Practicing the Art of Trying with a 28-Year Comeback at the Olympic Trials

Practicing the Art of Trying with a 28-Year Comeback at the Olympic Trials

The time is 6:39 p.m. at the Olympic Rowing Center at Lake Mercer, New Jersey. The first race of the National Selection Regatta for the 2008 U.S. Olympic Rowing Team will start in about a minute.

Rowers race backwards, so my partner, Andy Baxter, and I cannot see the finish line as we prepare to start the race. The sun is setting directly in our faces, so we can barely see anything. We'd hoped the wind would die by evening, but a crosswind is threatening to blow us out of our lane. So instead of sitting still, emptying my mind, and concentrating on my breath before the green light flashes and the starting buzzer sounds, I'm rowing with short strokes to keep the bow of our shell pointed into the wind as I think about how we should have shipped our own boat from Ashland, Oregon. I think that we should have left the rudder on this boat. A rudder slows the boat with every course correction, so we're faster without it. But this is a borrowed boat and the crosswind is tricky - 32 years of rowing and I still make such stupid mistakes. And mostly I'm thinking that I'm thinking too much.
The voice of the official over the loudspeaker breaks in, polling the crews before the start:

  • U.S. Training Center, Volpenheim.
  • U.S. Training Center, Inman.
  • U.S. Training Center, Liwski.
  • U.S. Training Center, O'Dunne.
  • U.S. Training Center, Boyd.
  • Ashland Rowing Club, Kiesling.

I am grateful there is no hint of a guffaw when the announcer says "Ashland." I also feel a rush of pride. Ashland is the club I started 10 years ago, as a coach of high school girls, when I figured I was getting too old to compete. Now I am lined up against a field of gold-medal winners from the games in Athens. No 49-year-old has ever competed in this regatta. Few Olympians have ever tried a comeback after 28 years. I'm here, in part, to answer a simple question: Why not?

The morning after the race, I check my email and find two from T George Harris, 83, founding editor of this magazine. "What news, Thucydides?" is on the subject line. I open the note and read: "It is the wisdom you bring back from your act of seasoned courage, not the ribbons or skins they hand you. Four times what you could grasp at one-fourth your age. As your lifelong student, I'm needy."
His second email is almost identical. "This is serious," I think. I want to write back, but can't. There is nobody home in my head. I suspect T George knows this. I've been his student for 27 years, working on one question: What is a self? My role is the crash-test dummy. Once again, T George is reaching out to put me back together.

T George was born at the leading edge of perhaps the largest shift in all of human history - when huge numbers of ordinary people were suddenly able to step out of the footsteps of their forebears into new lives of their own design. Born on a Kentucky farm, T George became a war hero and used the GI Bill to go to Yale and become a different kind of liberator, as a pencil-toting reporter. As a reporter for Time, he was in the front lines of the civil rights movement. As editor of Psychology Today, he helped launch the women's and gay rights movements. Along the way, his generation was the first to confront two fundamental problems of space and time: We launched rockets into the heavens and God wasn't there. And we learned that our earth and universe are unimaginably old - only midway through their life cycles - making the prospect of an eternal heaven seem just as reasonably like hell.

Suddenly, the pressing question became "what is a human being?" And there was T George with Abraham Maslow, giving birth to the human potential movement and the notion that the goal of a person is to find his or her own unique story - to become self-actualized.

I met T George when I was 22. A child of the human potential movement, I discovered my spiritual practice while rowing at Yale and spent my senior year training for the 1980 Olympic Rowing Team and writing a book on the philosophy of sport, called The Shell Game. But after the boycott of the Moscow Olympics, I quit rowing and moved to Ireland and drank a lot of beer. Profoundly disillusioned, I was interviewing with New York banks when I met T George for breakfast. He offered me a place to stay, a stack of medical journals, and the chance to start a new magazine called American Health. We spent the '80s learning about the plasticity of the body: how 60-year-old couch potatoes could uproot themselves and run marathons. In the '90s, working on what would become Spirituality & Health, we began looking at the plasticity of the brain, how we can reshape our brains with our thoughts, and how neurons, like muscles, can regenerate at any age.

