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...and it always comes back to rowing.
My back arches instinctively to give way to the nausea, but I fight it back like every other desperate plea from my body to give up. I take in these false breaths, but there’s no oxygen left. My cells are about to burst.
It’s all in your head.
No. It isn’t just my brain. It’s the tendonitis in my ankles, the twitching muscles in my back, my throbbing quads and forearms, and my shallow breathing, all reminding me I’m not invincible.
“Comma! Do not hammer with your oars. You are still freaking hammering!”
She screams it, but I can’t tell if it’s really her voice. Her thick Russian accent lives inside my own head now; her phrases are left with me and my girls on the water.
I try not to look back at Oksana, whose last words as we pushed off the dock were simply “row hard.” Just two single-syllable words with us on the water now, but it takes every ounce of strength to not just collapse.
I have three girls sitting by me inside our racing shell, relying on me, needing me to keep them motivated and keep the boat in motion.
Our bodies continue to move in sync.
This is bigger than any shiny gold medallion hanging around our necks, than our coach’s approval, than us.
This was my savior, pulling me out of the depression I fell into. Single handedly picking me up, dusting off my shoulder blades, and explaining that I was okay--that I was alive. It is the reason my hands are more calloused and torn than a construction worker’s, the reason I swap family vacations for double practices, the reason sleeping late means 8AM, and the reason I started eating fish again after six years of being a vegetarian. When broken down, all that’s left are minutes, seconds, and fractions of seconds to prove yourself. It’s right here, right now. There are no redoes.
“This is it, girls!”
The hail is coming down harder. Small, frozen pieces of ice are falling, pelting my exposed skin. Through the storm I can barely make out the course.
In short bursts of air, I give the command.
“Power ten in two!”
Our hands finish together, cross and meet at our second ribs. Our oars crash on the riggers and create an intimidating clank.
“Here girls! We can do this!”
I can’t tell who that statement is supposed to reassure, my girls or myself. They need me and I, them. We are teammates and a family, struggling together, sharing every single drop of sweat. None of our motions are wasted. We were trained better than that.
There’s something sticky, warmer than the autumn air, making its way in between my hands and the oar handles.
“No piano fingers!”
My hands are bleeding again. I watch it take shape on my uniform like a Rorschach test. It’s dripping down my palms, onto my handles and falling, then smearing across my thighs. I can’t tell if my blisters ruptured or if the layers on my knuckles are worn again, but now it’s a steady flow. I don’t worry, I can’t feel them anyway.
I am a general, commanding my quad to move and without flaw-graceful, connected, powerful. As if Oksana’s chase boat is at our stern, pushing waves toward us with decreasing proximity. Lessen up the pressure, you get waked--hard. I’m convinced it’s a Soviet intimidation technique.
In my peripheral I see a boat at our port side sitting dead even.
“Five! Walk ‘em girls!”
Easier said than done, but we snap into each stroke’s finish harder.
I can hear the cowbells, the spectators screaming. I’m in a tunnel, but I still know it’s meant for us.
“Accelerate and pick up the rate!”
“Seven! Let’s go!”
Over 32 strokes in a minute.
Buoys are changing color, yellow to orange to red, like the fire burning in my esophagus. We are approaching the final bridge. A single, rusted archway, towering above us and painted pale green. I feel insignificant.
Last strokes. Use everything. Push off the foot-stretchers. Drive!
It isn’t over. Two thousand meters, with mere seconds left, and we are still fighting crews with bigger and taller athletes. We are physically disadvantaged, but my girls know better.
I can’t even feel the pain anymore. We’re composed and in the air, I’m almost certain of it. The bow ball is passing through the final buoy when the horn blares, but we are already weightless.