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The Road Ahead

The Road Ahead

Robert Cunard –

A long time ago when I was a competitive rower, I learned that I needed to be a great teammate if I was going to succeed in the sport. I possessed no great gifts as a rower, except one: I had a car.

At UC Berkeley, rowing practice took place in the Oakland estuary, located ten miles from campus. Getting there involved freeways and some very questionable neighborhoods. The university provided no transportation, so we all crammed into our collective automobiles, and we drove down together. So, I immediately went from being a rowing newbie (like most of us) to an essential teammate: if I didn’t show up every day and drive, four other guys (all of whom were better rowers than I) might miss practice – which would end up hurting still other rowers. Overnight, I and the other few guys on the freshman crew who had cars became essential to our team.

As a result of the accident of being a guy with a car, I became important to my team. Quickly, I felt the importance of my responsibility to these guys who were strangers to me. I had to be reliable because we needed it, so reliable I was. What followed for the next few months was my best effort at keeping up. I shared the title of “shortest freshman rower” at Cal with two other guys – but they had both rowed in high school and had a huge advantage over me. In rowing, short is not good, not good at all. But I was game, showed up, and kept getting a seat in the slowest practice boat. It went that way until December – when one day I showed up for practice and found myself assigned to the better boat for a practice race. This was a Friday night tradition at Cal in the fall; we’d hold Friday races at sunset and then there would be a barbecue and the odd adult beverage. Alumni would come out to watch and swap stories. On that fateful Friday night, my boat won its race, and I really started to feel like a part of that team. I remember asking the lead rower in that boat how I ended up in it (the best rowers worked with the coach to select the boats), and he told me that the coach told him I looked like I was doing pretty well and he encouraged my selection. (To this day, part of me thinks that choice was based my owning a car.)

That turned out to be all I needed: a little encouragement and a strong dose of mutual accountability. I stuck it out as a rower, and I began to see that my persistence and reliability were essential. I never missed a practice or a practice run. We used to raise money by cleaning the football stadium on Sunday mornings following home games; it was miserable work on a Sunday morning – the only morning a rower could sleep in – but I never missed. I was still the smallest freshman rower – and inexperienced – but I got better. I got stronger, and I started to develop some physical endurance to match that persistence and reliability. The practice of rowing and the practice of being a teammate changed me, and gradually I turned into a pretty decent college rower.

Sometimes I think a little about the other guys in that rowing program and what their reaction toward me must have been. Two guys in that group went on to earn Olympic medals in rowing; the rest had been big-time athletes in high school. For me, being part of their team felt a little akin to being the waterboy who was pressed into service.

I learned that practice was essential. Even while stuck in the slowest practice boat, lagging badly behind the others, I was learning. It wasn’t pretty, and there wasn’t much praise or encouragement, but I was learning. The second thing I learned about practice was this: it was where you learned something about your teammates, and where they eventually became friends. Our shared suffering six mornings a week on the Oakland estuary built bonds among us. And finally, just getting to the point where we all shared the same vision about what made the boat move faster took a long time for most of us to get.

For most of us at Cal back in 1977, merely being on the team was the great reward. Of course, beating Stanford was always great, and I did get to make some interesting road trips. But there was no glamour in rowing – save for those two Olympians. The real rewards came strictly as the result of showing up every day, exercising the best habits we could exercise, and eventually becoming our best selves. Our sport demanded that we exercise good habits, and it forced us all to budget our time. Its demands and our commitment to one another and to giving our best effort made us all better individuals, better people.