In the last decade, however, the science of self-creation has become challenging even to those who grew up in the age of expanding consciousness. Near-death experiences, out-of-body experiences, and even the experiences of oneness associated with God are being recreated in the lab. Neuroscience now tells us that my sense of "I" is a highly functional illusion of evolution, and "consciousness" does not exist. This is not a new idea. In the Hebrew Bible, soul and body are one. Nevertheless, such thinking is hard for the-illusion-that-is-me to wrap its mind around. But allow me to try.


1. MOST PEOPLE THINK OF ROWING AS SOMETHING ONE DOES WITH THE ARMS OR MAYBE WITH THE ARMS AND BACK. But 2,500 years ago, the Athenian navy came up with a revolutionary advance: a long, greased bench that allowed rowers to add the power of their legs. By harnessing all the major muscles of the body, the otherwise hopelessly outnumbered Athenians were able to row circles around the Persians at the Battle of Salamis, saving Western Civilization.

Just as people exaggerate the contribution of the arms in rowing, we exaggerate the importance of the "self" in living. The conscious "I" now appears to be the tip of a very large iceberg that includes not just the brain but the vagus nerve and heart and guts - and probably every cell in the body. It is not possible to have a thought without an emotion, and whether emotions start in the body or the brain seems to be anybody's guess.

Looked at another way, the reason T George's brain remains clear despite strokes, cancer, and heart disease may be that he has kept pumping his stationary bike.

And looked at still another way, the path to unhappiness is paved with good intentions. Because souls are embodied, we must back those intentions with our hearts and sweat and blood. Rumi's path to God was music and dance because he had no experience in a racing shell. (All right, that may be an exaggeration.)

2. MANY PEOPLE BELIEVE THAT EVERY STROKE ROWED IS THE SAME. In fact, each stroke is an ongoing reaction to a changing environment. Every perturbation of wind, water, one's own body, or one's partner makes each stroke slightly different. A novice will have to think about each of those differences, but over time, most of the changes become automatic - and they feel uniform.

Similarly, we think of our "self" as being constant and uniform. The experience of me is that I always was. But it is also true that my body was functioning before I had any sense of an "I." Looking more closely, it now appears that my coherent sense of self evolved as a useful way of associating experiences that are important to keeping me alive - and the developmental process that created my sense of "I" can be linked through evolution to the same basic intelligence that turns a flower toward the sun. In other words, "I" am an ongoing process of pattern recognition. What I see at any given moment depends on what I have seen before and the current state of my body.

3. ROWING IS BELIEVED TO BE ELITIST. In fact, sweep rowing (with a single oar) is the oldest intercollegiate sport in America and remains at the heart of our best universities because it teaches profoundly egalitarian lessons. A rower is nothing alone - and can only be as good as his or her partner. The only way an eight-oared shell can go fast is to make everyone in that eight fast. And ultimately, the way to get faster is to find good competition and help them go faster. Rowing is about striving together to create our best selves.

We now know there is no such thing as an independent self. A newborn baby will die without the touch of another. And one's sense of self emerges at age two out of recognizing another person. Even as we become "independent," mirror neurons in our brains are constantly mimicking the feelings of those around us. I read your facial expression, my mirror cells allow me to feel your joy or pain, and with that feeling, I may be flooded with thoughts associated with that emotion. As we project and reflect emotions, we leave traces of ourselves in one another, perhaps creating our better half in a special someone. Perhaps most important, our selves are embedded in the stories of our communities and our cultures. These stories tell us what to eat, what to think, when to mate, how long to be vital, and whether to aspire to become an elder or a retiree. Nowadays, the smorgasbord of stories is spread before us, allowing us to choose from the old and create the new.

In 2006, after Andy and I won gold medals for our age group at the World Championships for Masters rowers, I began to wonder how much I could change my life by radically changing my story. When I was in college, the 1956 Olympic Gold medalists who came to visit seemed old in their 40s. But times have changed. My scores on a rowing machine were still college-varsity material. What if I trained again like an Olympic athlete?

