What to say about the 2014 Head of the Charles? Other than that this race, in which nearly 11,000 competitors participated this past weekend, holds a deeply special place in my heart?
Well, to begin with, consider that on the waters of the Charles I practiced making my own dreams come true, training for the ’84 Olympics.
I could tell you…
- This was the fiftieth anniversary of the first head race established in the United States and the 46th anniversary of women joining its competitive fray;
- It’s been staged in all kinds of weather – sparkling sunshine, pouring rain, thick flakes of driving snow, muggy and warm, bone chilling cold – under the full gamut of rowing conditions, from dead flat calm to furious white caps.
- The regatta was canceled once, in 1996, due to a hundred year storm, and rowed on a shortened course in 1969 & 2004.
- It’s the largest rowing regatta in the world: 61 events over two days.
- Athletes from all the world’s inhabited continents competed in events that pitted high schoolers against each other and premier university programs against Olympic champions.
- Rowers of all ages, from young punks to octogenarians, wind their way around the course’s four major curves and through its six bridges. The oldest competitor this year was an 87-year-old single sculler racing in the senior veteran women’s single.
Yet none of that begins to capture this event’s personal significance:
- I met my first rowing shell on the third Sunday of October in 1974, on the HOCR’s 10th
- It was love at first sight. I had no idea how deeply this sport would affect me, or how extensively it would transform my life.
- I have raced in this regatta 21 of its 50 years, a total of 24 times, in many categories: singles, doubles, fours and eights, as a spanking new novice, a college varsity athlete, a national team rower, a course record holder, an aging Masters competitor and a getting seriously older Senior Masters participant.
- I have whooped under bridges, yelled at spectators, growled at fellow competitors.
- I know this course so intimately, I can see it with my eyes closed. In fact, I have visualized its angles and imagined its turns to prepare for race days and to distract myself from the pain of childbirth. That time, however, because I didn’t know how long my labor would last, I set a measured pace instead of going all out. Luckily, my son came quickly, before I reached the first mile mark.
- My first race was in the women’s championship eight event in 1975. We finished 22nd in a field of 39.
- I turned in my best performance in 1982, when I won the women’s championship single event for the first time and set a course record that stood for over thirty years.
- In 1991, I raced in a four to commemorate the death of my close friend, Hope Barnes, captain of our 1980 Olympic team and two-time HOCR gold medalist. That year, the Barnes Trophy was awarded to the winner of the women’s championship four event for the first time.
- I have raced a double with my favorite partner in crime, fellow Olympian Anne Martin, five times. Sometimes she strokes and I steer, sometimes she makes me stroke and she steers. Either way, despite our penchant for under-training, we inevitably row a strong race and get off the water feeling proud of ourselves, regardless of our actual results.
- In 2008 my oldest son, Gilder, and I competed in the parent/child double event for the first time. As we rowed out from under the first bridge, less than a minute into the race, he let loose a shout, an exclamation of pure joy. “OMG, he really is my son,” I thought, for I had done just that myself in my younger years. We hit a submerged log and lost our skeg in the race’s last forty strokes, yet still managed to beat a fellow Olympian and his son. Definitely a rowing – and life – highlight.
Rowing is so freeing. Pouring all of yourself into an oar, not just your physical power, but your life essence, to propel a long, narrow boat through the water, creating an ephemeral instant of beauty. It’s not only about testing yourself against another, but testing yourself: to ignore the outside world’s distractions, and your own internal ones. Divinity lurks in those instants when life telescopes onto doing one thing well, one that requires precision, timing, elegance, raw strength, and concentration in the drive for perfection.
And there is magic in a sport that birthed my first fantastic dream and then taught me how to pursue and realize it.