91. Becoming an Athlete

91. Becoming an Athlete

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Campus Chronicles

Becoming an Athlete

Endurance is one of the most difficult disciplines, but it is to the one who endures that the final victory comes.


I stood on the scale in the shellhouse and looked at the lever hanging in perfect balance. This isn’t going to work, I thought, nudging the balance of the weight up a few notches and stepping off the scale.

“One hundred thirty-seven,” I reported to my crew coach. Without looking up from her clipboard, she recorded my weight. I went to join my teammates.

As I sat on the ergometer rowing machine and tightened the straps around my shoes, I thought about what I had just done. It wasn’t the first time I had lied about my weight. But it was the first time I had ever lied about weighing more than I actually did. I picked up the handle, took a deep breath, and started to row.

During my first week at the University of Washington I saw a flier recruiting students for the school’s world-class crew program, which had a long history of winning championships and producing Olympic athletes. No rowing experience was required. At the initial meeting, the coaches told the assembled freshmen that they were looking for girls who were tall, strong, and relentlessly athletic.

At 5-feet-7-inches, I wasn’t very tall compared to the other girls. I had just enough coordination to be an average runner and softball player at my small, rural high school, but not enough natural ability or drive to excel. The crew coaches said they wouldn’t turn anyone away who showed up for practice every day and worked hard, and I knew I could at least do that. I wanted so much to belong somewhere, I didn’t care if I wasn’t an exact fit.

The freshmen on the novice women’s team met in the basement. We’d check the board where each person’s name was written on a Popsicle stick and assigned to a position in a boat, and then we’d stretch on the concrete floor between the long rows of rowing shells stacked horizontally on racks.

Even though I liked being out on the water, I didn’t feel I was part of the team. Secretly, I knew that I’d never be a real athlete like the other girls. The coaches knew it, too. But it wasn’t as though they didn’t give me a chance. Sometimes, I’d show up for practice and find that the Popsicle stick with my name on it had been moved up to the second boat on the board, and my stomach would knot. On the water that day, the coaches would watch the boat carefully, timing the 500-meter sprints through the Montlake Cut between Lake Washington and Lake Union, to see how my presence changed the boat. If I could make the boat go faster, I could take that seat. The coaches never said anything to me about it, but the next day my Popsicle stick would be back in the lineup for the last boat.

When it was cold and dark and raining, I showed up for practice only because I knew if I didn’t, the coaches might not let me come back. I’d do an extra workout sometimes, burning so many calories I’d have to eat five or six meals a day just to have enough energy to get through practice. I prayed that I’d gain weight.

One hundred thirty-seven, I thought as I rowed on the erg after weighing in. I realized that over the course of the winter, I had quietly abandoned the eating disorder I’d been flirting with in high school. I could tell my body was getting stronger, and I suspected I was becoming an athlete.

That spring when we switched to 6 A.M. practices, enough girls had dropped out that my eight was reduced to a four-person boat. The coaches moved me up to the stroke seat.

“No matter how bad it hurts, you’re not going to die,” our coach yelled from the small motorboat as she followed us on Lake Union. “Remember, this is what it’s like to work hard!”

Days when I had a fight with my boyfriend and wanted to hide from the world, I dreaded going to another practice. But now I had to show up every day for the other girls in the boat — they couldn’t go out on the water without me.

While the girls in the other boats had regattas and championships to look forward to, my boat wouldn’t be going to those events. Our biggest race of the year would be the Windermere Cup on Opening Day of boating season where we’d be racing against local rowing clubs and colleges. By the time we maneuvered our shell into the starting position on the day of the race, two solid rows of motor boats, pleasure boats, and small yachts lined the course in a straight path to the finish line 2,000 meters away just beyond the Montlake Bridge. This was the moment we’d been training for all year long.

The race was a blur of color, of trying to hear the coxswain scream instructions to us over the roar of the crowd, of seeing the shells on either side of us pull a few seats ahead and then move out of sight. After gliding across the finish line, I turned to look at the girls in my boat. We had worked together as a team and had pulled as hard as we could, and we still finished last. They all had big grins on their faces, just like me. I felt like an athlete.

At the end of the season, I went out with a teammate a couple of times to scull in a two-person boat, but by summer, I had given up rowing. At the start of my sophomore year, I didn’t go back to practice. I knew that the way my body was built, I’d never be able to physically compete with the bigger girls, and I didn’t think I’d be missed.

Later, I learned from a friend that my coach had known all along that I’d lied about my weight when I was on the team. I wondered why my coach had never said anything. Maybe my coach had more faith in me that I gave her credit for. She might have sensed that being on the crew team was my refuge.

I don’t know if the crew coaches meant to teach me the most important thing I would ever learn about being an athlete — the lesson of endurance. I think they were just trying to produce good rowers who knew how to want something and how to work hard every day to reach a goal. But I carried this idea of endurance — of my own capacity for enduring and for surviving — through my junior year when I ended a bad relationship, and through the year after that when I struggled to the finish line of a marathon senior year of college. No matter how badly it hurt at the time, it wasn’t going to kill me.

This is what it feels like to work hard, I thought, after I had graduated from college and pushed through the last miles of an Ironman Triathlon to finish third in my age group. It feels good.

~Jennifer Colvin

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