"Clean speed, if you can attain it, is about simplicity. It can make you beautiful.”
In less than a year, you will be rowing the last 500 metres of a Club Nationals race on Lake Onondaga in Syracuse, New York, at a breakneck 36 strokes per minute (spm), and your doubles partner—you haven’t met her yet, but her name is Colleen—will look over her shoulder at the team who has just edged past you and scream, “Move!” right into your ear, just as you reach the top of the slide, just as your blades drop into the water. She’ll time it like this because she knows you; she knows that you’ll push off the footstretchers and launch into a 38 spm sprint, that you’ll react with ruthless obedience to her command and essentially black out. You’ll still be rowing—you won’t pass out—but at the end of the race, Colleen will have to punch you in the back to make you stop rowing full power. You won’t be able to hear her yelling at you, “Slow the fuck down in two, one two!” Neither of you will notice that you are both covered in blood when you swivel in your seat and fling an arm around her, nearly upsetting the boat, while she calls you a moron.
But you aren’t there yet.
Right now, you’re an awkward prospective rower standing on the dock at the Three Rivers Rowing Association on a clear-blue Saturday morning, a novice waiting for your turn to try rowing in the dockbox. The dockbox is a miserable casualty of a boat, a former four-man shell with the bow and stern hacked off and the hull squared by two-by-fours after a fatal tumble from a high shelf in the boathouse. Ironically, it used to be named the Icarus. You and the other novices just learned how to carry a boat to the dock by lifting it to your shoulders and the awkward weight, doubled by unwieldy two-by-fours, felt like a tonne of bricks.
Now, the ex-Icarus sits immobile on the dock: the long oars fitted in its oarlocks extend beyond the dock’s edges so you can try the rowing stroke against real water without the burden of balance or motion, like riding a stationary bike. A bored second-year girl in the first seat demonstrates the catch and finish positions of the stroke as a coach narrates. You should be listening more closely. You should be trying to internalize the basics of sweep rowing because you’d rather not be cut at the end of the season. Instead, you are watching the rowers who know what they’re doing as they manoeuver small boats with two oars out of the channel and into the wide Allegheny River.
The oars they use are light and thin, two per person, nothing like the twelve-foot-long hatchets in the Icarus. The boats are so light, people carry their singles to the dock alone, balancing them on their heads. You watch as one of the boys pushes off from the dock in his slim single—you will meet him too; his name is Pete. It is autumn. The channel is slicked with a fall of early leaves on the still edges. Out beyond the first bridge at the foot of the channel, the Allegheny moves, green and deep, under the bridges of Pittsburgh. The rower in the single reaches forward, pushing his oars out behind him and lets them fall soundlessly into the water. He takes a stroke, his thin shoulders tensing and rolling, his body unwinding into motion. You are having a revelation: his boat slices through water so cleanly, you imagine the river parting in front of it, making way. You feel something brimming under your ribs—you want to make the rivers part like the boy in the single, to move like that. This motion is beautiful, and you want to be beautiful.
All fall, you row with the novices in sweep boats, one awkward, heavy oar per person. The rowing is choppy and messy, the boat perpetually unset, wobbling from port to starboard every stroke. Your hands blister and heal and blister again. The backs of your calves are scarred by brush burns from the slides in the boats, and your right shoulder—you are a starboard—is lifted from leaning into your rigger to lengthen your stroke, as though you are half-shrugging all the time. You have a duffle bag filled with athletic tape and Neosporin, extra t-shirts and spandex shorts, Band-Aids, painkillers, sunglasses, 7/16” wrenches, a Walkman and running shoes. You have acquired all the accoutrements of a rower, but you cannot row. You practise with rowers, run with rowers, ride to and from the boathouse with rowers, but you are not one—not yet. You feel more and more each day the slow ache of fury splitting your breastbone, a weight that does not pull down but pushes outward. The season trickles by and you row to the finish lines of novice races and sit by the river afterwards, exhausted from the messy effort of going slowly. You are obsessed with motion and pure, clean speed, but you cannot attain it.
