Any Given Sunday
It’s a gradual process, and its taken hold over weeks and months of insistent work. It’s an odyssey of battles, wins and losses, each one approached in the same way: push hard, get there first. And when you are three seconds away from being a national champion, you push a lot harder; you empty the tank, and put everything on the line. After seven regattas, 2,800 kilometers and countless hours, you are not about to leave with any regrets.
This year, forty students took the pilgrimage to the Mecca of high school rowing, at the National Championships in St Catharine’s, Ontario. Normally, provinces separate the competition, but for one week they share the same water. East and West face each other until six remain, and on Sunday, in the signature spectacle, they battle for CSSRA gold.
Brentwood’s forty-year history in St. Catharine’s carries with it a legacy. It’s a legacy of persistence; it pumps adrenaline through the aching veins of a body wearied by the first thousand meters. It’s what the SMUS coach is talking about when she addresses her crew: “Here is the thousand meter mark, where Brentwood does what we know they do” – a reference to our infamous Brentwood Twenty; where each crew shows their endurance right in front the docks with twenty strokes. But, most importantly, it’s a legacy of supremacy; because Brentwood sends crews to St. Catharine’s to compete in the finals. We go for that St. Catharines Sunday, to show a grandstand full of a couple of thousand people that we can be competitive at a national level. But getting to that Sunday is not without a journey, it begins at Brentwood and finishes across the country.
Our trip began at 4:30am on Tuesday morning; rowers are not unaccustomed to early mornings, but this was in excess to what we had trained to do. Nevertheless, fifteen junior boys, nine junior girls, six senior women and ten senior men were prepared to sacrifice the sleep. After a five-hour flight, we were reunited with Toronto’s characteristic humidity. A couple more hours, and Mr. Carr whipped out his signature line: “Welcome to St Catharine’s”, as we crossed the bridge and had a view of the fully buoyed racecourse – a reminder of what we had come for.
Within half an hour of arriving at the Holiday Inn, the boys were off to our spot on Henley Island to rig and row. The girls followed shortly after. We were treated to our standard pasta bar upon return – it’s the same every year. The junior boys returned with rolls of Pillsbury cookie dough, which I walked in on them microwaving for dessert later. This was an action expected from junior boys.
Ontario runs on Lombardi time, and so does Mr. Backer. If I have learned anything from my four trips to St Catharine’s, it is the value of punctuality leading up to race day - a value that roughly amounts to fifteen dollars. On our first morning, a minority of junior boys rolled up late in taxis and could finally appreciate that value. Once everyone was there, crews began steady state training to complement their taper. Finally back in our boats, driven cross-country by our dedicated and road weary boatman, Warren Featherstone, we began our practice. Eight kilometers twice a day, we simulated races and pieces around the crews we would soon be racing against.
Heats began on Friday.
For some, they sought to distinguish themselves ahead of more than thirty other boats, for others, they would have to wait until Saturday to prove why they had come for. After day one, Brentwood returned to the hotel in high spirits. Fifteen of eighteen boats advanced. But tomorrow it would make no difference; the field was smaller, the competition stiffer.
Semi-Finals were a whole different story. With a slight swagger, crews were back, this time to race for that coveted spot in the final. This was the first time we encountered nerves. The first three in each semi advance. On Henley Island, coaches anxiously checked their phones for tweets, which would deliver results seconds before the loud speaker announced them. The finish line was 1000 meters from our vantage point. Even at 500 meters it can be impossible to tell the difference between first and fourth place. Nine Brentwood crews placed top three in their semis. Nine would race for CSSRA gold.
Finals are a new day, different than any I’ve experienced. Anxiety was present but ignored. We sat in our room, re-reading the messages sent from Brentwood. If I gathered anything from that morning it was to fight, to push for the girl in front of me and to push for the girl behind. That is what would make the difference. The remaining boats that advanced to the finals were crew boats, meaning there was someone else to share the painful burden with. That is what made the difference. It’s not enough to know that you’ll tear your heart out of your chest to win, when you realize that those girls fighting next to you would do the same, that they would break their fingernails off clawing for the finish with you, in the end, that is what makes the difference.
It was a physically hard day, but to have someone helping you to do what you couldn’t do by yourself – it makes the inches melt away. It doesn’t always happen, but when it does, it’s hard to feel regret. I felt it in my race, and I saw it only minutes later in the Junior Boy’s Open Eight. They made a comeback finish to medal. And you could tell they did it for one another.
Of the nine crews that fought together for those inches on Finals day, three won silver and three won bronze. Even with these victories, (and the meals that had borderline lightweights biting their lips in restraint), a hunger still exists within the program. Some of the same people will have the privilege of returning next year, and with a fire lit from those finals, I have little doubt that they will be able to accomplish their goals.
This is the last time I will compete for Brentwood. It is the last time I will make the journey. And that was a constant reminder in the back of my mind; it was my last chance to put everything on the line. In rowing, the spirit grows intimate with seemingly relentless pain. Exhaustion is paramount, but you push through, because the pain of regret is greater than the of training. I am relieved not to face any regrets. And I have those girls who fought with me for those inches to thank for that.
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