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Amherst teen says rowing has changed her life

This summer marked the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. People around the world watched in awe as their favorite athletes participated in their favorite events, such as swimmer Michael Phelps and runner Alison Felix. However, people seemed rather thrown off guard when they heard that in a moment of triumph, eight women took home a gold medal for the United States in the women's eight rowing category. People stared at their televisions wondering why, in what seemed to be such a short race, the rowers were getting sick over the side of their boats, and why the simple act of pulling an oar was causing so much blood to be dispersed from their hands. Well, that was what I used to think up until a year ago, when I became a rower at West Side Rowing Club.

Although rowing is considered to be the oldest collegiate sport, not many people are aware of what really goes on behind the scenes. It's simple really, just a boat being pushed through a water course by people who are listening to the directions of another person who sits in the front or back of the boat. This person is known as a coxswain, or cox. Coxes usually have small-framed bodies with no fat. The only thing not so small about them is their voice, which can be heard yelling at rowers during any point of a race. Boats, on the other hand, come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from a double (two rowers), a single (one rower), a four (four rowers) and an eight (eight rowers). Each boat then breaks into its own category, whether it be lightweight, heavyweight, novice, varsity, etc. Rowers then are assigned seats based on height, strength and technique.

Initially, when I signed up as a novice for West Side Rowing Club, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I figured it was going to be a nice way to meet people and get some exercise. This was all true. However, I did not realize the physical toll this sport would take on my body. The realization hit the first time my novice crew did what we rowers call a "2k" on the erg (rowing machine). It seems pretty straightforward. You hop on the erg and pull as hard, effectively and consistently as you can for 2,000 meters, the standard race course length in the spring and summer seasons. It ranges from seven to nine minutes, depending on the rower, but as any rower would say, it is the worst seven to nine minutes ever. Every part of your body is screaming no, and threatening to give out on you, but somehow you have to persevere and power through the pain. I would later find out as I progressed through my rowing career that a 2k was the least of my problems, as the whole winter season was dedicated to spending every practice on an erg doing what seemed to be the impossible. As bad as this may seem, I'm here to say that it really is not. Despite the pain, the feeling afterward of knowing that you are able to complete such a task is a great feeling.

Erging, luckily, is not the only thing that rowers do; much of their time is spent on the water. Normally a boat (shell) will go out for practice with a cox steering, while the coach follows in an accompanying motorboat. The coach then sets up drills and "pieces" designed to help each rower become more skilled, efficient and stronger. During all this, coxes then make sure rowers are staying focused and perfectly executing what the coaches are telling them to do. Pieces are usually physically demanding, and a rower can usually feel the soreness in his or her body the next day. However, they are also effective, and if a rower really tries and puts forth his or her best effort during practice, improvements can be seen instantly.

Rowing is different than most high school sports because instead of having meets or games, there are regattas - days dedicated to racing. The race courses at regattas change in length, depending on the season. In the fall, the regatta courses are around 5,000 to 6,000 meters; in spring and summer, they are around 2,000 meters.

To make it to a regatta, rowers have to earn a spot in a boat, which requires a lot of dedication and motivation. Once you make it into a boat and are waiting at the starting line, nothing can really explain the adrenaline that begins to pump through your veins. Then, when the official declares the start of the race, everything seems to happen in slow motion. Initially you start off feeling strong and powerful. That is until you reach the halfway point and all you want to do is stop. However, since you are facing and moving backward during a race, all you can do is look at your competitors, which is the motivation to stay strong and try to win the race. Nothing can compare with the moment when you can see all of your competitors falling behind you on the race course and knowing that you have claimed the first-place medal and all of the bragging rights associated with it. So far, my glorious racing moment was at the New York State Scholastic Rowing Championships, when my West Side Novice Eight took home the gold medal. Standing on the podium was one of the happiest moments of my life, and one that I will probably never forget.

For me, rowing is something special, with so many benefits and positive effects. Not only has it made me stronger and more athletic, but it also has made me a more mature and responsible person and student. Looking back at my first whole year as a rower, I think of what my novice coach Cathleen Streicher said on my first day of practice: "There is nothing physically fun about rowing. It's hard and hurts your body. However, for some weird reason, we as rowers keep coming back to this club to do it each and every day. For some unexplained reason, we just love the sport." I didn't really understand at the time what she was saying, but I think I do now. I understand that this sport isn't just about winning and success, but it is also about the important lifelong bonds you build with fellow rowers and coaches. I realize that the girls I row with today will probably end up being some of my closest friends, and that we will all forever share a wonderful bond because of rowing. This sport is also about always improving yourself no matter how hard or daunting it may seem. As corny as it may sound, becoming a rower was a life-changing moment for me that I will always be grateful for and never regret.

If anyone is interested in rowing, I encourage them to at least give it a try. Many of the area private schools have rowing programs, and even if you go to a public school like me, West Side Rowing Club has a team for students whose schools do not offer rowing. West Side recently celebrated its 100th anniversary and is always looking for new rowers. For more information, visit or call 881-9797.

Taylor Johnson is a sophomore at Amherst High School.