The sun softly shined on my back as I took a deep breath of the crisp, salty air. I felt the weight lift off my shoulders as my heart rate slowly calmed. My brain finally silenced—too exhausted from the intense concentration to stay in time with my teammates. My body relaxed, beaten into submission by the exhausting physical activity I had just put it through.
Finally, I was at peace. This is what made me fall in love with rowing—its ability for a few hours every morning and afternoon to shut off my brain and give me a chance to breathe. This made losing it all the more devastating.
I was recruited to row at Columbia my senior year of high school and had always planned on rowing through all four years of college. Despite the early 5:45 a.m. wake-ups requiring many, many cups of coffee and the constant rushing from bus to class to Dodge, I loved the balance it brought to my life. I loved waking up every morning knowing I would be with 30 of the most incredible women I had ever met, all pushing ourselves out of love for the sport and each other.
However, in some ways, the decision to stop rowing was easy. My back pain, consistent for the last two years and requiring daily doses of ibuprofen to get through the day, had only gotten progressively worse. Then, over winter break, it had started to affect nerve function. I could not put weight fully on my right leg, or go up on my toes since my calf had gotten too weak. I could no longer ignore the reality that something was truly wrong. When I decided to meet with the surgeon, it was a simple choice. After three years, I wanted my life back. I wanted to sit in class, to carry a backpack, to run again. And one day, I want to be able to pick up my children. So, when I was told that I could have all of that, I almost didn’t believe it. This opportunity, though, came with one seemingly small side effect—I would need to stop rowing. To many, and even to myself in that moment, this felt like a small sacrifice. I loved the sport, but I loved the life I was promised even more.
It wasn’t until months later that I realized how heartbroken I was. This heartbreak was only compounded by my post-back surgery inability to really do anything. I would constantly joke about my incredibly sexy rolly backpack and the constant rattling it made on the cobblestones announcing my arrival to anyone standing within a mile vicinity. Or, the fact that I had to constantly ask for help as Columbia’s campus made my independent mobility difficult. But the truth was, the post-surgery recovery was exhausting. If it wasn’t for my friends who quite literally picked me up, I very well might have never left my room. This process would have been difficult no matter what, but losing my independence simultaneously with my main coping mechanism, rowing, made it even harder.
Rowing saved my life in high school. Right when I was truly about to lose my mind, a friend offered to take me to a practice which began this crazy journey. Rowing accomplished three things: It got me out of my hometown as the boathouse was an hour commute away, it gave me wonderful new friends, and it shut up my brain—leaving me too exhausted to overthink, as is my natural tendency.
I’m still trying to figure out how to live without rowing. However, I do truly believe that everything happens for a reason and that there is a larger plan. So this is not a letter of heartbreak, but a letter of gratitude.
Rowing, thank you for everything: for introducing me to the friends who have become family, for providing the space to push myself beyond what I thought was physically possible, for helping to give me a school that every day I feel so grateful for, and, as cliche as it sounds, for making me who I am. I am forever grateful. I would not have done anything differently.
The author is a sophomore in Columbia College studying history. You can catch her slowly ellipticalling in Dodge as she attempts to preserve some athletic ability. She also writes for Discourse & Debate.