Six Minutes and

Thirty Seconds

Helena Bates

“Stop rushing the slide!” the coxswain spits as we pick up the tempo, sending our boat surging through the merciless waters. “Swing together!” she yells. Our legs fill with lactic acid, impaling us with small pins all over our bodies as our lungs gasp for air. “Power ten, we’re two seats behind the boat ahead!” We each count down the remaining strokes, yearning for air, yearning to collapse at the finish line. “One hundred more strokes” I tell myself. Despite the excruciating pain shooting from my arms to my lungs and all the way down to my feet, my adrenaline acts as an anesthetic. The incessant yells of the coxswain blaring out of the boat’s speakers fade, and my focus shifts to the carbon fiber shell gliding through the water. I sit in seat “five” with a starboard oar in hand, “squaring” and “feathering” up the blade as it weaves in and out of the water, dancing in between each powerful stroke. My actions mimic the three girls ahead of me setting the rhythm, as I reflect the tempo to the four girls behind me. Eight girls gliding back and forth in perfect unison, accelerating the boat as our oars sweep through the turbulent waters. Perfect unison, the intersection of rhythm and sheer power, the seamless symbiotic relationship of rower and boat captures my mind, each stroke lifting the boat out of the water. My stupor of adrenaline brakes as our bow skips past the finish line, only a ripple beyond the competitor.

Seventeen hours a week, sixty eight hours a month, seven hundred and forty eight hours a year, all leading up to six minutes and thirty seconds of pure adrenaline. Every race I rowed felt like that — it didn’t matter whether we were leading or dead last; the sheer adrenaline of that six minutes and thirty seconds, those thousand meters, made it all worth it: the four hours a day spent at the boathouse, everyday but Sunday, before school and after school. I was committed to the sport, fell in love with the commitment and persistence that crew represented. I was encapsulated by the sweet scent of salt water, the cacophonous sound of prisoners cat-calling as we rowed past San Quentin, and the golden, red sun that stained the glass water with deep orange and purple as it descended behind Mount Tam. Before the next day’s sunrise, we launched our boats in the pitch dark and watched the most magnificent sun rises paint the iridescent, still waters of the San Francisco Bay with hues of purple and blue. I was bound to row, a passion ingrained in my identity, comforting me with a sense of strength and conviction.

Without warning, this strength crumpled; I found myself in bed with a ruptured disc, temporarily unable to walk. This complete stillness pulled me into an abyss of uncertainty. Injury was not meant to influence my four year trajectory to college, but it was my reality, an incident that would not only disrupt my rowing career, but potentially inflict lasting health issues. It began with my stubborn persistence, my disregard for the ache in my back after long practices. Advil and Icy Hot became my tools of ignorance. As the aches turned to sharp pains, I only increased the number of Advil I dropped down my throat before and after practice, unwilling to concede to the possibility of injury. During races, adrenaline proved my only relief, distracting me from the throbbing in my back. The breaking point, ironically, came in the form of such an effortless action: bending over to pick up my water bottle. The strain long suppressed by a continuous flow of advil emerged as an excruciating pain that surged down my back and grasped my legs. I collapsed, paralyzed in agony and in the fear that I would never be able to row, or even walk, again. Reality chained me to the ground I lay on, binding me with the gravity of failure. Ignorance had tasted like the sugary coating of Advil pills, but reality was bitter as brackish water.

My days were not spent on the water, but in doctors’ offices, and physical therapy. My spine, depicted in black and white MRI images, resembled Jenga blocks on the brink of collapse. Discs in my back protruded, peeking out from the crevices between the vertebrae of my lower back. I detested the fickle structural integrity of my back, the fragility that had failed me and my ambitions. I yearned for the sweet wind that swept passed my salt encrusted face each practice as my knuckles stung with the kiss of salt water. I missed the blisters on my hands, detailing my hard work and dedication in the constellation of my palm lines. Instead, I was tethered to the confines of my bed, constricted by the walls of my house, lacking a sense of direction, of purpose. Rippling through me, I remembered the scene of Mount Tamalpais nestled in the arms of the kaleidoscopic sunset, a yellow prison contrasting the deep blue hue of the relentless waters.