Immediately, I realized that I had forgotten how to walk. And breathe. And blink.
I stood on shaky legs and focused everything I had on taking one step at a time, trying to make it look natural.
I gently pushed through the crowd, avoiding stray elbows and hands reaching for shirts on high shelves. Keeping a close eye on the neon color flashing between stands of merchandise, I followed my coxswain through the halls of the huge school to the first room.
There was a group standing by the door. Girls my age, which meant that they were also girls to be my competition. My throat clenched tight and I was worried I would pass out as we quietly slipped by.
My coxswain stood silently beside me. The room was full of both people rowing and people waiting to row; every erg was taken. The room was warmed by the body heat of what seemed like a hundred and sweat stuck my tank top to my skin. I moved to the side and began stretching out of habit. Arms across, arms behind, legs up, legs bent; there still aren't any open spots. Arm circles, quick squats; time is ticking, ticking, ticking...
Anxiety rose as a wave of heat in my lungs and I felt like I couldn't breathe, as if I was drowning. The world swam before me and I struggled to keep my balance. Slowly my vision returned and an unused erg emerged from the black spots that danced around in my peripheral. Without hesitation, I took a step forward and sat down, strapped my feet in, and picked up the handle. It felt like it was burning through my hands. I took a moment to push away all my thoughts of doubt, of fear, of failure. And I rowed.
With every stroke I pushed out my negative thoughts, and slowly a new one grew strength.
"I will do this. I will do this. Because I am not giving myself a choice."
For the past three months of my life, I had been training for this competition. Through every one of my practice races, I had never been able to row 2,000 meters in under nine minutes and forty seconds. I had watched as my peers dropped five, ten, thirty seconds from their past records but I had never moved an inch.
I was determined to change that.
Ten minutes later, I had finished and stood ready beside the door to the main gym. The speaker blared something unintelligible, but a check of the time told me it was my turn to go. Swallowing hard I joined the group of girls forming around a referee.
"You will go to the erg with your number on it. Does everyone have their number?"
Nods from the crowd.
"Good. Once you sit down, follow the instructions on your monitor. Soon, a countdown from ten will appear; when it reaches zero it will flash green. Then you can row. Understood?"
The gym was set into four quadrants of twenty ergs, so four groups could race at a time. A few ergs still had a rower, mine included. I watched as he took his last stroke and let the handle slam forward. With trembling hands he unstrapped his feet and rolled off the erg, wheezing on the floor. His coxswain knelt next to him, helped him sit up and take a few sips of water, then practically dragged him away. I wiped his sweat off of the handle and sat down.
I know that I am not an exceptional rower, but I know that I am not the absolute worst. However, when I told my coach that I wanted to drop forty-five seconds and get below a nine-minute time, she just smiled.
"Make sure you set realistic goals to beat so you can know that you're making progress. If you set your goal too high you'll only disappoint yourself," she told me.
Considering my past times, it was great advice. But her realistic doubt in my insane goal honestly made me angry. I don't know why, but it pushed me. To appease everyone, I declared that my official, realistic goal was simply to not finish last. To appease myself, I committed to dropping my time below nine minutes.
This was my chance to prove that I could commit to my goals, to prove that I could work hard, and to prove that I could be a rower.
To prove to myself that I had a right to call myself a rower.
Before I knew it, the countdown had started. My legs were bent, my arms were forward, sweat was already dripping into my eye, my face was itchy, someone was talking, I was getting light-headed- green flashed.
Energy shot through my muscles like fire as I exploded back. The grating sound of the twenty ergs echoed throughout the gym. I tried to relax as I rowed; five, ten, twenty strokes. Every stroke seemed like a dream, as if I was watching a movie. My coxswain's voice echoed behind me, counting. I wanted to close my eyes, but I didn't want to miss a second. So I just kept rowing instead.
I passed the 1,500-meter mark, then the 1,000-meter mark. Sounds started to blur in and out as if I were dunking my head underwater over and over again. Suddenly voices cut through. I turned quickly and saw both of my coaches, both of my parents, and a crowd of my teammates. I checked my monitor- 300 meters left.
I started to sprint.
I started to sprint 50 meters early and ignored the pain, the acid that flooded my legs, the ice that froze my lungs, the voice inside my head telling me I couldn't do it.
I tried anyway.
And for those last ten strokes, I heard everyone.
But for that last stroke, I hear myself.
8 minutes, 55.7 seconds.
I did it.
I am a rower.
This was surprisingly difficult to write about. As I tried to put this into words, I felt the anxiety, the fear, and the triumph. As my first competition, this was really stressful for me, but it is still my favorite moment on my rowing journey. It is where I became a rower.
Admittedly, I remain far from my goals, but this experience provides me with the motivation to know that I will eventually get there.
If you work hard and force yourself to believe that you will do it, you will. No one and nothing can stop you, not even yourself.