A woman-of-a-certain age takes up rowing to get fit—and discovers benefits way beyond the physical.
When I emailed the Nashville Rowing Club on New Year’s Day, 2010, about its Learn-to-Row classes, it was far from a spur-of-the-moment thing: I had dreamed of being a rower for more than 20 years. Back then, in my late-20s, I had watched scullers carving elegant lines in the deep green water of Town Lake, the part of the Colorado River that runs through Austin, Texas (now known as Lady Bird Lake after the former First Lady). I loved the solitude, the rhythm, the beauty of the scene. There was a romance about rowing that I certainly couldn’t find in a gym, slogging away on a treadmill under fluorescent lights.
But the care and feeding of my career—including multiple interstate moves that took me away from that idyllic setting—interrupted my rowing dream. Instead, I contented myself with running, wracking up miles and marathons over the years. I got married, had a son, and spent way too much time on treadmills, determined to stay fit despite fulltime work and motherhood.
On January 1 two years ago, though, I found myself contemplating New Year’s resolutions as a newly minted 50-year-old. Body beaten down from running, I was looking for a change. So I got online, did a little investigating, and signed up for the class, to be held on two consecutive weekends that coming May. A dream again deferred—but this time, I was determined to see it through.
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That determination wavered as life took a major turn in the intervening four months. My dad, who had been diagnosed with prostate cancer 10 years before and had been coping fairly well, suddenly and steeply declined. He went from minorly achy to nearly immobile, such that he needed assistance getting in and out of chairs and walking, until he could no longer do either. We signed him up for experimental treatments and moved him to a rehabilitation residence in Houston, where my parents, brothers and sister live. I began flying back and forth every few weeks to provide respite for my mom and siblings (who were taking shifts staying with dad almost round-the-clock) and just to be with him, because, frankly, I didn’t know how long I would have that option.
It would have been easy to put off rowing for another time, in light of all that was happening in my life. How could I think of beginnings when my family was so close to such a painful end?
This was my rather conflicted context, then, as I made the 30-minute drive out to Percy Priest Lake that May morning for the first of two 2-hour Learn-to-Row sessions. As I parked in the gravel lot next to the sailboat marina, I spied an eight (what sweep rowers call a boat with eight rowers, four on port and four on starboard) heading into the dock. The women moved in what seemed to be perfect synchronicity, gliding back and forth in the needle-like shell. How exciting to think I would soon be doing the same!
But I was jumping ahead, as I do with most things—wanting to skip from A to Z, forgetting that there are all those other annoying little letters in between. I discovered pretty quickly that I wouldn’t be doing much gliding anytime soon.
The instructor—who I later found out was, like everyone else in the club, a volunteer—introduced himself and explained what we’d be doing that day. We’d start by practicing the basic stroke on a rowing machine, aka ergometer (or “erg,” for short). As much as I wanted to get onto the water, I was happy to have some instruction on erging—I’d tried to do it at the Y before, but I was never quite sure if I was using the thing right. And sure enough, I wasn’t. With some pointers from Don (a former FBI agent with the kind of gruff exterior you’d expect from an ex-G-man), I figured out that I was focusing too much on pulling with my arms and not enough on driving with my legs. He showed us the somewhat counterintuitive body position for the drive—legs, back, arms—and recovery—arms, back, legs. Then, he had each of us take turns on the five or six ergs set up on the porch of the marina headquarters for the purposes of the class.
As I watched Don doing the stroke, I had that same can-do feeling I had at the sight of the women’s eight that morning. Got it—this should be pretty easy. But once on the erg, I felt like a fumbling fool. My body and brain didn’t seem to be speaking the same language. Don went around, assessing our form. “Slow the recovery! Keep your arms straight until your legs are completely extended!” Nothing about the stroke, it seemed, was natural. I did get a taste, though, of the incredible workout rowing would be not only for my legs and arms, but for the core muscles called on when you swing through the stroke.
I didn’t feel particularly confident when, after only a few minutes on the ergs, we went down to the water. None of us did, really. Our group of about 10 was a real mix—men and women, young 20-somethings and not-so-young folks like me in their 40s, 50s, even 60s. There were noises of apprehension from the lot of us as we made our way down to the dock.
Instead of a sleek eight, waiting for us was “the barge”—two eights side-by side, bridged with a three-foot-wide wooden deck. Barges, I would learn, are great for teaching beginning sweep rowers as they’re almost completely stable. No worries about balancing (or “setting,” in the jargon) the boat, you can concentrate fully on getting the hang of the stroke and moving together. Joined by another coach, Forrest, Don stationed himself on the deck of the barge and gave us some basic instruction on the boat. He pointed out the stern and bow, port and starboard; showed us the oarlock where we place our oars (or “blades,” as the veterans call them). The sheer amount of terminology and logistics, I have to say, was intimidating. I’ve always wanted to keep fitness pretty simple, preferring to spend my time actually moving rather than preparing to move.
