When Everything Goes Wrong In Rowing

What do you do when everything goes wrong in Rowing? Just ask Boathouse Ambassador Stuart McDonald and crew who had to physically and mentally overcome a barrage of bizarre challenges while competing last year in Yangzhou. From being assigned the wrong boat to “the bow of the boat not being on the boat anymore”, this crew had to think quick and improvise to make it to the finish line. 

A great start – we somehow got the boat meant for the largest weight class of our team; we were the lightweights. 

We had been training together for ten long weeks leading up to this race. After our five hour bus ride from the scorching Deep Dive Club in Yangzhou, we walked from our crisp, air conditioned rooms to the race course, where we would first get hands on the boat provided to us for the competition. The first thing we notice is that we somehow got the boat meant for the largest weight class of our team; we were the lightweights. After running around looking at the boats that the Open Men’s and Women’s 4-s were given, we convinced them that it would be the best for every boat if we traded so everyone got a boat closer to their weight classes.

The next hurdle: playing musical chairs in a boat.

Thinking the toughest hurdle was behind us, it came time to re-rig the boat to the specifications we had been practicing in all summer: a port-stroked bucket rig, with steering in 3 seat. I sat in stroke seat; throughout the summer I had realized that toe steering is not my strong suit, to say the very least, so we put steering into the much more capable toes of Nick Taylor – 3 seat. The next hurdle we encountered was that our shiny new Peisheng could not be rigged as a bucket; Ash would have to move from 2 seat to bow, his natural seat. Brian moved from bow to 2 seat. This only meant that the boat would not go as straight down the course because of our pressure differences in each seat – not a huge deal. The women had a similar problem, but it resulted in someone else having to stroke the 4 for the first time – not an ideal situation to be in two days before your first international race. As for our steering problem: we were able to rig the steering with some longer wire, long plastic tubes, and a whole lot of electrical tape. With that, we were ready to launch.

The bow of our boat was not on our boat anymore. 

Our coach Adrian Spracklen, of Mercyhurst University, instructed us to take a lap on the course and just get a feel for the boat; if something was off, we would spin and come back in so we could fix it. Half way down the course, we had to stop. The steering system had seized up and Nick couldn’t move the wire. It was so hot out – the weather said it felt like 118 degrees Fahrenheit – that the plastic coating on the wire and the plastic tubes had expanded and wouldn't budge. We decided we would steer the remainder of the course using pressure, and we did it rather well. All paying attention to the steering, we meticulously threaded the bow of our boat down the narrow lane towards the starting line, swinging nicely at 22 strokes per minute. All of a sudden, our boat comes to a stop within a foot of space: we were too focused on steering the boat that we ran into the start dock. The bow of our boat was…not on our boat anymore. After the shock had subsided, we managed to get off the start dock and paddle our way over to the shore of the start line where a coach from the Netherlands Team was eager to lend a hand. Somehow, we managed to wet dock our boat and get it up the hill onto the bike path, beginning the longest 2 kilometer walk of my life.

We had just put in upwards of eleven practices per week for ten weeks; was it all going to be for nothing?

The tension was palpable. Not much was said. In fact, the only words that we shared was when we switched on and off the boat and oars. With a blank stare, I walked and thought about what we were going to do. We had just put in upwards of eleven practices per week for ten weeks leading up to this event; was it all going to be for nothing? How mad was our coach going to be? Around the 1750m mark – 250 meters until the dock – the Women’s 4- met us to help carry our boat, and told us that the same thing had happened to them – they had ran into the start dock too. With the glare of the sun on a reflective aluminum surface, the start dock was rather hard to see. Upon returning to the rack where our boat was originally located, I locked eyes with our coach, Adrian. I was expecting the worst. “Is everyone okay? No whiplash?” Adrian’s caring expression looked to be unfazed by the situation at hand. I almost sighed of relief.

We met up with Adrian. After he made sure that none of us were harmed, he immediately started thinking about how we were going to get another boat. He knew that things would work out, and ensured us that we would race. I have never met someone who was so competent at calming down a crew and instilling in them so much faith. He said, “You guys are competent athletes. You need to recollect yourselves and raise your chins. There is no point in me finding another boat for you to race if you are not mentally ready.” And that is what we did. It took a few minutes, but we soon began talking about what had happened and joking about it. “At least we were going fast enough to completely take off the bow. That’s a good sign…”.  “Yeah, at least we are starting our international racing careers with a bang!” We laughed.

Acknowledging the elephant in the room was important; it’s not going to hide, and unless you stare it down, it will get the best of you. For the next few days, we practiced in the women’s boat. Luckily for us, they had a similar weight class to ours, so we fit rather well into their boat; initially, we were content. However, we reencountered the steering problem. They had stroke seat steering. It was my turn to try steering again. The last time I had steered a boat, I weaved through the buoy line six or seven times in the course of 1 kilometer, and that was after having to restart the pieces a few times because I kept running into the other boat in fear of running aground. I thought back to what Adrian said to us: you are a competent athlete. I raised my chin and got into the boat, telling myself that I was more than capable of steering a perfectly straight course. And I was. In our first race, I steered a straight course, not hitting a single buoy.

When Everything Goes Wrong in Rowing

(Left: Stuart reppin’ strength and freedom in the Boathouse Eagle Tee. Right: The Waterproof Gore-Tex Stevenson Jacket saves the (rainy) day again.) 

Racing is 90% mental, 10% athletic.

The night before that first race, we had a boat meeting with Adrian. It was then when he told me something that I will never forget: “racing is 90% mental, 10% athletic.” At first, I thought he was insane, but now, I couldn’t agree more. Your mentality and belief in yourself is what carries you from the start of a race through the finish line, as well as many other aspects of your life. 

We raced in the final and placed 4th in the Lightweight Men’s 4.

In the end, we raced in the final and placed 4th in the Lightweight Men’s 4-. Looking back at this experience really made me think back to one of our very first practices at the World University Championships camp. After a practice in a Lightweight 2- on the roughest water I have ever been on, Gregg Harstuff wisely said, “rowing is not a sport where you can just wait and hope,” referring to the hope that the conditions on race day will be ideal – because odds are, they won't be. Rowing is not a sport for hope – it requires hard work, dedication, discipline, and confidence. I do not regret running our boat into the start dock in China; I’m not saying I would opt to do it again, but having to experience some of the worst conditions and obstacles leading up to the largest race of my rowing career taught me how to be an athlete and how to face obstacles head-on and with self-confidence. I have been able to carry that sense of confidence into other facets of my life, and I am better for it. Having struggled with self-confidence my entire life, I almost found myself having to doubt the voice in my head that said “you can't”. You will surprise yourself with the things you can accomplish by just telling yourself “you can”.

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