Just Seconds

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“To the waist! And down!” screamed my coxswain, as we lowered our sleek racing shell into the water. Protected only by a flimsy pinny branded “Newport Rowing Club” and a pair of short spandex, I stepped into the boat, jaws clenched tightly. Goosebumps were beginning to form on my bare arms and legs—created either by the wind or more likely by my nerves.

This was the crew championship. This was the final race our team of eight had been preparing for since the fall. This was all the early morning practices and all the long afternoon car rides and all the impossible erg pieces and all the sweat and all the pain. All for a seven-minute, 2000-meter race down the rough, white-capped waters of Mercer Lake.
Each rowing stroke consists of the same monotonous motion. With an oar in hand, a rower slides up his seat, places his oar in the water, and pushes back with his legs. The team that pulls the hardest and fastest with precision wins the race. However, maintaining speed poses the greatest challenge; rowing demands extreme physical and mental endurance, and most athletes hit the wall after rowing at full strength for only a minute.
In our eight-person boat, my position was at four-seat. As we slowly paddled to the starting line, it was my duty to follow the cadence of my four teammates in front and lead the three behind. “Slide up, catch, row,” I thought. “Relax. Just stay focused. Slide up, catch, row.”
After ten minutes of warm-ups we heard the referee announce, “Lane three, Newport Rowing Club.” The boat was shaking, once again not from the strong wind gusts, but from our pure anticipation for the race. As we glided towards our starting lane, I recognized the huge, muscular rowers in lane two. They had beaten us badly by half a boat length in a race two months ago. Our coach had told us before we launched to “row your race and do not worry about the other crews.” Still, doubt began to fill my mind.
When all six boats were lined up evenly, the referee came over the megaphone again, “Hold your positions. Attention.” In that split second, I could only hear the pounding of my heart and the wind rushing against my face. “Row!”
The sound of splashing water and coxswains’ screams immediately broke the silence. After only twenty strokes, the adrenaline that had been pulsing in my body wore off and I was overcome by the pain: my leg muscles were strained, my lungs in desperate need of air, and my forearms were already beginning to tighten up. Now two minutes in, every fiber in my body was screaming, “Stop rowing!” We were beating four other boats, but lane two’s crew was an unimaginable boat length ahead, so lightening up was out of the question.
Our coxswain’s desperate voice came over the boat’s speaker , “Second place? Are you kidding me? Power ten!” Along with my seven teammates, we brought up our stroke rating and increased our power for ten strokes. We gained back half of our deficit, but the pain intensified.
“Three and a half minutes left. We’re still behind!” said my coxswain. “Get me back to the front—another power ten!” After hearing one of my teammates let out a pained but determined scream, I used up every ounce of my strength to pull even harder. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see that we were almost tied with lane two’s boat. With one more difficult, final power ten, we solidified an improbable comeback, taking the lead with a minute left. “Just hold this position for the last thirty seconds. We’re about to win the championship!” our coxswain yelled.
But my legs were on fire and our boat had exerted all of our energy to recapture first place. With just seconds left, we were losing speed for the first time. I turned my head and saw that the boat in lane two was inches behind us, and sprinting. My coxswain’s commands were now inaudible. Knowing that only a victory would extinguish my muscles’ burning, I rowed with as much strength as I could possibly muster, and then I rowed even harder. Both boats crossed the finish line at the same time.
When the scores were posted an hour later, we learned that our team had not won the gold medal. Sensing our mental and physical defeat, our coach congratulated us for competing in the best race he had ever witnessed. “Second place is great!” my parents told me, “You should feel proud of your accomplishments.”
But I did not feel worthy of praise. Ten months, 150 practices, countless hours, and a seven-minute race later, we had lost the championship by only .44 seconds. When I came home, I went to my room and hid my silver medal in the back corner of a bottom drawer. I remembered a famous quote that our coach had relayed to us at the beginning of the season: “Winning is not everything, it’s the only thing.”





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