The sweat drips down your face and stings your eyes as the summer sun bears down from the hills surrounding Inniscarra lake, home to the Irish National Rowing Championships. The breeze catches the moisture and sends a slight chill down your spine, but the feeling is welcomed as it lets you know that this is real. Your heart is pounding but you remain motionless and blot out the
world you by gazing down boat. Your legs feel weak and your stomach feels heavy as you see your stroke man wretch over the side of the gunnels. You look down at your calloused hands and make sure your tape hasn’t begun to unravel due to the damp. You peer up and stare at the heavens and savour what precious seconds you have left before the start. All your time, training and emotion have been thrown into this one definitive event. Some people call it the calm before the storm, an apt name.
Your cox holds her hand up and gives a calming order to her crew to settle and ready themselves. You feel like you are going to explode but you have to remain calm. This is what rowers call the wait, the few seconds that somehow spiral into an eternity out on the starter blocks ahead of a 2km stretch of open water. As the Umpire calls the crews out; UCD, NUI Galway, NEPTUNE, UCC, Queens, Trinity…. are you ready? Your eyes roll back into your head and you mutter whatever pathetic incantation you have swirling around to your mind.
Then suddenly the starter horn sounds and all eight blades are dropped into the water and the rush begins. Your hands, arms, back and legs are acting to their own accord as they follow through on the training that has, hour after hour, for the past year been ingrained into your brain. You cannot afford to give pain an audience as your sole purpose is to cross the finishing line ahead of the other crews. Nothing else matters. It is in this first stroke that you recall all that has been before and realise this is it!
6 months earlier…
The sun has not yet risen as you stumble around your room in the dark. The alarm you set for 6:00 am is still pulsating through your head as you reach for the light next to the door. Your kit bag is never where it is supposed to be and never has any of the right gear in it, no matter how much thought you gave it the night before. Breakfast involves heating up porridge and milk in the microwave as you desperately hop around the kitchen trying to put both of your runners on. Dublin outside your window has not yet accepted that daybreak is close at hand and the frost still clutches to your balcony railings as you peer out over a city gripped by a December chill. It
is half past and you have just enough time to check the weather forecast and brush your teeth before you are hurtling down the stairs towards your bike locked in the basement shed. Your thermals, gloves and splash jacket seemed adequate in your apartment but as you open the front door the cold air hits you square in the chest. Your flat mates have grown used to this alien and wholly incomprehensible routine but there are many in College who still don’t quite understand why you do the things you do. As you fasten your kit bag to your back, turn on your lights and peer into the cold wintery morning gloom… neither do you.
As you cycle down Westmoreland street and onwards along the quays you are accompanied by milkmen, the odd taxi driver and the stragglers from the previous night. The street lamps are still your main navigational aid but the sun has begun to show that it is at least interested in waking the city up. As you rush past St James’ Gate the distinctive smell of hops from Christchurch lets you know that you are only ten minutes away from Islandbridge. The war memorial park is cloaked in a thin silver mist that swirls behind you as you pass through it at speed. Up ahead are the distinctive red lights of your fellow oarsmen all of whom have gone through the same ordeal as you. It approaches 7am and you pass through the gates of the boat house and head towards the numerous bike racks. You scamper up the icy steps and with a slight shiver, head into the main hall past your coaches who are making final adjustments to the day’s training schedule. They look up at you in an acknowledging manner, registering that you will not be the one who will receive the daily bollocking for being late.
The Senior and Intermediate changing room is loud and bustling. Despite the unholy morning hour, everyone seems eager and restless to get down to the water – like a pack of snow dogs waiting impatiently for their master to give the command to set off. All of your teammates are clad in the same thermal sporting gear as you but each adds his own unique addition to the uniform black and white of DUBC. Many have swapped gear with competing teams in Ireland and beyond. It is not unusual to find an Oxford, Brown or NUI Galway one-piece in the changing room. As the coaches and captain finalise the plan for the day we line up in the long room and await our crew allocations. Your coxwains have been given the plans and they peeter off with their respective crews down to the boat bays below. This is the last chance to fill the water bottles, get hold of that one last digestive biscuit before you set off and begin your training. Your boats are neatly resting along the various hangers and as the bay doors open, light floods the dark room with a fresh morning glow. Instructed by your cox you venture to your position along the boat and await the order to carry her to the water’s edge. There is no chatter now as all attention is tuned to the task ahead. The hull seamlessly bobs up and down on the bank as half of your crew go and collect the oars from their rack and stack storage shelves where they’re kept. The commotion on the bank has awoken the dosing family of swans who have supposedly shared the banks with Trinity since the Boat Club’s formation in 1836. With another command you lower yourself into the boat and onto your seat and watch as your stroke man steadies the boat as the cox settles herself in the stern.
The sunlight begins to warm the thin layer of air directly above the waterline causing an ethereal haze that swallows up the end of your oar and covers your blade. You push off in unison and in one motion all oars are in the water and send the boat forward up the river. The force of over a half a tonne of man sends the bow like a knife through the glassy water. The sensation is much like that of a skier discovering a patch of virgin snow.
The sacrifices we make over the long run are what lead us to victory. We all aspire to compete at the highest level but it should be known that the rush and charge of competitive racing can never be achieved without the determination and discipline that is required to get yourself out of bed each morning and commit to something worthwhile.
Read Rory McCarthy’s follow-up season preview here: https://universitytimes.ie/?p=12348