I’ve never been an athlete. At 5’4″ and a weight I won’t reveal, (though I can safely say that I’m off the standardized charts for BMI–those charts that provide you with a reflection of yourself that is unrealistic and disheartening?) I have always considered myself absolutely average in most athletic realms. I’m content to be the last in a pack of road cyclists. I’m used to being way behind my peers as I traverse trails on my mountain bike. I’m happy to finish a 5K in the middle of the pack as long as I’m upright. I thought I was OK with mediocrity.
The secret is, I’m also fiercely competitive. I try to keep that part of me hidden, but people who know me well know that while I feign contentment with my middle-of-the road self, I desperately wish otherwise.
I took up a new adventure almost six years ago at the age of 46–rowing. While I consider myself adept at most things, this has been the most physically and emotionally challenging endeavor yet. Three mornings a week for seven months a year, at the wee hour of 5:30 am, I get into a boat with either three or seven other men and women to propel a small thin craft down a river.
Confronting my inadequacies on the water has put me face to face with some of the same fears and inadequacies I face in life. How do I sit with my mistakes that so obviously not only affect me, but the whole boat? How do I make small changes, that, while barely noticeable, have a profound effect on the success of the row? When I signed up to learn this sport and immerse myself in its lessons I had no idea that I was giving myself a gift that would serve me well as I took the inevitable steps towards 50.
Several years ago, friends and I made a crazy decision to drive nine hours from Massachusetts to Cleveland for three days and 12 minutes of athletic competition. We entered the Gay Games rowing competition. Each race would take about 5–6 minutes to complete, but those minutes would feel like the hardest minutes of my life. Still new to rowing, I had tremendous fear about my ability to compete. I had spent little time in the smaller 4+, a boat considerably less stable than the larger 8+ that I was used to rowing. Did I mention I have a healthy, but exaggerated, fear of water?
My teammates and I began our row to the starting line. The Cuyahoga River in Cleveland is a curvy, narrow river with large shipping boats meandering down it quite often. Once you launch your shell, if a large vessel is coming, you must give way, which means sitting for — well — a long time. Water reverberates against high walls making even the most seaworthy a little nauseous. Shortly after we launch, this is where we find ourselves, sitting idly by in the hot sun waiting for multiple large, slow boats to clear the course. My anxiety intensifies.
Eventually making it to the start line, we are given the clearance to start. “Ready all, Row!” is the familiar starting call for a race. And we’re off. While the Gay Games is an open competition, meaning you don’t have to qualify to participate, it was a big deal to me! My non-athletic, content-to-be-last, outer self has traversed halfway across the country to compete in this international competition. But the fierce competitor inside me takes over. I want nothing more than to win.
With less than a stellar start, our boat is far behind. Our coxswain, bold and brave, makes the right calls to keep our head and heart in the race even though we have seemingly lost. About halfway into the 1,500-meter race, we approach a turn, and our coxswain yells, “They’re only a boat length ahead of us!”
We cannot give up.
And that’s when I find my real inner competitor. Each of us reach deep down inside for those last 750 meters. At 1,000 meters our boat is now overlapping the other boat. Our muscles cry, our hearts pound as we’ve decided — each of us independently — that we’re not going home without a medal. As we turn the corner, we hear the crowd and make our move. Dead even with our competitor. As we cross that finish line, in the closest event of the competition, the deafening cheers tell me: I am an athlete.
Here, I’ve accomplished something greater than a gold medal. I didn’t give up. Despite my fear, my disbelief in myself, and a race start that seemed to predict the ending before it arrived, I fought. I fought for myself and my teammates.
And we won.
Gloria DiFulvio is a rower by early morning, public health academic by day, and storyteller by night. She is a masters rower with Northampton Community Rowing, Northampton, MA. She lives with her wife, Aussie, and cat and enjoys all things outdoors. Her writing has appeared in such publications as Ravishly and Huffington Post. She remains competitive! (Headshot credit: Linda Hannum.)