Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Planting Possibility

One day, in the winter of my freshman year at U Penn my rowing coach, Duane Hickling, pulled me and another freshman rower aside after practice. He asked what our goals were. I really hadn’t thought about goals. I was still bewildered and most of my energy was going to adjusting to life at Penn and city living. Then he said, “’84 isn’t out of reach.” It took me awhile to understand.

“You mean 1984.. the 1984 Olympics? In rowing?”

He meant the 1984 Olympic rowing team. He didn’t say a lot more. I didn’t really answer. My teammate and I left the boathouse. We didn’t talk about it again. But I didn’t stop thinking about it either.

Duane planted a seed with that little phrase. But the seed wasn’t just about growing a dream of making the 1984 Olympic team. That seed was about growing a sense of possibility in my life. Because of a two minute conversation with my rowing coach, I started to believe in myself. Because he offered me something to reach for, I started reaching. I began to take risks and challenge myself and as I did, I began to see that I could do much more than I thought I could.

I made my first national team in 1982 and got a silver medal at the World Championships in Lucerne, Switzerland. But it turns out ’84 was out of reach. I got cut from the 1984 Olympic team. I considered quitting, but I realized that this journey I had taken wasn’t about making the 1984 Olympic team. In fact, the journey wasn’t about making the team. I knew I wanted to keep rowing, to keep exploring the limits of my courage, my confidence, my ability to learn and my physical and mental endurance. Eventually, I made the 1988 Olympic Team. But I had already started becoming an Olympian back in 1980 because of Duane. One little sentence, at once both a challenge and an affirmation, changed the way I understood myself.

I sometimes look back on those years training for the national team, racing in Europe, obsessing about my next workout and cringe at how self absorbed I was. It was a bit selfish; the opportunity to be a world class athlete is an extraordinary privilege.

Later, when I was no longer rowing and life handed me challenges that tested the limits of my courage, my confidence, my ability to learn and my physical and mental endurance, I was so very grateful for all the moments in a boat on the river where I learned about myself. The 1984 and the 1988 Olympics came and went. I stopped rowing and had babies. I sat next to my son’s hospital bed at Boston Children’s Hospital watching him struggle to breath. I learned sign language. I learned to change a trach. I replaced a feeding tube. I felt the sting of people staring at my boy; I watched him hold his head high. It’s not about rowing anymore, or the Olympics, or me, but Duane’s words still serve as a kind of mantra of hope and possibility. Thanks coach.


  1. Ahhh...the world of possibilities is one that I strive to live in. Your piece makes me think about that balance between the me and the other part of "me" that makes us responsible for others. I don't think you were being selfish, just going after a dream and wouldn't you want your kids to do the same? If there is a time to be "selfish", if you must use that word, then isn't that the time to do so? Before kids and jobs and all of those things that get in the way of the self in the name of selflessness? I can so relate to your writing. There is this sense of life before and life after. I get that. I really do. I have some similar pieces on my blog if you are interested. Keep writing!!

  2. Jennie, I love how you point out the power of the spoken word. Not a grand gesture but just a short sentence keeps on rippling.
    An Olympian was being interviewed the other day and it struck me when she said something like, "I keep trying because nothing ever stays the same. We can either choose to grow and learn or be stagnant." As I get older and hopefully wiser, it's the small seeds others plant and I water that keep me moving forward.You are one of those people for me. I love how you share your thinking so honestly and openly. It's so refreshing and reminds me to value the struggles we all face but not so willingly share. I hope you keep sharing, my friend:) Karen