You are missing something, so you watch.
You can’t perform a single calculation to prove what you know, but already you understand that rowing is physics. Boatworks up and down the east coast spend years and staggering sums of money to develop contoured blades, lighter shells, aerodynamic riggers, because a rowing race is really a simple physics problem: which boat can cover 2,000 metres the fastest? Speed = Distance ÷ Time. Cutting-edge equipment is made to shear tenths of seconds from the 2,000-metre speeds of ideal crews, those phantom boats manned by perfect rowers who are not human but parts in a machine.
In reality, every messy, human bobble—a sloppy finish to a stroke, a drive wasted because the boat is unbalanced, rowers with bad timing or sluggish catches—is a potential deal-breaker. Anything that disrupts the speed of the boat and its vector of power toward the finish line disrupts the equation by adding more variables and dispersing the power among them. What rowers are asking for at the finish line, when they mutter, “Just make it clean,” is an equation with very few variables. The clock at the line is there to measure, in minutes and seconds, whose equation is cleanest; it cannot lie, cannot bend the laws of physics. Clean speed, if you can attain it, is about simplicity, and it can make you, in some way, beautiful.
Sometimes, when you arrive early for practice, you walk into the bays where the boats are stored on floor-to-ceiling racks and contemplate the machinery of speed: a boat is a machine with interchangeable parts—oars and people. The problem is that the people are people and not precisely weighted fiberglass gears. The engine of the boat as a machine is an animal engine, the force applied to the oars subject to animal failings and animal stupidity.
You study the motions of the varsity, but the large sweep boats like the ones you have been rowing seem ungainly even when they move fast. They lurch forward, eight rowers trying to mimic each other and one coxswain yelling “Quick catches!” or “Timing!” to remind them to move like one person, to operate like cogs in a machine. But they never do. The bowman is forever catching late, the man in six-seat always rushing the slide. Someone in some seat is always ruining it; someone is always the weak link, vomiting over the side of the boat, pulling a muscle, feathering an oar late and getting it caught under the water—“catching a crab.” You come to understand that the big sweep boats are not for you—too little control, too many people. Messy equations.
Near the middle of the season, you march up to your coach and announce that you want to scull. He nods vaguely and says, “Most underdogs do.”
When you join the scullers, you learn that underdogs must mercilessly exploit advantage and must not act like underdogs.
Pete is good at this, though he shouldn’t be. At 147 pounds and six feet three with a wingspan of six feet five, he is a natural lightweight of a particular order—he is nearly a flyweight, but he has the leverage, lengthwise, of a heavyweight. He looks breakable, and when you watch the starts of his races closely, you can see the other rowers—heavyweights and the wirier, starved-dog lightweights alike—looking around, sizing up their competition and looking right through him.
But Pete does not waste motion. His sense of how a body moves as part of a machine is intuitive and precise; he can make you believe that rowing is the most serene and simple action in the world—the way a body is designed to move rather than a trained series of skills. Even in the worst water, or against the most difficult competition, his face is a Zen blank, his form consistent, controlled. At the end of a hard race, Pete takes one more perfect, powerful stroke and then lets the boat run before slowing his cadence and rowing back to the dock. He may have suffered in order to beat out rowers thirty pounds heavier than him, but they will never know it.
Because you are no threat to him in men’s lightweight singles, he tells you what your laconic coach does not. After a marathon video session on the rowing machines, your coach shakes his head, exasperated, and sets up a video camera aimed right at you on the ergometer. He draws lines on the TV screen to correspond to where your hands and knees should stop at the catch, how far your layback should go at the finish. Then he leaves you to finish your workout.
Pete sees your confused expression and tells you why you’re rowing in a cage of lines on a TV screen. “Remember how this feels,” he says. “Your muscles will remember how to do it right in a race if you keep doing it right now. Don’t think.”
