I have been afraid of the water since I was six years old and my mother carried me out in the Atlantic Ocean to “teach me to swim.” She took me to where it was over my head and up to her neck. Dropped me there before she turned and walked back to the beach. Flailing and flapping, I tried to do what I had seen her do. I doubt there was any resemblance to her swimming strokes. I was choking and sputtering yet trying to yell, cry and flap at the same time. I was sinking, splashing and kicking, trying my darnedest to get back to the beach, or at least far enough in— so I could stand up. I made it in far enough to stand up safely in the water, but I was shaken to my core. After that, I never learned to swim very well, because I was always afraid. To this day, my body shakes and trembles when I am in water over my head.
Because of my fear in deep water, I have never wanted to do any water activities. Yet, I have always loved the water. In 1989, I went to Cozumel, Mexico for the first time. There I fell in love with the waters and even learned to snorkel. I felt safe with my fins and snorkel and never went too far out or too far from something I could hold onto in deep water. I loved the feeling of floating free in the water safely.
In 2008, at age 68, after training in Japanese Aikido for eight years, I received my black belt. I felt emboldened, ready for a new adventure and wanted to celebrate my years of training and new level of black belt. I decided to take a ten-day trip to the Galapagos Islands to live on a large Catamaran and go sea kayaking off the boat and snorkeling. In my mind the waters were beautiful, aquamarine, and calm, like Cozumel. I was so wrong. The waters of the Pacific Ocean by those islands were dark, deep, and choppy. I was paired with our guide in a double sea kayak and I wore a life jacket. I felt invigorated and only mildly anxious if the waters were rough and the wind strong, making it harder to paddle well.
When I returned home after having some amazing experiences with birds while hiking, fish while snorkeling and small penguins that were like bullets in the water, I wanted more water activities, but what? I remembered a movie I saw some years before which opened with Meryl Streep rowing on the Charles River in Boston. I rented the movie and watched Meryl row, over and over— then decided I wanted to learn to do that.
There was a rowing club close by doing a learn-to-row class and I signed up. The teacher showed us the boats we would learn in. They were Wherries: big heavy boats that do not tip over. It was easy to learn to row, yet I realized there was a lot more to rowing than I ever thought. There was a whole new language to sculling— port and starboard, catch, drive, release, and much to coordinate to row and turn the boat around safely. At the end of the class I felt like it could take years to learn what I needed be a good rower/sculler.
I was still not sure this was a sport I wanted to pursue at my age of 69. I heard about a rowing camp in Vermont called Craftsbury, and checked it out online. They had a five-day program where I rowed with coaching three times each day and did yoga in between. In rowing, at the catch my body was crouched and curled, so I thought yoga was a good way to stretch out in between. At camp, I learned a lot and became much more confident after my five days. A key moment was when a coach was showing me how to raise my hands one at a time, alternating, to literally rock the boat. I learned to be calm and make corrections when I felt the boat rocking. The boat did not tip over when doing that exercise and that gave me confidence. I had already learned what would tip it over, so was careful to keep me, and the boat upright in the water.
I am less than five feet tall and weigh only 114 pounds. While at the program, I learned about a boat builder named George Sharrow, who made boats for shorter rowers. Once back home, I checked with him about making a boat for me. He created a beautiful white and purple racing boat 25 feet long, ten and one half inches wide, which weighs only 28 pounds. I practice at the gym walking with a thirty-pound barbell overhead so I can keep carrying my own boat.
After rowing for about six years, I decided I wanted to be part of a team. I joined a rowing club and learned that I was not tall enough or strong enough to be one of four women carrying a very heavy, bow-coxed four rowing shell. I was disappointed but not defeated and decided since I am so short, I would learn to be their coxswain instead and do rowing in my own boat.
Coxing is challenging—there is so much to learn— to guide, support and motivate the rowers and steer the boat. At 77, with one season under my belt, I continue to practice and learn. What I have discovered with aikido, rowing and now coxing— is that each activity renews my spirit. Each one has inherent challenges, which keep my mind and body actively engaged and working. I am constantly pushing myself to learn more, do better, support the rowers and the team— and in so doing, I feel both invigorated and renewed. As the boat glides through the water I am alert, calm, ready and enjoy what I see and feel.