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.