You stare at the screen and force yourself to fit the lines; you resolve to teach your muscles how to think for you, to remember the motions of clean speed. You will disconnect your messy human brain from the equation and turn your body into a gear.
All winter, you run because you want to row a single. Rowing a single is like being a tightrope walker—just setting it up will make your calves and inner thighs ache. It’s the biggest challenge in rowing, something few people attempt and fewer succeed at, the most naked measure of skill. If you lose in a single, you lose. There’s only one variable. The human love of symmetry wells up in you when you remember the scullers on the water in their slim boats as you run for miles over ground hardened by ice. You remember how their two even oars unfurled over the surface of the water with every stroke like wings. Symmetry, down to the design of human bodies, wrenches you: the fluid movement, the perfectly aligned machine. Your parents buy you an erg for your birthday and you do workouts on it alone in your basement every day, answering questions. How long can you row at full power? How many metres can you go before you pass out? You calibrate yourself like a machine. You train to race 2,500 metres rather than 2,000 and you set the flywheel on the erg higher, making your strokes feel heavy. When you return to the team in the spring season, your scores are a wild improvement on the fall. You have ruthlessly trained your body to hold form, even when you are tired, so that you do not lose speed on small technical mistakes while you inevitably lose speed from fatigue. Your arms have impressive and horrifying veins running down them that bulge during workouts. The world beyond the little screen on the rowing machine blurs and disperses when you practise; the force of your want coincides with your muscles. Your body is a tool for attaining specific numbers on the screen, and when the spring floods die down and you hit the water, it is a gear that can power the boat faster, longer.
Your coach also performs experiments. In the summer, you are paired in a double with a girl named Colleen, another underdog. Your coach is experimenting with combinations that defy the numbers—the rowers who make boats go fast, but have not-ideal bodies, not-great erg scores. Pete and Colleen and you are suddenly the inexplicable golden children on the rivers after seasons of crap boats and crap finishes in sweep rowing. You begin to hang out, to develop a pack—an us—and to claim the small boats as ours. After all, underdogs are still dogs.
Pete likes numbers and equations. Early in the summer, he swipes heart-rate monitors from the equipment box and performs tests on you and Colleen. You and she run miles as fast as you can, tabulating your maximum heart rates. You lay motionless on the grass by the river and find your resting heart rates, and then Pete calculates a rate that would be 70 percent of that range. You run workouts before practice at 70 percent, which is easy. When you ask him why you’re doing such easy workouts he says, “It deprives us of oxygen.”
Eventually, you get him to explain: by running at 70 percent of your heart rate, your body is wedged between aerobic and anaerobic work: just enough oxygen to avoid oxygen debt, but not enough to really feed muscles properly. The body compensates by producing more red blood cells to carry oxygen, which lie in wait for the grinding third 500 metres of a race. He has created false altitude training for you, right in your own river valley.
Pete likes you and Colleen because you’re like him—you do not look very intimidating. In fact, you look like twins. When you carry your double on your shoulders to the dock at races, people check your bow number on their event lists to see if you have the same last name, like a novelty. But amusing coincidence is also your secret weapon: you are perfectly matched. All summer, Pete is the only one who is good at predicting you and Colleen, and that’s only because Colleen refuses to talk about a race before it happens. On paper, you’re a wild card, impossible to predict. On the water, you work well together because Colleen is exactly the kind of rower you are not—she is lazy and she is brilliant at hiding it. This makes her incredibly efficient. She understands the physics of variables and contributes to your speed by adding none to the equation. She is technically perfect. She has learned to move when you move, so that you row like mirror images of the same person. Even when you’re not in the boat, she matches your footsteps up the stairs to the boathouse or onto the bus. She is a shrewd and calculating bowman. She knows how hard you can go and for how long. She hangs back and lets the other teams kill themselves to stay even with your boat; she waits till she absolutely must sprint. She wears them down and conserves her energy. At 500 metres, she makes a move through you and, with 250 to go, she moves in for the kill. Like a shadow she is there. She proves you exist even in the middle of a race when your brain has turned off and your dumb body continues moving, grinding away.
