On a sunny autumn afternoon in Boston, I jumped into a cab at Logan Airport. I was to row my single shell at the Head of the Charles Regatta. This is one of the largest rowing regattas in the world, and all of Boston turns out to watch the races for two days in October. It’s a big, bodacious deal.
My driver said something about the rowers who were practicing on the river. When I proudly told him I was rowing in that very regatta, he was super excited. He’d never driven a rower in his cab before! I was touched…until our conversation went off the rails:
Cab driver: So what do you get if you win your race?
Me (excitedly): A medal!
Cab Driver: And what else?
Me (pausing): Ah…nothing really.
Cab Driver (pausing): Don’t they give you money?
Me (laughing weakly): Ah…no.
Cab Driver: Do you have to pay to be in the races?
Me (swallowing hard): Yes. $130.
Cab Driver: How many races you in?
Me (flinching): Ah…one.
Cab Driver: So let me get this straight. You pay to fly here and stay in a hotel here. You race in one race, and if you win you get…nothing?
Me (wincing): That’s right.
Cab Driver: You are crazy, lady.
In case you are wondering, I still tipped him. The guy had a point.
It’s a sad fact that winning a rowing race gets you a medal, but doesn’t get you a t-shirt. (Those are usually for sale, proceeds to support the regatta.) Many rowing coaches make wages that can’t support active life on Earth. World-class rowers sometimes live below the poverty line to fulfill their rowing aspirations. (See this recent article on rowing Olympian Megan Kalmoe. I love her, I love her blog, and her viewpoint on best-of-the-best rowing rocks.)
I wish I lived in a world where those who pursue their passion don’t ever have to worry about paying their bills.
But I love that I live in a world where people pursue their passion in spite of their bills.
Rowing is a sport of such people. Primadonnas looking to make a buck need not apply. If you become a rowing coach, or make it to the rowing big leagues, you will need to find an alternative way to support yourself, or expect not to live very large.
When you think about it, it stands to reason that rowing isn’t about flash or bling. Watch any rowing shell, on any lake or river in the world. If one person stands out in a rowing shell, it’s likely because they are the worst rower in the boat. The best rowers blend in. They don’t draw attention to themselves. They aren’t splashy. (Ha-ha, pun intended.)
So why do rowers race for no recognition, and coaches coach for meager salaries? Because rowing pays you back in lovely ways that defy the mighty dollar. When the boat is moving so well that it cuts the water and you feel light, fast, and almost aerodynamic. When your body mirrors those of your teammates and together you create a movement so graceful, so beautiful, that few in the world know can do it successfully. When you get out of the boat so tired that your legs buckle, so beat that you feel dizzy—and yet, you are still smiling. When you push yourself so hard that the pain threatens to overwhelm you--but you finish the race or the piece and learn that you are made of tougher stuff than you once thought.
And although a free t-shirt once in a while would be nice, most days just rowing is enough.