By Meredith A. May
Before a race, I never look at the competition. But Cristina is late, and while standing at the lakeshore with our rowing shell, I can’t help but watch the women in our event gracefully lowering their lithe bodies into delicate boats.
The duos I see pushing off the dock row with the effortless synchronicity of athletes who have been practicing together so long they can move as one without speaking. Their blades dip in and out of Lake Merritt together making barely a splash.
“I forgot my shirt!” shouts Cristina, running toward me.
The loud fuchsia tank I’m wearing has an Indian-inspired henna pattern of swirls and hearts. It looks nothing like the striped racing uniforms expected of rowers, but because we started training only few months ago, we chose our outfits based on irreverence rather than intensity.
But with only one of us wearing it, it doesn’t make sense. A friend offers to go back to Cristina’s duffle bag and retrieve hers. Then Cristina runs to the bathroom.
The four other boats in our thousand-meter race are already on the water. The rowers are practicing their quick starts, their shifts into race pace, and their sprints. It’s fifteen minutes to start. Boats late to the line are disqualified.
We’ll have to skip our warm-up. Racing with cold muscles is risky – the lactic acid can build up and fatigue you at the apex of your race so suddenly it’s like someone just turned the water into syrup. But we don’t expect to win. On land, we look like an unlikely pair. She stands over six feet, a good five inches taller than me. We are already breaking rule number one of sculling – find your twin and row with her. Similar bodies flow better together. Otherwise, one person has to change their stroke for the other and it’s that compromise, and how much each is willing to adapt to the other, that makes the difference between fractions of seconds that push one bow ball across the finish line before another.
“Where are my oars?”
Hundreds of oars are clustered like pick-up sticks ringing the lake. A line of boats is backing up behind us, waiting for Cristina to find hers.
Nine minutes until our race.
She plucks them from the maze and mercilessly we settle into a rhythm toward the start line, where aluminum motorboats are staked by underwater tethers to the center of each lane. Inside each boat is a volunteer, who will reach out and hold our stern with one hand, listening through an ear piece to an aligner standing on shore who will direct the volunteers to push or pull the shells to get them into a perfect row.
As we glide together, I hear the familiar sound of bubbles trickling under the hull signaling the boat is hovering and getting good run. But something is not right with Cristina. She’s rushing the slide, rowing ahead of me, creating a slight pressure in my lower back.
“OK, weigh enough,” she says, the rower’s command for stop.
I twist around in my seat, but carefully, as to not flip the carbon fiber boat. It’s so light and narrow that our hips are wider than the gunwales.
She’s embarrassed. Her previous race was in a single, and she’d steered so poorly that she weaved in and out of her lane.
“I don’t know Meredith, I just couldn’t steer. I’ve raced the single before with no issues, now all of a sudden it’s like I lost it. It was so, so bad.”
Three minutes until our race.
I tell her she doesn’t have to steer alone. I can see the buoy lines and help by pulling harder on port or starboard side, so if we veer off course it will be a shared mistake.
“Let’s just decide that our goal will be to stay in our lane,” I offer. “Really, I don’t expect to win against women who have been rowing partners for decades. We’ll help each other stay straight.”
Her shoulders relax, she laughs and I can see it was the right thing to say.
We pull into lane four and I stare at the official holding the red flag over his head.
“Are you ready ladies? We have an alignment,” he announces over a megaphone.
We sit crouched at the top of the tracks on wheeled seats, our arms stretched out in front of us, and our blades buried in the water behind our backs, ready to spring once we see the flag drop.
The silence erupts into a cacophony of splashing, as all ten of us dig hard at the water. I see blurs of white and black out of my peripheral vision, as oars thrash within inches of mine. We blast out of the start, catching the water and jamming our legs. The stroke meter registers forty strokes per minute.
Cristina calls out, “Settle in two,” and counts: “One, two!” We bring the pace down to thirty-two strokes per minute by slowing the recovery, to give the boat time to run. The perfect balance of weight lifting and ballet. The delicate laughter of underwater bubbles returns.
“We’re in the pack,” Cristina says.
I check the buoys. There’s an even amount of space on each side. We are centered. I allow myself the liberty to pull a little harder. I swing my body back farther to give myself more room to pull a longer stroke through the water.
Two minutes down. I see the large inflatable orange floaters that signal the five hundred meter mark. Halfway.
“Second place,” Cristina says between exhales.
Those two words make the burn in my lungs and quads recoil, and my reptilian brain takes over. I have become a purely physical animal, blood hungry on only one thing. But I must stay calm. Elation can sap precious energy, make a rower forget to sprint, or take her focus off steering, so the entire effort disintegrates into a performance that could have been.
We are in the third quarter of the race – the nemesis for most rowers. It’s here where the only thing that can keep you going is your mind. Racing is like getting in a handstand and then doing push-ups one hundred and thirty times. By push-up number ninety, every cell is begging for relief. Your mind goes to thoughts of jumping into a cool lake, of eating ice cream, of getting a massage. I imagine it’s similar to what marathon runners describe at mile twenty-two when it’s as if the rubbery body peels away from the mind.
“We have contact,” Cristina says.
I never thought I’d hear those words. We have closed the margin so our bow ball has reached the stern of the lead boat.
“Let’s make a move,” I say.
She counts it out.
“In two. One, two!”
We take a power ten. I’m in that place where I can’t honestly say if I’m going to make it. I’ve pushed beyond my body’s pain signals, and I don’t know what waits on the other side. A burst lung, a pulled ligament, a cracked rib. I don’t care. I just want to win.
“EVEN!” she yells, loud enough for the other boat to hear that we’ve pulled alongside them.
“We got this!” I yell back, amazed I had the breath to answer her.
The white buoys – which are just empty Clorox bottles turned upside down, are now painted red, signaling we are in the last two hundred and fifty meters of the race – the place where you take up the pace and sprint to the end. Thirty-five strokes to go.
I can see the lead boat on my right, which means we have overtaken them. Unless they have a secret sprint in their race plan, we can win this.
Twenty strokes left.
My vision blurs, and I hear the knocking of my heart in my temples. Spectators are screaming, but I can’t make out any words. We are hovering over the water, and everything is right. My hair is blowing forward, we are pin straight in our lane, and each stroke is building stronger on the next.
We pull five more times, and the air horn sounds.
We collapse forward over our oars, sucking air and shaking. When I can rise, I turn to Cristina and splash her with lake water.
“We did this, baby girl. You and me. We did this,” I say.