You are always experimenting with ways to fill in the physical inadequacies that keep you at the bottom of the pack. Pete is ingenious with solutions like these, and you and Colleen, relative newcomers and no threat to his status, offer the perfect specimens for experiment. Summer training in sculling is murder on the hands. With five-hour practices and your coach’s new feathering techniques, after two weeks of practice, you and Colleen are both thoroughly blistered. Your thumbs have been rubbed raw and printless.
Pete is elated. “Come here,” he says after a particularly hard row.
Colleen looks at you and shrugs.
In his car, which is strewn with wing nuts and wrenches, bike parts and energy-bar wrappers, he has a small, clean kit with a penknife, alcohol, tissue and Krazy Glue.
“This is what they do on the national team,” he says as he cleans the knife with alcohol and then slices open one of his blisters.
You watch, horrified, as he squeezes out the fluid and then fills the pocket of skin with Krazy Glue. He must be in pain because his hand is shaking a little, but his face doesn’t show it.
“See,” he says, “instant callus.”
You are dubious, but before you can roll your eyes at Pete’s latest experiment, he grabs your hand and tells you to spread your fingers out to stretch your palm. You do. Colleen laughs at the look on your face as Pete holds your hand down and breaks open your blisters.
“Fucking hell,” you whisper when he fills them with the glue, the alcohol searing your skin and jangling your nerves to an uncontrollable shake. Pete presses your hand open.
“Hold still,” he says, his voice perfectly calm, and you think you love him for a minute before he breaks another blister.
Soon, no one on the team hears anything from the three of you about blisters, and no one notices the tiny green-and-white vials of Krazy Glue in your rowing bags.
So, here you are at the end of the blood-slicked race, and Colleen is guiding the double to the dock. You’ve noticed the blood and it really is shocking; it’s everywhere. It’s all over your hands and forearms, it has mixed with backsplash from the race and is running down your thighs in rivulets. After you and Colleen crossed the finish line, you hugged her, so the blood is all over your shoulders, and there is a smudge slicked across her cheek. It’s everywhere and there’s no way to tell where it’s coming from.
You just finished in a dogfight for a spot in the finals, and you’re in, but you’re covered in blood—this looks bad. This looks easily defeated. For some reason, the regatta coordinators have placed the medic tent at the opposite end of the park from the dock, and you see now that Colleen has noticed this. Once the double’s in slings at the trailer, she skips alongside you on the way to First Aid, laughing deviously and chatting as if she does not look like she’s been shot.
You see Pete carrying oars to the dock and he stares a moment.
You take your cue from Colleen, as always, because you are brainless after a race, and hold up two bloody fingers to Pete. We made it! He nods.
People stare at the two you as you walk to the medic tent, terrified. They watch you pass and look at Colleen’s back for her bow number. Inside the tent, a green, thin-lipped paramedic swabs you down with peroxide, trying to determine the source of the bleeding. He assumes that it’s got to be some really big gash to have so thoroughly covered you in blood, but in the end, you and Colleen are sent away with analgesic Neosporin and normal Band-Aids around your thumbs, one apiece. You were covered in blood from a sum total of 0.5 inches of clean, slicing cuts across your starboard thumbs from knocking them against the gunwale in choppy water at the beginning of the race. What everyone else saw was two girls, uncannily similar-looking, with an inhuman resistance to blood or pain, who later didn’t appear to be hurt in any way, as though they had Superman-like healing powers.
Afterward, at the team tent, Pete explains it all as though he isn’t surprised. “Do you know how fast your blood is moving through you during a race?” he asks. “Especially at your extremities, where everything has to turn around and go back to the heart. It’s no wonder you bled out from a tiny cut.”
Your brain has returned to you and you feel something falling apart, as though the blood—proof you are human and made of flesh—has split open your slick, mechanical veneer.
