I recently took up rowing again after a thirty-five year break. I joined the Lausanne Rowing Club where I was lucky to find a group that call themselves “Les Chevronnés”. Loosely translated it means the “old hands”. We have one Olympic Gold Medal winner, a couple of European Champions and a German Youth champion. I am not the champion of anything; my job is to not to slow the boat down.
Some members of the group are retired, like me, but even those of us who are still working are old enough to have little left to prove professionally – and even if we did it would be too late for us to prove it now. However we still have something to prove rowing wise! We have to prove to ourselves (no one else cares) that we are not really growing old, and that we are still fit enough to relive the glory days of our youth. Of course it is a hopeless dream, but that doesn’t mean that we are not going to try.
We row on Lake Leman, which, if you exclude Russia, is the biggest and (I think) deepest lake in Europe. When the wind blows the waves can be quite frightening, and even on a calm day the lake often takes on a life of its own; deep rolling waves that seem to come from nowhere. The weather is often against us, as too are our aging bodies: a bad back here, a wobbly knee or a stiff shoulder there, enough to put us out of action for a couple of weeks.
Other commitments, whether for work or pleasure, are also against or us. They often keep us off the water, and mean we rarely have the same people in the boat two weeks running. But despite the bad weather, our sore bodies and our other commitments, we do manage to row together fairly regularly; enough to keep a basic semblance of fitness and, perhaps most importantly, to keep the social bonds of the group together.
Last week when we went out the weather was beautiful, the lake was calm and each one of us, somehow magically, seemed to be in good form. Our rowing was not perfect – it never is – but it had its moments. And those brief moments lasted long enough for us to be able to close our eyes and imagine that we were twenty years old again, at the height of our strength and fitness, and pulling far ahead of our competitors.
As rowers we are all seeking that perfect moment when four (or eight) men or women row as one, and where the boat glides apparently effortlessly through the water. Some professional athletes call it “the zone”: a moment where they are perfectly absorbed in, and focused on, the present. Other athletes call it “being immersed”: a moment in time where they react without worry, doubt, or fear about results; a moment where everything seems possible again.
Moments like this happen rarely, even with professional athletes. For weekend rowers, such as ourselves, there is so much against us (our lack of fitness and skill, our age, the weather, our health, and our other commitments), it is surprising that they happen at all.
But sometimes they do. And when they do we treasure them before they slip away. Then we work to get them back.
In life most of us are constantly striving for “the zone”: the focus on the present, the perfection, the lack of self-doubt and the corresponding self-belief in our skills and abilities. And even when we are not searching for perfection, we are at least striving to get better, to do better. The odds are stacked against us, but that doesn’t stop us from trying. And no matter how old we are (and believe me we are old), we never stop trying.
After each rowing outing we have a coffee and a croissant at the clubhouse and talk about all sorts of stuff, but mainly about rowing. The weather may have been cold and wet, the lake rough and uncomfortable, and the outing far from perfect, but we can always find something positive to say. And as we talk about those positive moments we enjoy the social interaction of each other’s company.
Isn’t that what life is all about?