Two days – and the decisions they contain – have the utmost meaning in a competitive athlete’s life. First is the day you commit and give up everything to pursue your sport. The second day is when you finally end your path of elite athletics.
As I reflect upon my sporting career, one lesson stands out: it’s not whether we win a medal but whether we win a life experience. Everyone who strives with a full heart—in sport, business, the arts, education, and so on—will understand the intrinsic benefits I write about. Winning is more fun, of course, but the process of striving is just as important. Remember: it’s all about the destination and the journey.
I vividly remember realizing that I no longer wanted to race. Well, at least not like that, when every pore of my body seeps painful acid and my mind comes within three inches of hell. I had come to the end of something significant, and this epiphany somehow overshadowed any accomplishments. I was done and saturated with a bittersweet feeling: completion. It is incredible when you realize a major section of your life is over, and a new one begins.
But success is not final, as illustrated perfectly by rowing legend George Pocock: “All an Olympic gold medal shows is that at one day in time you were the fastest in the world… sitting down, going backward, doing something absolutely useless!”
My day of retirement was weird. I thought it would be the day I said goodbye to my discipline. That wasn’t true. It was the day I discovered there are new ways to love my discipline and that I am responsible for keeping my discipline alive within me for life.
The evolution of my relationship to rowing has become a masterful metaphor for my life, business relationships, marriage, or anything important that requires a long-standing commitment.
Into the past
I started rowing in high school for fun, to spend time in nature, and to get fit for football season. I kept rowing because I had great coaches who identified my potential. My skill continued to improve, even when I took training breaks to feed the ducks from my scull. I rowed to maintain sanity as I studied. Then, I dropped out of school to maintain sanity in pursuit of my discipline. How far could I go?
I learned how much it hurt to find my physical, emotional, and spiritual limits—and how focused relaxation in the face of discomfort creates growth.
After the Athens Olympics, I learned how to teach my sport to younger men and women. Coaching and mentoring gifted me deeper joy and understanding. In California, I also connected with master rowers who kept rowing well into their sixties and seventies. I began to see myself as a monk who said the prayers of euphoria and pain to feel closer to God. I returned to Olympic training and went deeper into the sport. I learned extreme love and aggression.
After the Beijing Olympics, I got my calloused hands on a Whitehall Spirit dory made by Harold Aune and began crab fishing. I started to explore big waves and big nature. I found joy in sharing my sport with others in versatile, recreational boats.
My first son, Jefferson, was born, and I took him out on the water. This continued with my daughter, Victoria, and youngest son, Hunter. In a small rowboat, I connect with my children in a way that does not exist anywhere else. They are small, bundled up, wearing a life jacket, facing me. My focus is on them, and their focus is on me. We are connected in nature and moving through space. We have the best conversations and the best times in our Whitehall Spirit dory.
My ocean wilderness experiences in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans with Jordan Hanssen and OAR Northwest gifted enlightenment, connectedness, and joy. I brushed death in the wild, and that, too, helped me complete a circle. It allowed me to redefine the relationship I had with my sport, reconnect with the purpose of my path, and cure my crises of meaning in relation to the rhythm of this passion.
Did I pursue adventure out of a deep need to find thrills? No. The opposite was true. I am a seeker of peace. Thrill is a tax we must pay to find peace. In the case of ocean rowing, our terror paid for indescribable joy. No peace compares to a calm starry night in the middle of the ocean, as seen from a tiny rowboat.
Present gazing at the future
To this day, I still enjoy my rowing machine, thinking about proper technique, toddling around on the ocean with my kids in recreational boats and imagining my next masters rowing race.
I think of how a number of my friends and acquaintances in middle and late age have died: on their rowing machines. My Olympic coach, Mike Spracklen, said he would be happiest if he died in his coaching boat. When I first heard these stories as a young man, they sounded insane. Now, as I age, these ideas feel more romantic. Maybe one day I, too, will find peace in motion and melt into the liquid beyond with one final push through pain.
For now, I’m involved in the business of rowing, helping to market and sell recreational boats through Whitehall Spirit and Oar Board. In addition, I pick up occasional work as a journalist and commentator on the sport, which keeps both the learnings and their pains of hard-earned realizations alive.
The constant in my life has been rowing. The energy, euphoria, and pain of my discipline ebbs and flows. These sensations remind me that I must constantly work to find peace in all manifestations. My discipline keeps me grounded, humble, and hard-working.
Courage is the sum of fear and purposeful action. It’s this courage to continue that will lead us to more peaks in our lives and pay the tax for more moments of peace.
Let’s be honest: the only true finish line in our mortal lives is death. Life goes on after both massive failures and grand achievements. Our path continues after both our venerated and despicable actions become old news. Navigating our individual life journeys takes a lot of courage. Moving forward—beyond the emotional baggage of the past—requires uplifting insights that we can use as stepping stones to create a better future.
Success is not a finish line. Failure is not the end. Have the courage to strive again. Find the courage to continue the grind.