My size defines me. My circle of friends consists of the New Yorker, the Chemist, the Chesty One, the Red Head….and me, the Little One. For a long time I searched for a bigger, better way to describe myself. When I least expected it, I found the answer. Ironically, size had EVERYTHING to do with it.
My freshman roommate at Saint Joe’s was a transfer student named Michelle. I knew instantly she was an athlete. She wore mesh shorts and Adidas sandals to every class, and she owned the largest collection of t-shirts I’d ever seen.
“Coach told us to bring short people to practice tomorrow, you interested?” she asked, taking a big gulp of Gatorade. “They need coxswains.” The next day I dug out a pair of sweat shorts, pulled my hair into a ponytail, and rode with Michelle to the Schuylkill River. The red athletic van was crowded and I was busy wondering exactly what coxswains do.
Every afternoon we gathered on the dirty, unsteady wooden docks of Crescent Boat Club. I was probably the most incompetent coxswain in the river’s history. I had more than one close encounter with the ropes that separated the boathouse from a waterfall. I hit floating tree limbs, smacked buoys, docked on sandbars, and on what seemed like the worst morning of my life, I tore off a foot of our bow when I collided with a pair of silver haired veteran rowers, out for their 6 a.m. swing.
I had been publicly scolded by every coach on the river, most often my own, Walt Young, a former men’s coach who didn’t have much sensitivity for female emotions. He was in my face repeatedly, telling me that I had spelled my name across the entire river with the curves of my poorly steered course. He told me to “Speak louder, take control of my rowers, and for God’s sake, have some confidence!”
Still, I kept coming back for more.
In October, our new coach, Gerry, posted the line-ups for the Head of the Charles, one of the biggest regattas in fall rowing. I would be steering the varsity lightweight eight along the toughest course I had raced on yet.
In the weeks before the race, I studied the Charles River like an aspiring lawyer studies for the bar exam. I memorized every mile mark, measured every angle, and noted the warnings of every coxswain who was kind enough to post their experiences on the Internet.
The bus left for Boston at 4 a.m. on October 23rd. On the way up I-95 I reread my note cards and called the race over and over in my mind. Upon arriving, we took a short practice row. I shoved my cards in my pocket and led my boat out into the great unknown. We paddled slowly alongside the Boston University boathouse and Riverside club. I named each landmark for the rowers as if I was their personal tour guide. I told them where I would be steering hard with the rudder and which arch of the Western Avenue Bridge we would row under. I was really thinking out loud for my own benefit, but my preparedness seemed to calm their nerves.
Halfway through our row we saw lightning and we were forced to turn towards the docks and call it a day. We quickly gathered our backpacks and sprinted back to the Newton Marriot for hot showers and a pasta dinner. I slept less than an hour that night.
The race was behind schedule, which meant there was time for me to worry. Were the girls warmed up enough? Had we tightened every rigger and oarlock? What would happen if I collided with another boat on this terrifyingly narrow course? I checked my pocket to make sure I had my cards and looked around at the other crews. There were women from Canada and Russia, former Olympians and Ivy Leaguers, and us—nine no-names from that Jesuit school in Philadelphia.
With the wave of a flag we were off, building up speed as we raced upstream. I could tell within the first forty strokes that the girls were on that day. The click of their oars turning together rang in my ears and the boat seemed to glide on top of the water.
I turned wide to port halfway between Magazine Beach and Riverside Club as my cards directed me. With that, we were passing two eights, one on either side. I began calling out the seat numbers as we rowed through both crews. “Bow Ball,” I shouted as we broke open. I could feel the girls intensity increase when they realized their accomplishment.
We were flying. With each boat we passed, the strength of the boat increased. We approached the Weeks Footbridge locked tightly between two other crews, all three coxswains fighting for a lane beneath the narrow opening.
Oars clanged as I had feared, but instead of slowing us down, it infuriated my crew and we soared through the arch, leaving the other two boats behind us, in a tangled mess.
Coach was waiting as I docked my boat. He stuck his hand out for me to shake, but then changed his mind and pulled me in for a hug.
“You steered an amazing course,” he said. “A course like that can win a race for a crew.” I was beaming with pride as we put the boat away and headed back to the bus.
From that day on, I had a different feeling at the starting line of a race. Of course, I would be nervous, but confidently nervous. I excitedly awaited the sound of the starting gun, the intensity of the first strokes and the rush of adrenaline that carried my boat across the finish line. I’d even go as far as to say that I, the Little One, the Coxswain, stood tall from that day forward.
A 2001 Saint Joe’s graduate, Melissa Doyle is a Public Relations Account Executive with Tierney Communications. Currently Melissa is working on her Masters in Writing and Publishing at Rosemont College. When she is not writing, Melissa enjoys reading, trips to the beach and Phillies baseball.