I idolized George Plimpton. I wanted to grow up and to be just like him.
Plimpton was a trailblazer in "participatory journalism." As a kid, I loved watching him do it all — compete in professional sporting events, act in a Western, perform a comedy act at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas and play with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Then he would report on the experience from the point of view of an amateur. He was my hero.
Well, in true Plimpton style, I tried rowing for the first time last Sunday.
The timing was ideal. The experience was not only a fundraiser for the Joan Van Blom Women’s Sculling Endowment, it was an opportunity to learn more about rowing on the world’s largest racing boat, the Stämpfli Express 24x rowing shell. Because of the shell’s size, it was the ideal stable platform for a first-timer like me.
The shell can accommodate up to 24 rowers. It is configured in sections and fits together like the leaves in Grandma’s dining room table, with metals dowels that secure the pieces. The shell was set up for 16 during my ride. There were folks on board of all skill levels, with me as the greenest.
Rowing is truly poetry in motion. It is one of the most beautiful and graceful sports I’ve ever witnessed. But not until last Sunday did I learn how challenging it can be.
Imagine the Rockettes doing one of their synchronized routines on a balance beam. Then have them pose on perches on a track with little luggage wheels and require they move in fluid unison. Next add 10-foot sticks, one for each hand.
On top of all that, give only one person (the coxswain, or oar-less crew-member, who is responsible for steering and race strategy) the ability to see where they are going — and have that person shout out motivational commands like “push for 10" or "power 10." (A call for rowers to do 10 of their best, most powerful strokes.)
After rowers have that mastered, teams voluntarily go outside at 5:30 a.m. to practice. They row through sun, rain and cold weather. They carry heavy boats over their heads and down slippery docks with little traction. In addition, competitors often spend 12-14 hours on a bus together to travel to races.
My rowing experience? In preparation, Olympian John Nunn gave me a quick lesson from the beach at Marine Stadium, and he jokingly threatened to zap me with a stun cane if I failed.
I felt like Lucille Ball on the production line at the candy factory. I couldn’t remember to feather my oars or keep my left hand on top, and my bottom slid from side to side. I was a hot mess that Plimpton would have sent to the showers.
By the time the boat was mid channel, I hoped Nunn would make good on his promise and put me out of my embarrassment misery.
Just about then, we passed a Duffy boat of holiday partiers. A strange rush of excitement came over me and I sensed no envy of those champagne-guzzling electric-boat cruisers. It felt good to be part of a team that was moving so quickly along Mother’s Beach. Everyone shared a positive, happy attitude.
Watching the skilled rowers around me, I was given a taste of the incredible camaraderie that rowers have. It felt wonderful to be participating in a sport that works more body parts than most cardiovascular machines, provides a low-impact exercise that benefits people of various fitness levels, and builds muscle strength.
Today George Plimpton is still my hero. But so are the rowers.