The paradox of rowing

Before I returned “The Boys in the Boat” to its owner, I had to go through the book and undo a handful of dog-eared pages — signs of a good read. I want to share one passage that speaks to the aesthetics of rowing while also giving a glimpse of the skills of author Donald James Brown, a writer with connections to both California and the Northwest (details below).

The author Daniel James Brown

The author Daniel James Brown


“An unnamed coach is reputed to have said bluntly, ‘Rowing is like a beautiful duck. On the surface it is all grace, but underneath the bastard’s  paddling like mad,’

“But the greatest paradox of the sport has to do with the psychological makeup of the people who pull the oars. Great oarsmen and oarswomen are necessarily made of conflicting stuff — of oil and water, fire and earth. On the one hand, they must possess enormous self-confidence, strong egos, and titanic willpower. They must be almost immune to frustration.

“Nobody who does not believe deeply in himself or herself — in his or her ability to endure hardship and to prevail over adversity — is likely even to attempt something as audacious as competitive rowing at the highest levels. The sport offers so many opportunities for suffering and so few opportunities for glory that only the most tenaciously self-reliant and self-motivated are likely to succeed at it.

“And yet, at the same time — and this is key — no other sport demands and rewards the complete abandonment of the self the way that rowing does. Great crews may have men or women of exceptional talent or strength; they may have outstanding coxswains or stroke oars or bowmen; but they have no stars. The team effort — the perfectly synchronized flow of muscle, oars, boat and water; the single, whole, unified, and beautiful symphony that a few in motion becomes — is all that matters. Not the individual, not the self.”

Northern California natives will appreciate this about Brown:

“I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and attended Diablo Valley College, the University of California at Berkeley, and UCLA. I taught writing at San Jose State University and Stanford before becoming a technical writer and editor.”

And for those who appreciate the story behind the story, here’s an interview with the author on the PowellsBooksBlog.



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