Did you know, and you probably do, that muscle weighs more than fat? I mean you probably know it, but do you know it in the way a 5’4” girl who has to stay under 135 lbs while working out two hours a day, six days a week knows it?
Also, in this situation, you have no friends and are dating a Republican and hate yourself.
When I moved from NC to DC for college, I really didn’t know how much I didn’t know. E.G., I had never seen a ‘bro’ before. I didn’t know what bow ties signify (still not sure, but I’m picking up a Nantuckety, conservativey thing now). And I had never to my knowledge seen a rowing team, possibly not even in the Olympics, until I crossed a bridge to visit this nameless Big East school and saw, down what seemed incredibly far below and away in the mighty Nameless River, the yellow water-skimmer outline of a boat that I would learn to call an Eight, and loathsome.
It looks fun, doesn’t it? Kind of fun in that hard-work, proud-of-yourself way, like you have to dedicate yourself but it’s all worth it because, because, because. I’d never been on a sports team of any kind before (OK, well, yes, YMCA soccer in 4th grade).
My head was full of all of this stuff about college being a time for experimentation and stepping outside of your comfort zone and, like, dying your hair. Plus the coach told me at the clubs fair that I ‘looked athletic’ (my big upper arms can confuse people that way) and I was so flattered that I signed up right there.
So I joined the (first division NCAA) rowing team.
Let me give you a quick rundown of the schedule:
5:30 a.m.: Wake up, even though you promised yourself that after high school you would never do something that made you wake up before the sun ever again.
5:35 a.m.: Put on all of the clothes you own and ride bike downhill all the way in the frigid cold to boathouse.
5:45 a.m.: Peel off layers in the locker room. Let other girl tell you that you’re ruining all of your nice sweaters by rowing in them.
6:15 a.m.: Running. Assistant coach on bike, meant to bring up the rear, does huge lazy loops behind you as you tearfully jog a few steps and fall horribly behind the pack and then collapse and walk and just generally turn into the worst blubbery mess in the world. No wonder you have no friends.
6:45 a.m.: Back at the boathouse, everyone is waiting for you, and then at last finally you can just go out on the water already.
6:50 a.m.: On the water. Worst pain imaginable.
7:30 a.m.: Experience fleeting transcendent moment of looking out over water at the rising sun and thinking shit, that’s beautiful, this is so beautiful. Then more pain though.
8:00 a.m.: Ride bike home (all uphill now, bitch) with legs like huge disagreeable rubber snakes and go to class at 8:30.
I had never jogged more than a couple blocks in my life, let alone actually run in a pack of thoroughbred boarding-school girls who knew things; it was infuriating the things they knew, like just how to braid your hair so it wouldn’t come out while you were running, and where to get just the right kind of fucking spandex shorts that everybody had (Lululemon, probably, in retrospect), and also did I mention that I don’t shave my legs or underarms? How do you think that went over? Guess.
I’m torn between describing myself as the most reviled or pitied team member. Probably the reality is that these girls didn’t even think about me enough to do either. There was no supportive network to speak of, and no one was dying to keep me on the team, probably because they could tell I wasn’t taking it seriously and didn’t even really have the capacity to take it seriously.
The only thing, the only thing keeping me on the team was pure stubbornness.* I wasn’t even losing weight, because remember that muscle thing? I was gaining weight. I started at 129 and ended at 134, 135 being the cutoff between the weight classes. In my dreams, I still see the little absent frown on the coach’s face when I stepped off of the scale at the last weighing.
Also, wonderfully illustrative side note, for men’s teams the weight classes are called lightweight and heavyweight. For women, they’re called lightweight and…..wait for it….openweight. Because calling us heavy would hurt our feelings.
I stuck with it for three grueling, awful months, often coming right up to the line of quitting. I was not doing any better at anything that I could see. I was still straggling way behind and huffing and puffing with the running, and there was zero improvement. I was the suckiest on the rowing machines. I didn’t feel any better about myself. I was the worst, and all of the other girls were obviously just waiting for me to quit, which just fueled my rage and made me want to prove them wrong, but then I didn’t prove them wrong because I continued to suck.
We only had about three real races during my time on the team. I honestly don’t remember where we placed. I do remember one race (sorry, “regatta”) on the Schuylkill (Philadelphia) because I scratched my leg on a boat as we lifted it above our heads and bled for the rest of the day. It was also the Schuylkill one where I realized that rowing is like 99.9% white, which made me feel just extremely uncomfortable and weird.
I don’t really remember much about the day that I quit except that the coach had this facial tic where she never looked right into your eyes when she was talking to you, and instead like rolled her eyes up to the ceiling and talked to the ceiling. She did that when I told her that really I had to quit because it just wasn’t working and I think I made up some bullshit about getting a second job, which then I actually did get a second job the next semester so I guess I wasn’t straight up lying.
When I quit rowing, I was of course immensely relieved and comforted, and I walked out of the gym and looked up at the night sky and breathed deep the clean, crisp air and felt…
I almost turned around and went back in, and said I’d made a mistake and I would work harder and I’d really make rowing and running and all of this awful stuff part of my identity, really build it into who I was, because I just am not a quitter.
I have this thing that I do in situations like these where I think about Ask Amy. But not what would Ask Amy tell me to do in this situation—how pathetic would it sound if this were phrased in the form of an advice letter.
Dear Ask Amy-
I’ve been heavily involved with a very intense sport for three months now, but I’m really not a very athletic person. I don’t want to do it anymore, but I don’t want to give up either and look like a pathetic loser. Also I don’t want to get fat(ter).
The thing is that I probably could have done it, if I had actually been willing to sacrifice everything else, including my identity and the things I enjoyed and people I liked, and actually really physically commit my body and my time to crew. People can run, many of them for long distances, and I could run if I really wanted to. If there were a lion chasing me, for example.
Nobody likes to hear the sports story of “I tried it and I hated it and I quit,” they want to hear “I tried it and it was hard but I persevered and now my life is like 100% different and so much better and I learned to love and have a dog now.”
I don’t have a dog. I have a cat. I’m a cat person, and a person who quits.
*And also OK maybe possibly there were some cute guys on the men’s team, but then they would open their mouths and you’d realize they were the Winklevoss twins