May 6, 2008
“Injury” is the Great Feared Word among competitive rowers. And the more competitive you are, the more you fear getting injured. If you’re in a group like Riverside Boat Club’s High Performance Group, for example, you’re training at least 9-12 times a week with a select crowd of highly competitive athletes who are all doing their utmost to improve individually and also kick your ass and everyone else’s. Your life consists of rowing, eating, and sleeping – in that order. If you work, it’s likely that at least part of your day is devoted to sleeping, when you’re not staring at your computer screen like a zombie. In a few cases, rowers of this caliber have real jobs. How they do it is beyond me (though I did spend one winter living that life and I had a real job, in addition to a wife and two small children). Rob Zechmann is one such example – he’s an engineer. There are many others. But the lucky ones in these groups have easier jobs, which require little to no thinking and may be part-time, or they have no jobs at all (i.e., mom & dad are footing the bill).
So everyone is beating the crap out of him/herself on a daily basis. Coaches love this – the harder they work their minions, the greater the chance of “natural selection:” the inevitable fact that some will get injured and have to drop out. That just makes the coach’s job easier! But for the athlete, getting injured is the worst-case scenario. When you’re living this life, you become addicted to it. You love the punishment, the exhaustion, because you have a single-minded focus of achieving what you always wanted to achieve – an ass-kicking performance at the ultimate race, the U.S. National or Olympic team trials. And if that doesn’t work out, you can take out your aggression at Club Nationals and/or Canadian Henley.
But it’s not just that one race you’re living for. You live for the process. The daily pieces against your peers. The progress that you’re making, week by week, as your body responds to the incredibly grueling schedule. Because if you don’t fall apart, you will get faster, unless your technique is simply beyond hope. Even then, you can hammer your way down the course – however grotesquely it may look – a lot faster than you could a few months prior.
But then something happens. Your worst nightmare. You’re powering along on a cold spring morning and feel a sharp pain in your lower back, or perhaps your rib. Or you’re in the weight room and you’re pissed off about something and lose your focus and overdo it. Or you don’t feel anything until the end of the workout when you try to lift your boat out of the water and again, there’s a sharp pain somewhere. And you say, “Noooo, noooooooo, this is not happening! It’s not an injury! It’s just a little pain. I’ll get over it. I have to get over it!” But the days pass, and you try to row and the pain not only doesn’t go away, it gets worse. Some, who are inexperienced (like I was in the early months of 2002) say, fine, the regatta is 2 months away, “I’ll train through the pain.” And if you’re that stupid, as I was, you will end up missing the entire season, as I did, and you will be completely and utterly heartbroken. But if you’re smart, you will say, ok, I will do what experienced athletes do and focus all my energy on healing the injury.
Unfortunately that requires a little thing called acceptance. And acceptance requires admitting it to others. And when you do, it’s like you’re telling them you have cancer or AIDS. They say, “Oh, I’m…..so, so sorry…” as if your mom had just died. They look at you with this very sad face, and then they slowly back away, because your injury cooties might rub off on them. And all of a sudden, just like that, you’re out of the group. You’re no longer joining in the reindeer games every day. While they’re all out there having fun (so to speak) on the water, you’re on the bike, nursing your broken rib. Or if you have a hamstring injury (like I did), you’re sitting in physical therapy, waiting in line for the electro-shock treatment with all the other pathetic souls. Your dream is shattered and your life is ruined. You cry yourself to sleep at night (okay maybe you only do that if you’re me). And worst of all, you talk, and talk, and talk……about your injury, to anyone who will listen. People in cafes. People on the subway. “See, I was going to be so great, and then I got injured…..” Of course you don’t talk about it that much to your rowing colleagues, because first of all, they really don’t want to hear about it (again, the injury cooties), and secondly, they’re all out there training like crazy and they simply don’t have the time, energy, or interest in playing psychologist/nursemaid to you.
But for the rest of the world who has to listen to you complain about it, have some pity on them and spare them ALL the details. Learn to sum it up in a few quick sentences, if you must talk about it. Or better, find a new hobby – you’ll be a lot happier in the end. And when you least expect it (later, not sooner), you’ll be recovered and back out there. It’s just a little injury after all.