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Tom Graham: Teamwork of rowing teaches key life lessons

The book “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” by Robert Fulghum became a phenomenal No. 1 New York Times best seller. Some of the things learned in kindergarten are to share everything, play fair, don't hit people, put things back where you found them, clean up your own mess, say you're sorry when you hurt somebody, wash your hands before you eat and take a nap every afternoon.

If you want to take the graduate course in lessons for life, try the ultimate team sport of rowing. As a coxswain and oarsman for Bishop Timon High School and the West Side Rowing Club, I found wisdom that was not at the top of the graduate school mountain with my MBA degree, but there in the rowing shell on the water.

Rowing taught me about teamwork, commitment, hard work, tenacity, perseverance, stamina, raw courage, selfless team spirit and discipline. As a coxswain, I learned about leadership, motivation and how to give orders without being arrogant or overconfident. As an oarsman, I learned how to follow orders while focusing on the next stroke.

Rowing requires a supreme effort, with long hours of back-breaking practice to ready a crew for competition, which builds the participants' respect and admiration for each other. In rowing, there are no quarters, halves, timeouts or substitutions. At the start of a race, when the starter gives the command, “Ready all – Row,” for anywhere from six to 22 minutes, eight or fewer oarsmen from the crew are in constant motion expending maximum effort without any hope of a “breather.”
At some point in the race, with lungs burning and legs numb, the mind will tell the oarsman to ease up. But exhausted crew members, with the hearts of champions, will rise to the challenge, or to the challenge of their opponents, and go above and beyond themselves. Oarsmen never forget such an experience. In that great common effort is the real secret of the almost religious feeling oarsmen have for their sport, and the affinity they feel for one another.
Rowing in a three-mile race can mirror the events in one's life. In the first mile, your legs are strong, your breathing relaxed; you are excited about the race. This is just like a new endeavor in your life.
Like the middle of life, the second mile becomes very difficult. Your legs burn, breathing is a struggle and your mind starts to wander. There are many midlife setbacks that must be overcome.
In the final mile, your mind is empty from exhaustion, your legs quiver and, with quick deep breaths, you row as hard as possible and leave everything on the water. Like life, the end of the race is the hardest part to reach, yet it is most satisfying.
Rowing also teaches humility, because oarsmen taste defeat many times before winning a major race. Rowing, like life, has many difficult setbacks, but you learn to show up for the next practice and persevere.
Adult learn-to-row programs, youth summer rowing camps for boys and girls, and competitive high school and adult masters rowing are available at the Buffalo Scholastic Rowing Association in the Old First Ward.
The current Timon rowing team consists of top academically ranked students, while others serve as Eucharistic ministers and student ambassadors. They are respectful and courteous on and off the water. Rowing will motivate and inspire them for a lifetime.

Tom Graham, who lives in East Aurora, is assistant rowing coach at Bishop Timon St. Jude High School.