“You were freaked out,” you say to him, wanting to see some ripple of emotion on his face, which remains as calm as a flat river after rain.
You raise an eyebrow, hopeful.
“You two are always scary,” is all he says. You leave it at that.
You won’t know it till much later, but that bloody semifinal is the best race you’ll row. In the final, you and Colleen will eke out second place again against the same team, a blurry repeat of the morning but with different light. Sports psychologists love silver medallists—they are their bread-and-butter because second place is more psychologically damaging to an athlete than fourth, especially a close second. The logic goes like this: if you scraped third, you edged out those poor, no-medal bastards in the fourth-place boat, who will go home and wonder what might have happened if they had called a move earlier, if they had trained harder or longer, if they had spent more time in the weight room. Second place is worse because you were close. Whether it was circumstance or just a case of being edged out, there’s probably very little you could have done in order to take first. So, the problem is that you’re good, but you didn’t want it badly enough. You wimped out. When it started to hurt, your instinct wasn’t to immediately make it hurt worse, and there’s no amount of time in the weight room that can alter that. The idea that you can’t control every variable is a crushing realization. That even if you are good, you have no say in whether or not you are good enough.
Soon after that race, Colleen’s mother will be diagnosed with breast cancer. Colleen will quit the team and you will lose her as your doubles partner. You will behave like a dog, unable to remain loyal to someone who’s left the pack, unable to keep up with her outside of the double, your common machine. You will look back on your last race together before her sudden announcement and admit to yourself that it no longer felt like having a shadow; she was no longer the repository for your brain. Second place is the first loser; you see that now—though you went home with medals, you lost more than blood in that race. You lost the ability to be gorgeous, a bright and clean machine, when you wanted something human. You will realize that Pete could not love you because he loved rowing and had somehow managed to transcend the shell of the boat and remain a cool, metallic gear.
You will cling to rowing in college because you love it, but it cannot love you back. In the end, your body will fail you. No matter what you do, you will always be the weak link in the machine, the replaceable part. One day, you will wake up after long months of suffering through Division I rows where the gorgeous symmetry of sculling means nothing, and you sit in screaming pain in seven-seat of an eight in which a bunch of huge, stupid but agreeable girls cannot manage to follow your stroke because, when it comes down to it, they just don’t care. You will wake up unable to feel your hand, and the next day it will be worse—you will lose feeling in your forearm too, and then your shoulder. You’ll forget your edges. You’ll smack your hand off doorjambs and countertops. You are disintegrating, and no one cares because you are one of many. If you are injured beyond your ability to do work, there’s a merciful bullet with your name on it; you will die like a dog.
You’ll quit the team. You’ll spend a summer in physical therapy, being X-rayed and doing trigger-point therapy—a kind of deep-tissue massage so intense that the specialist tells you to drink water after the sessions, because they build up a lot of lactic acid. She’ll run a hand along your back and say that the bunch of knotted muscle at your shoulder blade has actually pulled your spine and ribs out of alignment, which explains the sharp pains every time you tried to breathe during the season. As you lay face down on her table, and she digs her fingers into your wrecked shoulder, you’ll think of what your life will be like without rowing. It will be lonely. You have no plans; you have no friends. Rowers’ streamlined lives will not retain you once you’re gone—dogs are loyal only to the pack; you know that.
Over the course of the year, you’ll lose muscle. You’ll lose weight. Your body will metamorphose into the image of a different person, a person who does not remember what it is like to balance on a ten-inch wide boat in the middle of the Allegheny River. But every once in a while, you’ll sleep in a strange position and wake up with your hand limp and unfeeling at the end of your arm. You’ll swear you can feel the shape of Colleen’s blood-slicked shoulder in your hand. When the nerves begin to realize their edges again painfully, you’ll feel Pete, mad scientist, holding your hand open and filling your blisters with Krazy Glue. Your muscles, so well trained, will remember the things you do not.