Thursday, May 22, 2008

On the Water by Cassidy Goepel

A breeze tosses some stray pieces of hair into my face, partially blocking my vision. The top of my head is warm from the sun beating down on it, and the skin on my shoulders has been getting hotter as it burns. My body is balanced on a small, round, incredibly uncomfortable seat. My feet are strapped securely into shoes that are at least 6 sizes too big. The shoes are old and worn, with Velcro that barely sticks anymore. They are at the point where no person in their right mind would allow their bare feet to touch the scummy insides; mine are most certainly protected by socks. There is white tape wound around the ankle of the shoe in an attempt to keep my feet inside of them against the pull of momentum. The tape is wrinkled, and folded; clearly the work of someone who was rushed. The shoes themselves are fastened to a board with nuts and washers. To my left extends a black rigger with a long oar that reaches at least 6 feet out into the water in one direction, and about 2 or 3 feet back towards the boat coming to rest in my experienced hands. The tiny seat I mentioned before serves as transportation to bring me forward to “the catch” and then with a strong push of the legs it allows me to travel backwards. The boat I sit in is about a foot wide and maybe a foot deep. It is attached to the foot board, to which the shoes are bolted, inside of which my feet are strapped. It has become an extension of myself. The boat is an offshoot of my body that must be pushed through the water with my six foot long carbon fiber arm.

There are three others sitting behind me waiting on my next move. They are breathing hard in between strokes, and my boat-body has given me an extra sense, allowing me to feel the variations in their strength and timing. Without looking behind me, I see their expressions; mouths open sucking in air, eyes squinting against the sun and focused on the neck of the person in front of them, strands of hair tossed about, sweat dripping down their brows. My arms are extended, I bend from the waist allowing my hips to rotate forward while keeping my lower back tight and straight then my feet bring me up the slide again. With a subtle, but strong, movement I drop the blade into the water hearing a satisfying “ker-plunk” as it catches the water. Immediately my quads fire and I push back to apply force before the momentum of the boat carries the oar away from me. My legs accelerate and I finish by squeezing my hands into my body, popping the blade out of the water at the last possible moment. The water shoots away from us, I watch as the four puddles from our oars become further and further away and by the time the last one reaches the tip of the boat I’m at the catch again. Whoosh through the water, our strength combining with precise timing. Slowly I creep back up to the catch, allowing the boat to run in the water underneath us. It ripples around the boat creating small waves and patterns on the surface. The footboard springs me backwards. Out the corner of my eye I see my blade click into place, feathered to slice the wind. As my hands near my ankles in my forward progression I gradually begin to twist my hand forward and up to ready the oar to be dropped into the water. Click and it’s back into place. The green handle pulls away from me under the stress of the water as I brace myself against the boat to pull it through. The seats hum from the friction of the slide, and the boat speaks softly through its creaking riggers and clicking oars, then silence. It’s just as exhausted as its rowers. The boat runs on the surface and our oar blades slice through the air, then back into the water with a collective splash. Again, another stroke and I finish with the handle against my body. The speaker next to my feet vibrates with the voice of our coxswain, giving the boat a voice while we give it wings. The finish line is close by and the adrenaline pumps through my body making the pain of work obsolete. Thirty strokes to freedom, the coxswain's voice pushes us onward, “everything you got!” she shouts, “no regrets!” My lungs start to scream, echoing a groan from someone behind me as our last energy reserves start to disappear. My legs burn and the boat creaks, it wants relief, it wants victory, if only to be able to glide again, but it knows it must carry us across the line. Ten strokes left and the crowd is cheering us on, they can see the pain in our faces and know the desperation that comes with these last final strokes. We pass by the last buoy and our coxswain calls us to rest. The rowers throw their heads back, opening their throats as much as possible to get the air they need. Their leg muscles are already stiffening as they fill with lactic acid, but the stiffness matters about as much as the pain did during the race. A sense of respect lingers within the boat, an acknowledgement of each other as athletes. We silently commend each other because we know we couldn’t have done it alone. We sit there, idle on the water, waiting for our coach to come tell us the results, but it doesn’t matter. We flew, together, as fast as we could fly and it felt incredible. At the end of the day it’s not the number of minutes it took, or how many strokes per minute we took, or even whether we beat the other teams. Our accomplishment goes much further than that. The boat pushed us further and faster than we thought we could physically go. “No regrets,” the coxswain’s affirmation echoes in our ears. No regrets.

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