So here I am, about to row with the Washington State women’s rowing team on the Snake River.

This is not the first time I have rowed. That occurred a week before when I took some strokes in the new indoor rowing facility at the Bohler Athletic Complex. This is, however, to be my maiden voyage on an actual body of water.

WSU women’s rowing
Women’s rowing has competed in NCAA Championships five out of the past seven years. (Photo Robert Hubner)

A benefit of the indoor facility is that it allows coaches to provide one-on-one instruction, rather than shouting commands from a distance at the river.

After my first few strokes of the oar, Head Coach Jane LaRiviere walked over and grabbed my hands. “Relax, don’t have such a death grip on it.”

Somehow, I managed to lighten my grip and in the process bring my oar back to life. In time, I felt like I was figuring it out, and I could have sworn I heard Jane say, “That’s a little better.”

When I was done, I asked Jane to rate me on a scale of zero to 10.

“One,” she said.

At least I was on the board.

You may ask why subject myself to this?

With five NCAA Championship appearances in the last seven years, including a fourth place national finish in 2006, women’s rowing is one of the most successful athletic programs at WSU. But despite this level of success, I sensed that the sport and the student-athletes who compete in it are overlooked.

I wanted to learn more about rowing, and in the process, what it takes to compete at this high level. In order to accomplish this, I couldn’t just skim the surface of the water, so to speak. I needed to entrench myself with the team.

And so, I had two goals: 1) to learn as much as possible about the sport and 2) to not embarrass myself, not too much at least.

Any hopes of achieving the latter had already dissipated after my indoor experience, but I still could fulfill the first part, and in order to do so, I needed to experience the training regimen. This meant working out with the team at 6 a.m.

This pre-sunrise start to the day is routine for the team, and, aside from the early wake-up call, I was confident I could handle it. Why not? I am in decent shape for someone in his (uhmm) mid-30s, so my only sacrifice, I figured, was a delay in my morning coffee intake.

I entered the weight room ready to go, and at the top of the hour strength coach Michael McDonald said, “Okay, two warm-up laps.”

With that, the team began its warm-up jog. Trying to keep pace, unsuccessfully, was I.

After the warm-up, the team started a circuit rotation through six stations with each station consisting of two exercises lasting 20 seconds each. One time through equaled one round.

There would be six rounds total, and, as I quickly realized, no rest in between.

I became a wind-up toy—starting at a decent pace, but gradually slowing down with each passing round. In the first round I was already longing for water. By the fifth, I questioned if eating breakfast beforehand was such a good idea.

Finally, after 45 minutes, it was over. I’d survived.

But that was just the half of it. While the team gathered their belongings and headed outside, strength coach Marco Candido said I could have a Gatorade if I liked. I quickly took him up on his offer … multiple times.

With my legs not quite under me, as if I’d just gone several rounds with Ali, I followed the student-athletes out to the track, where Assistant Coach Tara Medina told them to jog three miles.

After some brief deliberation, I decided my time could be better served for the story by having a discussion of rowing with Tara.

Two days after my workout adventure I join the team for a practice at the Snake. There is not a breath of wind and the surface of the river is as smooth as glass. It reminded me of the conditions when the Titanic struck the iceberg.

I assist my crew carrying the boat, or shell, from the boathouse to the dock. Reaching the dock, I gently set it in the water, praying the $30,000 shell doesn’t slip out of my hands and crash against the water, or worse, the dock.

The time has arrived. I slip off my tennis shoes, because there are already shoes fitted in the boat, and manage to get in without getting wet.

I take the sixth seat, or position, in the boat’s center. As we prepare to depart, my fellow crew members give me advice, which I greatly appreciate.

There is a lot of information to process, but my sole focus is to watch the person ahead of me and just try to keep pace as best I can.

As we glide along, I turn my head to the left, observing the oar motion of the person seated in front of me, then to the right to observe my oar, which, more often than not, either crashes in the water at the incorrect angle or misses the water altogether.

Of course, I am completely oblivious to the fact that proper technique is for the oarsperson to look straight ahead. Jane tells me afterward that I was turning my head so much she thought it would fall off.

After some initial setbacks, I seem to be keeping in unison with the rest of my teammates, so much so, that the coxswain, the person in charge of the boat, says, “You’re catching on.”

But any self-congratulatory thoughts vanish as quickly as my technique (what there was of it) and I catch a crab, the term used by rowers for when an oar gets caught in the water.

After about 1,500 meters of gliding along the Snake, we stop and I take my rightful position in the motorboat Jane is skippering.

Again I ask Jane to rate me on a scale from zero to 10. She says this was a two, but there were moments when I was a four or five.

I’d never felt so happy to be below average.

I observe the rest of practice from the boat, reflecting on my experience.

First, I’ve gained an even greater appreciation for what these student-athletes accomplish.

Second, I hope to one day relive the experience. Because in spite of my aches and hard-gained humility, I felt I had just skimmed the surface.