairly fit – at least by the standards of most people my age. Rowing, brilliantly, uses every part of the body – even the fingers and toes – and puts you in pretty fine fettle (even if the skin covering the muscle is more of a loose cover than a stretch-to-fit). Just the other day I was talking to a friend at another club who was undergoing treatment for cancer (yet was racing two days after her latest radiotherapy session – typical rower) and she told me how delighted her consultant was to learn she rowed. All those hours sweating away on the erg and the water pay off – whatever it tells you at the time, your body really does thank you for it.
7. The community
Where do I even start? Rowers are amongst the most infuriatingly competitive and strong-willed people you will ever meet. They can be bolshy, pig-headed and maddeningly single-minded. But they are also the most fearless, loyal, funny, generous, down-to-earth and kind people you could ever hope to know. My ship-mates have enriched my life more than I can say. We have seen each other through the most incredible ups and downs, both on and off the water, and I know that if I call on them, any one of them would be there in a heartbeat.
And it’s not just the rowers I meet in real life who are amazing. Through social media I have got to know rowing people from all corners of the world who have made me laugh and supported me through thick and thin. I’ve made friends on Twitter with thoughtful folks who go the extra mile to look out for each other, cheering up the low and depressed, messaging those who are sick or injured, consulting each other behind the scenes when someone has gone quiet to check they’re OK – being, in essence, all that a friend should be. Rowing is a brother- and sisterhood like no other, and I feel privileged to be part of it.
So now you’re feeling the love, I’m going to make that my final thought for 2016. Thank you so much for reading and supporting me this year – it’s meant the world to me. Here’s to plenty of river-based adventures, laughs, medals, pots and pleasure in 2017. Mwah!