My double-scull partner Joe and I spent the last weekend of September representing Cape Fear River Rowing Club at the World Masters Rowing Championships in Bradenton, Florida. While walking through the array of tents at the venue, I heard someone say, “The planet that plays together stays together.”
The decision to drive 12 hours down the coast, arrive at the starting line sleep-deprived, with aging cramped backs and muscles tight as snare drums, was a hard one. First off, Florence destroyed our club’s boathouse. With the storm bringing so much adversity and more than a touch of tragedy to so many in our area, driving down to “play” might not have looked like a wise idea. So hearing “the planet that plays together stays together” brought a smile to my face. It was one of many things that reassured me we made the right choice.
Maybe I heard the phrase from the Russian tent. The distinct Russian accent didn’t remind me of election interference. One of the lanky smiling rowers resembled a Russian cosmonaut I heard on a documentary about U.S./Russian collaboration on the Space Station. That cosmonaut looked back at Earth and said, “From here, it is clear, there are no borders.”
Whoever said “the planet that plays together stays together” perfectly captured the atmosphere of the festival. Whether smiling with Manuel of Peru, Angela from Argentina, Tony Corcoran, the shy Irish sculler, the “G’day mate” squat Australian, or “Slim,” the bulky Finnish man with a great sense of humor, it became clearer to me the cosmonaut was right. Not only are we all in the same boat, we’re all rowing on the same blue stream.
Another take-home smile is remembering the need to balance competition and community. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to win. Even with no huge contracts or endorsements on the line, master athletes want to win. My former crew mate Pete had a huge smile as he accepted his World Championship gold. The smiles weren’t limited to the podium. I smiled nearly as wide, for Pete’s victory, and for myself, because I won too. “Victory” is usually part public and part personal. For me, getting to the starting line, being part of a worldwide community of athletes that share the same respect for the world’s rivers, lakes and oceans, and face similar adversities both on the water and off, qualifies as a “win.”
There’s also nothing wrong with developing communities or having a community organizer as POTUS for an eloquent eight years. In rowing, you’ve got a port side oar and a starboard-side oar. Imagine the port blade is “competition” and the starboard is “community.” You’ll go ‘round in circles if everything you do is geared toward one or the other.
Even at the Olympic level, victories can rise above the race course. In the lead-up to the 1968 Olympics, Tommie Smith and John Carlos helped organize the Olympic Project for Human Rights, a community of athletes interested in furthering civil rights. October 16 is the 50th anniversary of their silent respectful Olympic protest. They used their athleticism to raise awareness of racism in the global community like this era’s Colin Kaepernick. Harvard rowers representing the United States, all white male athletes, risked being expelled from the games by supporting Tommie Smith, John Carlos and the Olympic Project for Human Rights.
As I rejoin our recovery effort, I’ll keep smiling at the challenges of balancing competition and community. US rowing prepares elite athletes to win Olympic Gold. It also encourages local clubs to reach out to diverse youth and adaptive athletes. Maybe as our club rebuilds its strong, well-coached and fun master’s program, we’ll build a program for adaptive rowers. We have a large veteran’s community in need of opportunities to learn to play again. Maybe we’ll integrate youth into our local rowing community and provide opportunities for a lifelong sport to a diverse crew of kids.
As Wilmington’s students re-enter the classroom, I’ll smile and dream they have more recess, more arts education, more play, less bloodsport, and more access to lower profile lifelong sports like rowing. Rowing is a great way to learn it’s important to pull your weight—and that “we’re all in the same boat.”
It may even teach some of us we’re all rowing on the same river.