A Not-So-Motley Crew

The daughter of champions learns to row her own race.

By Erin Pursell January 3, 2009 Published in the May 2008 issue of Seattle Met

"ROWERS ARE IDIOTS." That was the only thought in my head after completing a hellish, gut-wrenching time trial, an event forced on me by my mom. How could eight and a half minutes be so exhausting? When I decided to enter one of the most intense rowing events of the season—for fun—I didn’t think much about training. I teach yoga and Pilates; I’m in shape. My mom insisted I was in denial and wrangled me into the trial, a mere hint of what was to come.

My parents are rowers, and though I’ve never been much for the endeavor (my college sport was basketball) I’ve always felt a kinship with people who row—their drive, their tendency to approach a workout like it’s a competition. I like their extremeness. They wake up extremely early. They push themselves extremely hard. They’re extremely comfortable in spandex. Recently I began to wonder what it felt like to be 1,000 meters into a race, legs and lungs burning, driven further into the unknown. I wanted—no, needed—to see if I had that in me, and why ease my way in when I could go all out and enter Ergomania, the Northwest Indoor Rowing Championships, which draw some of the region’s top oarsmen and oarswomen to inflict upon themselves all the pain of working out on the water without the pleasures of scenery or the sensation of movement or progress?

When I was a child, my family kept a rowing machine in the basement—an old-school version of the ergometer. Each Saturday morning, Dad headed downstairs in his rowing shorts, portable tape deck in hand. He’d seat himself on the archaic contraption, strap into the footrests, grab onto the handle, and shove off, sending the fanlike wheel at the front of the machine into a rapid spin. His training sessions, or "erg pieces," shook our Ravenna house, and in my eight-year-old mind the lyrics to the Doors’ "Roadhouse Blues," cranked to a deafening volume, transformed from "Roll, baby, roll" to "Row, baby, row." My father’s face tightened with each stroke, his grimace becoming increasingly scary, and I wondered why anyone would inflict that much pain on themselves.

My mom and dad met back East, where rowing has deep roots and where many Northwest oarsmen and oarswomen get their start. Not long after my dad’s pickup line of "So, how’s your boat going?" on a dock on the Potomac, he and my mom were married. Their love of the sport forged their relationship and spurred their decision to move to Seattle. Ultimately, crew is why I exist.

Though dozens of rowing clubs and programs involving some 3,000 athletes dot the Seattle-area waters, and though the city is home to the most prominent crew community on the West Coast, there’s a reason most people don’t know what an erg is or that rowing is a big deal. It’s because rowing is for crazy people. Crew isn’t fun the way basketball or soccer is fun. You don’t put together a casual pickup game with friends, then hit the neighborhood pub. It’s more like you row like hell and then throw up.
At 8am on race day, Seattle Pacific University’s lower gymnasium hummed with energy. Musty gym air mixed with fresh drops of sweat hitting the floor as some of the 200-odd competitors warmed up.

Crew isn’t fun like basketball or soccer. You don’t put together a casual pickup game with friends and then hit the neighborhood pub. It’s more like you row like hell and then throw up.

Everyone was grimly focused, jaws locked, eyes straight ahead, as they took their first strokes in silence. Except for one gangly kid dancing in the corner, the atmosphere was a far cry from the one before a typical Seattle event like Beat the Bridge or the St. Patrick’s Day Dash, where people laugh and mingle and maybe even grab a prerace beer.

Before my race, my dad’s friend walked in with rumpled hair and a cup of coffee in hand. He’s no rower but was there to race. "It seemed like the demented sort of thing that appeals to me," he explained.

It turned out there were national-team oars-women in my race—rowers who train year round and are specimens of muscle and will, outweighing me by at least 40 pounds. I was paralyzed by the prospect of being seated next to an Olympian, not because I knew a last-place finish was probable, but because I was enraged at myself for not preparing. I started feeling suddenly competitive, and it got harder to rationalize that the race was no big deal.

"Do it for yourself," they say. "Row your own race." I was reassured by the presence of my parents—the embodiment of my rowing heritage—telling me what to do and urging me on. Halfway into the 2,000-meter race, however, it became clear that their encouragement would not be enough to get me to the finish. I knew without looking up at the screen at the front of the gym tracking each racer’s progress that I was in last place. I hit a wall as my legs cramped. I gasped for air; I just couldn’t do it.

The race was a terrible idea. I never should have signed up. But as my mind went there, my arms and legs kept moving. My mom and dad helped me find my rhythm, shouting, "Steady state!" and "Slam your legs down!" I counted the strokes out loud, trying to find the place where rowers go when they have nothing left but their need to be certain they’ve pushed as hard as possible.

"Row, baby, row." That song filled my head. I was back in the basement, but instead of watching my parents pound out an erg piece, I was doing it myself, working as hard as I could. My pace built, and with only 100 meters left I understood I was racing only myself. I brought up the rear, more than two minutes behind the winner, but everyone cheered and my embarrassment barely registered. Breathless, I crossed the finish, head spinning, muscles trembling. Everything paused and I recalled my mom telling me about the workouts she did when crew was her life. "There’s just something to pushing yourself like that."

Now when I look at old photos of my parents rowing, the strain contorting their faces, I better understand who they are. I’m not sure that I’ll row again, but I know I have it in me.

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