June 10, 2017 at 3:28 p.m.
"QUACK QUACK QUACK!" The belting duck sounds resonating from my phone alarm jolt me from my sleep. "Rowing practice," I immediately think. I check the time: 3:15 a.m. And then I remember –it's not rowing practice that I have to go to. It's the Texas Water Safari.
The Texas Water Safari, branded "The World's Toughest Canoe Race," is a 100-hour journey along the Guadalupe River from San Marcos to Seadrift. And a journey it is. Boats are required to take everything that they will need throughout the race with them in the boat, except for food and water, which team captains can provide to them at the 10 checkpoints along the winding river.
My journey to this point, to me standing here at the start of the Texas Water Safari, began eight months ago. I knew nothing about rowing or water sports. It was by chance that I saw an ad for rowing tryouts in sidewalk chalk outside of the University of Notre Dame's workout center. It was on a whim that I decided to go to the first day of tryouts. It was less of a coincidence, and more of a result of hard work, that I ended up on the roster for the rowing team at Notre Dame.
I vividly remember my first time in a racing shell. Stopped on the peaceful water of the beautiful St. Joseph River in South Bend, Indiana with an oar across my lap, I felt nervous. Very nervous. But very excited. I was a starboard that day. I remember looking to my left and over my shoulder –glancing back at the girls seated behind me, wondering if they would make the team instead of me.
I still don't believe that I've made the team sometimes. The probability that an uncoordinated, inexperienced girl could walk on to a collegiate rowing team? Highly unlikely. Some aspects of college athletics are surreal, bordering on glamorous. Wearing our issued Notre Dame gear, taking headshots for social media posts, getting catered meals and seeing other colleges at competitions are all definite perks. But not without a price.
The less glamorous periods are in the everyday of it all. The grueling practices, the long hours, the pain –all are a real part of what it takes to improve. You eventually fall into a routine. Your body becomes a machine and your mind a motor. This morning, for example, was a momentary return to that familiar rhythm. My jump at the sound of my alarm was just my body being used to yet another morning cross train.
My experiences as a rower piqued my interest in the racers competing in the Safari.
From the giggling water bubbling up near the river's surface to the seagrass dancing on its bed below, the Guadalupe seemed excited to welcome the paddlers into the arms of its banks. The mood at the start was slightly different from the kind of competition I'm used to. People chaotically strewn about. Laughing, joking, and casually stretching out for the long race ahead of them.
Race day is a bit different for division one rowers. Teams usually aren't fraternizing with one another and teammates rarely take a casual stroll over to their boat. To warm up physically takes about an hour an a half, on land and on water, to get muscles loose and blood circulating. Mental preparation comes days in advance.
There is excitement but it is rarely as carefree as the paddlers seem to be. I remember at the starting line of my first race, the official calling out "Notre Dame" and our coxswain (pronounced "cock-sin"; someone who doesn't row but steers the boat and verbally encourages the rowers) raising her hand in compliance. As our oars locked in to the water, I wanted to burst into tears. Not out of nervousness or dread (although there was some of both of those), but out of excitement. I was finally getting the chance to prove what my teammates and I had been training, sweating, and hoping for.
Race day for the Safari-goers was exciting in a different way. They were excited for the unknown, for the adventure. They were excited to work as a team to push their limits but also to have a good time. Many racers aren't trying to win a title or break a record, they just want the well-earned bragging rights that come with finishing.
Walking around the tent, holding a camera instead of an oar, looking at the various cleverly-named canoes, I got that novice feeling again. That raw joy and excitement that I had my first day on the water. An oar sitting across my lap and the wind cutting across my face.
The official's final words of wisdom to the competitors reminded me of our pre-race boat meetings. As the Texas Water Safari official put it, "If you want to quit and your boat still floats –don't." Our advice was rarely as comical but the same idea still applied: you're going to think that you're dying, you are going to think that you can't pull any more or any harder, but that's when you have to dig deeper, descend into a valley of despair, and claw your way back out again.
Within an hour after the start of the Safari, the paddlers were through the first set of rapids and under the first bridge. The bridge that they paddled under was low and made of concrete. There is something about rowing under a bridge that seems to connect water and land –the natural and the man-made seem to work together. Even though the paddler's bridge may not have had "2000 meters feed the beast" or "Nobody survives an Irish wake" graffitied underneath it, I am quite certain that they experienced that same unifying experience.
That unity is what I find beautiful about the sport. Whether in a $400 kayak, $4000 canoe, or $40,000 racing shell, the water is fundamentally the same. A river is still a river. Pain is still pain. My ability to relate to the paddlers' journey only came to me as a result of my own torturously long paddles. But what brings us together isn't me or them or anyone else –it's the experience. From the mystery that draws you to the water, to the intrigue that whispers in your ear to act on it, the experience is one between mankind and nature. Man to water, man to man.
Experiences cause us to condense together like water droplets. A lack of them can cause relationships to fly away like a boiling steam. It is through shared experiences that we are able to empathize. It is through commonalities that we transition from a single molecule to a powerful wave.
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