From athlete to spectator

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“À table!” screamed my Papa in French from the kitchen.

“Cinq minutes!” I mumbled. I doubted my voice carried even to the hallway, but I couldn’t be bothered to move. I was too mesmerized by the sport that had come onto the tiny television. Gliding above the water were eight powerful women, well ahead of the field. Their movements were graceful, each flick of the wrist as simple as a swish of a wand. Dressed in tight spandex and matrix-like sunglasses, they looked no more tired than if they were going for a stroll in the park.

But these women weren’t strolling through the park. They were at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and they were about to make history in the women’s eight. I did not know at the time that their gold medal would be the start of an eight-year winning streak, nor did I know how their win would change the trajectory of my own life.

For myself and so many others watching on our screens around the world, the win for the U.S. rowing team put the sport of crew on the map. Very few — including myself — knew what rowing was prior to their victory. Most confused it with kayaking, or even worse, (guilty as charged) thought rowing was only analogous to Johnny Depp’s scene in “Pirates of the Caribbean.”

Two weeks after watching the Olympics at my grandparents’ apartment in France, I couldn’t get the sport out of my head. I returned home to the Bay Area and gave rowing a try. I joined my local club team and have found myself bewitched by the sport ever since.

I would soon notice that the graceful movements of the Olympic rowers were far more difficult to achieve sitting in my own seat. Forget the problem of perfect synchronicity or setting a boat so you don’t tip over. Rowing was agonizingly painful, from the open blisters that covered the palms of my torn hands to the lactic acid that pulsed through my veins. I didn’t know that not only would every muscle in my body burn, but that I would become physically nauseous from a mere 2,000 meters.

A six-minute race.

Rowing felt like running up a flight of stairs without the option of stopping or slowing down. I was chained to my teammates by the guilt and fear of letting them down. So my best effort became the only option, winning the only goal.

This is rowing. Only the insane sacrifice everything to achieve perfection, greatness.

In high school, I still held hopes of attending the Olympics myself. I was a junior national team athlete having been “third in the world” in my age category in the women’s 8+.

But these goals were shattered when I came to row at Cal. It was not the balance between 20 hours of training a week with a double major that destroyed my dreams but my fellow teammates. They were not only better than me, but I realized that my love of the sport did not originate from a place of achieving personal glory but by the camaraderie that is uniquely achieved in a college setting.

The professional athletes that attend the Olympics have an iron focus and unwavering confidence they can be the best. They will sacrifice everything, for the singular goal of medaling. I know this because my ex-roommate Kara Kohler won a bronze medal in the 4X in London by taking a year off school, and my teammate Caileigh Filmer just missed out on the year we won NCAAs — the first time in 10 years — to qualify for the Olympics this year at 19! (She will be racing in the Canadian women’s eight, keep an eye out!)

Olympic rowers are no different than your average professional athlete, except for just that. They aren’t “professional” at all. Rowing is an amateur sport, which means there are no sponsorships, no donors and no money to help them achieve their dreams. Even worse, rowers peak around their late 20s to early 30s, with many forgoing careers to represent their country. Much of the national team live with host families, training three times a day, six to seven days a week, often waking up at the crack of dawn.

All for a six-minute race.

I have always wanted to be a great athlete. First, it was an Olympic swimmer, then a water polo player and finally an Olympic rower. Watching the Olympics has always been a way for me to live out my dreams, vicariously, through the television screen. It was not only that I wanted to represent my country. I wanted desperately to feel the confidence of someone who never doubted all they were capable of.

Having just retired from rowing with a national collegiate title, I am finally getting the chance to attend the Olympics, as a spectator. I still love rowing but have realized the confidence I so longingly sought would never come from a medal. Now, my context for watching the Olympics has changed. I no longer watch in envy of greatness. I will be on the sidelines, cheering for my friends. Many of them Cal athletes.

Listen on your television screens for the “Go Bears!” I inherited my father’s scream.

Contact Charlotte Passot at [email protected].