RI Blog #5: "It’s Not Personal, It’s Business"

“It’s Not Personal, It’s Business”

March 12, 2008

I love that tag line from The Apprentice.

The irony, however, is that everything in life is always personal. I suspect that Mr. Trump’s financial success, endless self-promotion, and enormous risk-taking are all deeply-rooted in his personality and background. The great rowing competitors that I’ve known take their sport very personally, as I suspect all athletes do. In Sara Hall’s book, “Drawn To The Rhythm,” she talks about how her personal experiences, going back to childhood, contributed to her ability to become a remarkably competitive sculler in her 40s in a sport she had never tried before. In a race, she could find that extra gear for deeply personal reasons. Her description of racing is one of the best I’ve ever read. I don’t have the passage in front of me, but essentially she describes all of the physical and mental agony of a race, and when she’s finished, she says (and I paraphrase), “It’s not fun. It is completely fulfilling.”

For me, rowing is intensely personal. It’s a positive outlet for age-old fears, doubts, and insecurities. It enables me to channel pent-up energy and frustration. I feel liberated after a good long row. And when I’m in a good mood, it’s even better. Gliding along a flat stretch of water on a cool morning gives me a sense of freedom that, for me, can’t be attained through any other medium. The combination of the physical and the spiritual blend into one. I just have to remember to keep looking around ever 3-4 strokes so I don’t crash into anything! (And yes, I’ve forgotten to do that a few times over the decades, and yes, I have paid the price.)

My mom once made an off hand “motherly” kind of comment that really bugged me. (If your parent doesn’t occasionally make a comment that pushes your buttons, please let me know so that I can grant you non-human status.) She said, “I think you should spend more time on your career and less time on all this working out, exercise stuff.” This from a woman who smokes and whose husband died of emphysema. She later retracted the statement, and I forgive her for stuff like that, for half the time, “she knows not what she says.” But it really got to me at the time. Hellooooo!!! Talk about just plain “not getting me.” Does she not realize how my career is simply there to pay the bills, provide for my existence, and essentially enable me to do the thing I truly love? Which would be…you guessed it. Row. Sure I like what I do – I had better, I spend a lot of waking hours doing it – but I’m not trying to claw my way up the corporate ladder for the sake of increasing my social and employment status, not to mention my blood pressure. Not that there’s anything wrong with it! (thanks “Seinfeld”) But it’s just not me. Greg Ruckman once asked me if I liked what I did for work. I said, “Greg, it enables me to row. And that’s all that really matters to me.” See that’s the wonderful thing about rowing – you don’t need to be a two-time Olympian (like Greg) to feel as passionately about the sport as he does.

When I was coaching a few years ago, I urged my guys to take all their personal “issues” – and who doesn’t have them? – and try to channel them. Most people have at least some anger, emotion, and competitiveness in them that has deep roots. I tried to my guys to channel it in a positive way before a race. Take all that life experience and channel it, and then bring it down to one simple idea before the starter says “Go.” And that one idea is, pull as hard as you freakin’ can for the next “x” minutes. Obviously there’s more to a race plan (see Tom Bohrer or many others for ideas). But some personal motivation can go a long way.

Over the past year and a half, I experienced what Queen Elizabeth described at the end of 1992 as an “annus horribilis” – Latin for, “a horrible year.” For her, it was the year her two sons, Charles and Andrew, got divorced, and Windsor Castle caught fire. For me, my brother Jay died, my father died, and my marriage broke up, all in a 13-month period from November 2006 to December 2007. As difficult as it has been, I take comfort in the many blessings that I have, and three spring to mind: The first is the perspective that can only be gained by being stripped down to my raw core, helping me better understand what’s truly important in this life. The second is the great loving friendship that I still have with my soon-to-be-ex, who I met at Riverside in 1989, and of course, the powerful love I share with my two wonderful children. And the third, without question, is rowing.

I think I’m starting to get excited to do some racing this year.

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