In the spring of freshman year, you and your friends found that your respective schedules quickly diverged, chasing each other, but never quite catching each other, in such a way that you would go for days without seeing one another—only to reunite at the oddest times.
There were 6 a.m. mornings when you’d greet your friend just as he would come back for the night, and just as you would head out for the morning, the two of you partaking in a brief moment of mutual suffering, neither of you sure who had picked the shorter straw.
6 a.m. rowing practice was to be your pledging. The substitute. You jumped on the erg next to your brothers and physically punished your body—except this pledging would be constructive, your body would come out stronger, shaped by exercise, shaped by self-improvement.
Certainly it was easy to forget why you rowed in the first place.
It was easy, when you found yourself turning in at 10 p.m. on a Friday night.
It was easy, when the 4:45 alarm would summon you from underneath your covers, your eyes batting away the urge to sleep–when you fumbled around, your fingers fishing for a clean sweatshirt as you inhaled mouthful by mouthful of your CLIF bar.
It was easy, when the wind would whip at your face, the blood whooshing around your head, rivulets of sweat streaming down your temples, legs buckling under the weight of the boat, pushing further out into the cold, into the interminable expanse of darkness.
You still sometimes forget.
You never really gave it much thought. The decision was never more than an impulse. You went to bed one night and barely woke up in time the next morning to find yourself sweating from every pore, gasping for breath, on the verge—treading that fine line—of spilling the contents of the previous night’s meal onto the gym floor.
You constructed a story—feigned active interest in the sport, as if you hadn’t felt cornered into it, left with no better option in the wake of a heartbreaking IFC rush experience. What you didn’t tell your friends was that being dropped by your top choice fraternity—the rejection, the sudden reversal of fortune, what you construed as a stunning personal failure—cut deeply, shook your confidence, your perception of self, your understanding of Duke.
What you didn’t tell your friends was that you filled that void with rowing.
It liberated you by consuming you. Practice was an excuse, a mental safeguard against your fear of missing out. It was not possible to wallow in self-pity as your best friends attended mixers, shared wild stories about partying with pretty girls—if you were not already asleep, you were working diligently to finish your work early so that you could.
Your failure became your motivation. When you felt the fatigue coming on, when you could pull no longer, you summoned your insecurities from underneath the façade, the constructed illusion that everything was alright. In the last 250 meters of each workout, your dejection, your regret, your self-pity manifested itself in a physical form as the body weight under your legs. For the last 250 meters, you pushed harder than you thought physically possible, managed to clear your mind of everything except the numbers on the screen in front of you.
You found a family. People cut from a similar cloth, who shared your drive, your competitiveness, your resilience. You shared meals at marketplace, 10-hour van rides to regattas, car rides to Lake Michie at the break of dawn…
Mornings on Lake Michie… When the sun’s rise would filter through the top of the tree line, giving outline to the forest bordering the lake, when the haze began to congeal along the water’s surface in low-hanging clouds, when the light glistened on the shimmering lake acting as a mirror… there were few things prettier.
It was easy to forget why you rowed when things sucked.
But wearing your post-practice glow like a badge of honor, in the company of your friends, indulging in the views from Lake Michie, you remembered.
* * *
When I woke up for the first Monday morning practice of the year, everything was familiar—that full-body weariness, the heaviness behind the eyelids, the tightness in the bottom of the stomach.
When I strapped myself back into the erg, there was that familiar feeling of uneasiness, of anticipating the grueling workout to come, of anticipating sweat and pain.
But when I pulled my 6,000 meters on the erg, the feeling was alien to me. There was no push, no drive—I had lost that inner incendiary fuel.
Is it that it’s all resolved? Is it that pledging is over? That I’ve gotten everything I want out of rowing? That rowing was only a temporary outlet for my frustration?
As a FAC, I spent the entirety of O-week preaching the importance of finding one’s niche. Of finding one’s place, of navigating Duke’s social scene, of fitting into the puzzle.
If I had, indeed, discovered my place here on campus, why did I find it so hard to do what had once come so naturally to me?
I spent the entirety of O-week feeding my FAClets false promises, shallow guarantees that they would figure it all out, even as I, myself, grappled with the same problem.
The truth is, there is no guarantee. I’m not certain that I’ve found my place.
What I do know is this: I was no longer defined by my absence from Greek Life. I carved out my space on the roster, earned my place in the boat. Through rowing, through 6 a.m. practices, through grueling workouts, through thick and through thin, I took ownership of my self-worth.
I haven’t forgotten why I row. Rowed. Continue to row.
I just can’t decide.