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Four years of magical thinking

April 19, 2024

Luke Robinson

“I think I need to experience ego death” is scrawled in looping script across two pages of my journal, a keepsake from an especially taxing Sunday a week before spring break. Don’t worry! Even then, I saw the ridiculousness of that action, and figuring that a run might do more to kill my ego than diarism, I flipped my notebook closed. The mood-boosting effects of exercise are well established; there are certainly worse ways to cope with an overgrown sense of self. So, I searched “ego death” on Spotify and hoped that acid rock might guide my all-too-sober trip. Recovering from a cold, I ran in short bursts to punish myself for thinking about myself, ending up, more than once, with my hand braced against a tree, catching my breath. I hardly need to say that, though my pride was hurt, I left the Commons with my ego well intact.

The source of my failure was not that I turned to exercise but rather running in particular. I am not, nor have I ever been, very good at it. Save for the anguish of being on the outs of the social powerhouse that is the Brooklyn chapter of the American Youth Soccer Organization, my hatred of running has come at a low cost. That is, until now. Facing graduation, with only the Instagrams of former peers to show me what’s in store, evidence suggests that I must run a marathon.

Perhaps I follow a disproportionate number of masochistic exercise addicts. It’s true that the sheer quantity of flushed cheeks and “heartbreak hill” geotags that pepper my feed say more about my particular acquaintances than the general expectations facing post-grads, but even the New York Times finds the growing rate of marathoners to be worthy of its morning newsletter. You might suggest that I avoid the trials of 26.2 miles through the accomplishment of some other milestone, but I’d like some time before grad school and a ring by spring seems unlikely. Besides, I’ve accepted my fate. Come June, I’ll download Strava, overcome my aversion to trots lasting more than 25 minutes and fall in line with those who have come before me. Soon, bound by whatever natural law governs NESCAC grads with the sole career prospect of “finding themselves,” I will be confined to a life of long runs and Kudos.

My next month, though, belongs to Bowdoin Rowing. For six of my seven on-campus semesters, the rowing team has been a fixture. The August before my first year, before any Zoom meetings with deans or “Quarientation” leaders, I met with rowing upperclassmen and a girl from my year with an elephant seal Instagram profile picture, who my mother accurately predicted would become my best friend.

I spent my mornings that first semester in a single, a boat significantly narrower than my hips and prone to capsizing. I missed social cues, spoke out of turn and, despite all this self-sabotage, made friends. Rowing was the bright light of a semester that otherwise threatened to be dismally dark.

Forgive my sentimentality and allow a bit more. You see, college sports welcome platitudes and also shoddy statistics. Here is one of each: The first, “rowing is the ultimate team sport,” from an unknown original source; the second, according to USRowing’s Quick Facts, “Physiologists claim that rowing a 2,000-meter race—equivalent to 1.25 miles—is equal to playing back-to-back basketball games.” Both are admittedly ridiculous, and at risk of sacrificing some of your intellectual respect, I’ll tell you that I believe in them.

My faith in that second tenet is easier to articulate: At this latitude, the elements pose a challenge, and on mornings when temperatures threaten to dip below freezing, one relies on the powers of synthetic fleece and that impressive aerobic exchange. I cannot be sure if a given practice was one basketball game or three; I played for only a brief stint in the 6th grade. What I know is that, while rowing, the air moves through you, stoking the burning coals of your lungs, and as that furnace finds its flow, the fleece begins to feel like deadweight. The mechanism is, of course, imperfect; I laid awake one night last week wincing with the acute pain of a frost-bitten big toe.

That first more ambiguous, and entirely subjective, declaration is harder to prove. There are physical components of the sport that make it leveling, but the “ultimate team sport” is made so through the metaphysical. Without the possibility for a star player, strengths and weaknesses blend until members of a crew are indistinguishable. Individual brawn can even be a hindrance if it is applied out of time, without regard for the fact that the source of any boat’s speed is the melding of minds and bodies to the point that all move as one. In a race, there is no opportunity to regroup after a rough stroke, no solace to be found in your teammate’s smile; there is only faith that you will recover together, and that everyone suffers lactic acid ridden quadriceps in pursuit of shared victory. I’ve felt keenly the effects of this willing sacrifice of self and have not worried about my ego, outsized or otherwise, since the start of the season.

I row because my father did and because the New Meadows River is home to an impressive population of great blue herons. The birds dot the shoreline, wading through marsh on Jurassic legs, and, to my father, they are his brother Matt, just stopping through. It seems that superstition is as hereditary as rowing, for I’ve come to depend on the herons too. In feathered form, Uncle Matt, who knew resilience better than most, flies overhead to say, “You are where you need to be. Keep pulling.”

During a race, when the body threatens to quit, a kind of magical thinking takes hold, and I have realized, more than once, that the privilege of pain is as much about those who cannot be beside me as it is about my boatmates. All of Bowdoin Rowing knows this. There is not a day that passes without Henry Zietlow’s ’22 Free Speed gliding over the water. Every rose-colored sunrise is Charlotte Billingsley’s ’24 unmistakable fire-red hair spread out across the sky. Our coaches know this, ending practice with a cheer through gritted teeth. “It’s a great day to be alive,” Coach Welling yells in a voice that bellows out over the boatyard, and like a pack of wolves or a crazed concert crowd, the team replies, “JOY, JOY, JOY.” Those cries sing the body electric, and I do not need to look into my teammates’ eyes to know that our hearts beat faster together.

Like an endorphin-induced high, my time on Bowdoin Rowing is necessarily fleeting. I will row my last race, call out my last cheer and leave with the option of returning as a proudly washed-up alumna. I know, though, that I’ll continue searching for something that mimics the resonance of those thrice-called joys. Maybe I’ll find some of it amid thousands of strangers plodding across the Verrazano Bridge, but I’d willingly bet that my best shot is through a continued reverence for sweat-headbands, sunrises and herons.


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