The Sport That Changed My Life
February 12, 2008
As far as I can tell, pretty much every rower I’ve ever met has felt that rowing changed his or her life in some meaningful way. For those of us who belong to clubs and continue the sport well into middle age – or those who take up the sport in middle age – the “life-change” phenomenon tends to be more profound. But even for people who did it for a few years in high school or college and then stopped, there’s a feeling of “once a rower, always a rower.” You mention rowing at a cocktail party and they immediately regale you with their rowing experience, even if it was 25 years ago, as though it were yesterday.
Here’s my story. I was not a college rower – they didn’t have it at Hampshire College, where Ultimate Frisbee was the only competitive sport on campus. I did learn to whitewater kayak there, but that doesn’t count because you’re facing forward. After college, I moved to Boston because it seemed like a cool city, and I didn’t want to go back & live with mom and dad in Denver, where I grew up. Also, my mom grew up in Boston and I had family in the area. Mainly I just wanted to strike out on my own and be independent.
After a year and a half in a sucky job as a back office clerk in a securities brokerage firm, making next to nothing, I was kind of hating life. I hadn’t made any close friends, I hated my job (especially my boss), and I also pretty much couldn’t stand my roommates – especially one who was an Ivy League Snot. I was miserable and considered moving back to Colorado. But then fate intervened. Everything changed within a short period of time. I found a new apartment in Porter Square, with awesome roommates who were a hell of a lot more fun; I quit my job (at the beginning of the summer!); and I was introduced to rowing, where I not only met a whole bunch of new friends, but was now engaged in something totally fun and healthy.
The way that happened is kind of interesting. Rowing begets evangelists – people who feel it is there mission in life to enlighten the rest of the sorry masses about how incredible it is to row, and how they must immediately drop everything and do it. Jonathan Stevens was one such evangelist. An MIT grad student, Jonathan was a live wire. He lived upstairs from us with his girlfriend, an MIT undergrad, and a friend, Christopher, who went to Worcester Polytech. They were all rowers, but Jonathan was not to be quieted about talking rowing non-stop. Actually he wasn’t to be quieted about anything, but rowing was his passion. The best way to describe him was that he was hyper-intense and totally laid back – at the same time. Very funny guy too.
So my roommate and I would be sitting around in our apartment, and Jonathan would bust in, Kramer-like (he had wild curly brown hair), grab some food, and pontificate about whatever was on his mind. Usually it was rowing-related. One day, he came in and told us about a new rowing organization that was starting up at Harvard’s Weld Boathouse. It was called Community Rowing, and he knew one of the coaches, a young woman named Lisa Goodhue. “You GOTTA row!” He told us. We could tell immediately that we had no choice in the matter. “Go down there – NOW – and sign up! You must row!” We looked at each other, like we truly had no choice in the matter, and rode our bikes on down to the river to sign up.
The sign-up took place at Newell Boathouse in the tanks. We arrived and were among the first 10 people to sign up for this new rowing organization, the first of its kind to teach “regular people” how to row in the country (CRI, as it’s now known, is now the largest community rowing organization in the U.S., teaching hundreds of people to row every year). Also signing up that day was Howie Schmuck, who was “Mr. CRI” for a long time and did great things for the organization.
If 1967 was the Summer of Love for the hippie era, then 1985 was the Summer Of The Row for me, and for many of the close friends I made that summer at CRI. Most of us were not working – many were in grad school and had the summer off. I spent a lot of time with Eric Fisher, who was at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. We would row, go for coffee in Harvard Square, go home, take a nap, maybe play some Frisbee, and then row again in the afternoon. Henry Hamilton was one of our coaches. I’ll never forget him saying, “Way Nuff! Look at the heron!” We had some kind of party almost every weekend, and our apartment at 18 Frost Street was one of the primary locations. I was 25, single, and I had the time of my life. Most of all, I fell in love with rowing. It brought to me what it brings to everyone – camaraderie, fun, competition, being in great shape, and many more intangibles. We were clueless novices, but we didn’t care. We had the time of our lives, and many kept rowing and still are. I’m glad to be among them, coming up on my 24th season. I stayed with CRI for four great years before moving to Riverside Boat Club, which has been my home ever since. I hope to die on the water with my stripes on, many decades from now, after a 1000-meter piece in which I finally beat Sean Wolf.
Thanks Jonathan, and thanks CRI.