Soon enough, though, we were ready to step out of our shoes, put foot to the narrow strip on the boat deck (we were emphatically warned not to step on the hull, as we could puncture the thin aluminum shell), and lower ourselves onto the sliding seat. This in itself took some coordination and balance. I was on the starboard side, which means my oar was on the left side of the boat. In sweep rowing—unlike erging or sculling—you have only one oar, which you move in a horizontal arc back to the “catch,” where you drop it in the water. From there, you push with your legs until they’re fully extended, your seat sliding to the rear of the boat, pulling your arms in to just below your breastbone. The outside hand (my right) pushes down on the oar to pop it out of the water at what’s called the “finish.” Next, you “feather” the blade by turning the oar handle with your inside hand so that the blade is parallel to the water. While moving back up the slide, you feather the blade back so that it’s perpendicular to the water, preparing to drop it into the water for another catch.
If you’re confused, imagine how I felt actually trying to do this. We battled our way around the cove, splashing, knocking oars, looking more like a drowning beetle, legs splaying frantically, than the elegant, synchronized machine I imagined myself in.
But here’s the thing: The experienced rowers who joined us in the barge were SO encouraging and helpful, it was almost impossible to get frustrated, even for somewhat short-fused folks like me. I would learn over the next several months that this is status quo, at least for our club. It amazed me that these people (many of whom had only been rowing for a few seasons or so) were so passionate about the sport that they’d spend their time and efforts to bring us newbies along. Everyone was so welcoming, patient, warm. And many of the most involved club members were women and men my age, or near my age. Being fairly new to Nashville, I could see in their faces the makings of new friendships, something I sorely needed.
I left the lake, beginning to realize that rowing wasn’t just a way to get a great workout. It was a discipline, a process, a practice, really, in the sense that yoga is a practice. I had to decide if I was really up for that—if I wanted to commit to something that will require me to maintain the mind of a beginner, probably for the duration of my rowing career, even if I’m doing it for the next 20 years. It would take work, and time, and the ability to see myself critically, and teamwork, and humility, and patience, to get to that place of beauty and grace.
I’ve come to believe that the things I fear most are the things that have the most potential to give me joy. How, then, could I not follow through with this rowing thing? Rowing would bring me face-to-face with—and expose to the rest of my crew—my flaws, not an easy thing for a recovering perfectionist to swallow. I realized, over the next few months as I continued to show up at the lake, that rowing wasn’t just the sport my Baby-Boomer body needed. It would be as much of a workout for my psyche and soul as my heart, lungs and muscles.
My dad died that July. He was much on my mind on my trips to the lake, often my only moments of solitude during that time. My memories of the last months with him (I continued to travel to Houston every few weeks, and was with him at the end) have become inextricably linked to rowing. In addition to everything else it does for me, it somehow keeps him close.
What to Wear
- On your body: Rowers have to be careful not to wear long, loose tops or loose bottoms, as they may get caught in the sliding seat. Choose compression shorts, capris or tights, and fitted tops instead.
- On your hands: During the first few times out, your hands may develop blisters from gripping the oars. It’s best to allow yourself to build up calluses if you think you’ll make rowing a long-term thing. If you have painful blisters, though, use a waterproof athletic tape (available at drugstores) to protect them.
- On your feet: Most boats have built-in shoes—so whatever you wear on your feet, make sure you have socks for the boat. If you do need footwear for the boat, it’s best to avoid open-back or open-toe sandals; waterproof shoes (like Keens) or sneakers you don’t mind getting wet are best.
- On your head: Hat and sunglasses to protect yourself from the sun; also wear sunscreen all over (especially if you don’t want some wicked tan lines).
- Most clubs will provide everything you need. Bring a water bottle and maybe a towel, in case you get splashed by another rower’s oar.
Do’s and Don’ts
-Do participate in this year’s National Learn to Row Day on June 2. Find a participating club near you and get tons of resources at http://www.usrowing.org/events/NLTRD.aspx.
-Do investigate clubs in your area. Most have master’s programs requiring varying degrees of commitment (for instance, if you graduate to a competitive program after completing novice instruction, you may be expected to put in several hours a week of on-the-water practice). Typically, you are required to pay dues ($200-$600, typically) in order to have access to the equipment and coaching provided by the club. Introductory lessons are typically much cheaper.
-Do call ahead and ask about anything you may need to bring to the class (just in case). You will most likely need to sign a waiver before getting on the water to release instructors of liability.
-Do practice on a rowing machine, if you can, between sessions on the water. The Row2K and Concept2 websites both have videos on ergometer technique.
-Do expect to commit to on-the-water rowing at least once a week. Rowing can be a year-round sport, depending on where you live (or how hardy you are), but lots of folks row spring, summer and fall.
-Don’t give up. Rowing can be frustrating as it’s somewhat counterintuitive, but you’ll find that even the most seasoned rowers are learning new things all the time and working on technique.
-Do attend a regatta to see master’s rowers compete, if you can. You’ll get inspired by the men and women of all ages who are racing. Bonus: Master’s competitors receive a handicap based on age, so the older you are, the more of an advantage you have!
-Do enjoy the physical benefits of rowing: It’s great for that all-important core strength, especially for women and men of a certain age, with zero impact on aging joints.