My Year Away. And Back.

The Joys of Getting Back into Academic Life after a Year-Long Sabbatical.


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Why Rowing is Possibly the Greatest Sport in the Universe

I just finished reading The Boys in the Boat by David James Brown (ISBN 978-0-14-312547-1). In case you haven’t read it yet (I think I’m the last rower on the planet to read it), in a nutshell it’s about the University of Washington varsity 8+ crew winning gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

But if you think it’s only a book about rowing, think again. It’s a book about life. And what you can do no matter how wretched life is.   At the very least, it’s a book that will help you think about whether you really want to whine about whatever is not working out the way you want it to. (Note to self here.)

Come to think of it, rowing is not really just about rowing. You can be bad at it and enjoy it. But if you want to be good at it, you have to dig in and put in the effort. Which means not just rowing, but reading about rowing, thinking about rowing, dreaming about rowing. You have to be flexible—in your body if at all possible, but definitely in your mind. If you think you are doing everything right and you are not willing to make adjustments, you’re not only wrong, but you’re the kind of rower no one wants to row with. It helps to have high pain tolerance. You have to have some intelligence because a lot of rowing is counterintuitive. After all, you do row backwards.

I’ve been rowing for about 13 years. I’ve been a part of four rowing clubs. I’ve rowed in beautiful conditions—and I’ve rowed in are-you-kidding-me weather. I teach other people how to row. Others teach me how to row better. I make the same mistakes—but I keep working on them. (In case anyone is wondering, I still tend to shoot my tail.)

The book focuses on seven seat, starboard rower Joe Rantz. This guy doesn’t talk much and it takes him awhile to get the rowing technique down, but nobody can fault him for effort. Joe’s family leaves him twice—once as a 10 year old and again at 15. He has to fend for himself and during the Depression, it’s near impossible for a kid to find enough work just to feed himself. But Joe prevails. He lives alone, scrapes by, stays in school (and makes good grades), and eventually ends up at the University of Washington. He is desperate to make the crew team, not because he knows anything about rowing, but because he learns that if he does, he will be promised a part-time job–and he has to work to pay for college because his family has abandoned him.   During his four years at Washington, he earns his engineering degree, he rows three hours every day, he works at his part-time job every evening, and oh, yeah, he wins Olympic gold.

Joe Rantz worked a lot harder in college than I ever will as a professor. In fact, I have a downright cushy life in comparison.   But what I particularly loved about this story is that Joe wasn’t a natural at rowing. He had to stick with it.   I’ve known colleagues who seem to have magic lives. Everything they write gets published. Every lecture they give is spell binding.

I’m not like that. I have to work at it. But I like it that way. I teach my students; my students teach me. I chip away at the data and hope that eventually something will get published. If not the first journal choice, maybe the second. Or the third.

Like many rowers, I have a high pain tolerance. And I can be stubborn. So during My Year Away, I’m reading about people like Joe Rantz. It’s not making my work any easier, but it’s helping me not to whine about it.  And for the record, I’m not giving up on my rowing either.