Why I Love Rowing | Fitbie

Fitness After 40: Crew

Why I Love Rowing

Joining the college crew team helped Meredith May find her rhythm. Twenty-four years later, she's still keeping the tempo

Meredith May rowing
Chad Riley

Who: Meredith May, 41, in a relationship, newspaper reporter

Where: Races all over the world; home base is San Francisco

Why: Rowing keeps her fit and connected to nature and reminds her we can't get through this life without others.

At seventeen, I didn't think it mattered that I had spindly legs and had never held an oar. I was determined to join the college crew team. I'd done team sports since age seven, and rowing seemed unusual, graceful, and intense. Plus, the rowers looked so transcendent in the recruitment brochure. And I figured the prospect of 5 AM practices would surely thin the ranks of hopefuls at tryouts.

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You'd think. I walked into the gym and found myself in a forest of girls, several with thighs rivaling Wonder Woman's. Many had rowed in high school. They had been recruited.

But the coach gave everyone a shot. We raised the fifty-five-foot-long varnished wooden boat over our heads and lowered it into the water. I found my way onto the seat, grabbed the oar, and tried my best to stay in sync with the seven other girls in the boat. At the helm, the coxswain navigated and gave commands through a megaphone. She banged her hands on the sides of the boat to teach us rhythm: Push with the legs, pull with the back and arms. Following her beats, I learned to row on a three-count, a four-count, and a slow five-count. When we did it wrong, the boat lurched. When we did it right, I could hear bubbles trickling under the hull. Quieting all the noise in my personal world to the metronome sound of oars splashing into the water, I discovered something electric: Rowing is like turning myself into music.

On the day lineups were posted, I ran to the gym. The coach put the biggest girls in the middle four seats—the "engine room." Two rowers with good balance were selected for the bow. And for setting the tempo in front, she chose me.

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Now forty-one, I'm still riding the rhythm of rowing. Four mornings a week at 5:30 AM, I train with a club team in Marin County, California, that competes nationally and internationally against other women's crews on the US Rowing Masters circuit. Crew gave me permission to think of myself as an athlete, even though there hadn't been one in my family in generations. To take a good stroke, you must kick your legs down and push back with every ounce of force you can muster as soon as your blade catches the water, all at the same time as the rest of the crew.

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I love that athletic yin and yang, but rowing gives me something much more—something that can't be measured in trophies. Over the years, crew has become my church. I have become devoted to this group of women and our early morning ritual. My team is a congregation of sisters in their thirties up to their seventies, from teachers and lawyers to a reverend and a rock singer. One teammate is blind—she rows by sound and feel. We not only pull together in the boat but carry each other through job losses, shoulder surgeries, divorces, and second-place finishes. Through our collective wisdom, we can solve any problem. And we throw a mean potluck.

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Our faith is that we will show up for one another in the dark, in the cold, in the rain, with kids in tow when the babysitter cancels. That we will train in the gym, eat well, and go to bed early to stay in top form. That we will stop our busy worlds, get on planes for the next regatta in Canada or San Diego or Seattle, and race so hard, our lungs burn for days. Inspired by these women, I'll never let go of that oar.

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