My initial thought in this midlife adventure was to dump my 40-year-old partner, Andy, and search for a 25-year-old star. But I realized - after some less-than-careful experimentation - that throwing myself into training with a bunch of elite 25-year-olds would be a short and painful adventure. We age, it seems, because our cells have only so many replications, and that number seems to be determined by what are called telomeres at the end of our genes. Exercise adds to the length of telomeres, effectively pushing back the aging process. But people doing Olympic training are not used in studies of aging. Jumping in with a bunch of 25-year-olds would likely have snapped my telomeres clean off. I had to start where I was - at 48. Fortunately, Andy owns Baxter Fitness Solutions, a chain of gyms for people over 50. His life's work is helping aging athletes. And he was up for the adventure.

Had I stopped to squarely face all the numbers from the beginning, I would have concluded that winning was impossible because rowers have gotten faster over the last 28 years. But that seems to me like choosing never to live because you know that you are going to die. Andy and I were careful not to lie to anyone, especially ourselves. Instead, we chose to suspend disbelief - to train as if our goal were possible and see what happened.

I knew we were embedded in a good story when people began to show up: Fellow club members raced with us, training harder to make us faster. Physiologists like Fritz Hagerman, who has tested all the Olympic rowing teams since 1972, gave us crucial advice.

Old rowing coaches and colleagues offered help. We were even sponsored by the supplement company Cytomax. Sometimes the work felt too hard, the commitment too great, but I couldn't quit, if for no other reason than the fact that club member Carl Prufer, a documentary filmmaker, was posting our progress on YouTube. Also, we were getting faster, beating some college varsity crews.

The morning of the time trial for the Selection Regatta, we wake at 5:00 a.m., relaxed. We figure we have one good race in us, and we aren't going to waste it against the clock. The other 17 crews are seriously competing to get the best lanes for the heats, but Andy and I talk to each other throughout our race. Because we have the slowest time in the trial, we are put in the very fastest heat for the race that evening . . . with the reigning gold medalists, the fastest rowers in history.

6 p.m. The Selection Trial. The buzzer sounds, the light turns green, and I am slow getting the boat off the start because, as I said at the beginning of this story, I am still caught up in thought, sweating the damn crosswind, bemoaning the lack of perfect conditions that would allow us to demonstrate our best time. We lose about a boat-length to lack of focus. Ten strokes into the race, out of the corner of my eye I see the stern of the boat beside us propelled by two of the fastest rowers in the world - and in that moment something both obvious and profound finally dawns on me: They are upwind; even if I puller harder than Andy, the wind will push us back. What I'd asked for was a chance to really go for it with everything I had, and here it is!

At 15 strokes into the race our plan is to "settle" the stroke rate from 41 strokes a minute to 36. At 15 strokes I do settle, just not so much that Andy notices. Andy and I are in contact and in our lane. These guys are faster than I was at my best. We can't beat them. The question now is how long we can stay with them.

We race flat out. The lane buoys turn from red to yellow to let us know where we are on the course, but the setting sun has turned all of the buoys orange, and I lose track of where we are. All that matters is that the other boat is still visible.

"Cut me some slack!" yells Andy. Slack? What the hell is he thinking? I ease a bit, and we veer back into our lane, dropping off the pace.

Soon I see the 1,000-meter buoy where we were supposed to make our "move," 20 extra-hard strokes to keep us in contention in the second half of the race . . . but I'm spent and hoping Andy won't notice the buoy and call the move. He doesn't. We're no longer rowing well. How far back are we? No idea. It strikes me that we're rowing away from the sunset as hard as we can, trying to keep up with kids. Kind of wonderful . . . kind of bittersweet.

The buoys change for the last 250 meters. I'm supposed to raise the stroke rate and sprint for the finish, but I'm just hanging on.

Fourteen months of all-out training, and we are crushed.

As the winners row by on their way back toward the boathouse, I want to hide. I've never been beaten like this. What a stupid thing to have done. Then, Jason Reade, the gold medalist calls out, "It was a privilege to go the line with you." That's very kind, I think.

A little while later, we learn that one of the women's boats that will go to Beijing is talking about coming back to race again in the trials 20 years hence. Hmm, I think, maybe we started something.
And Sunday morning after we watch the finals, we drive into Manhattan, where we pick the New York Times. And there in the sports section is a photo of us with the headline "Some Different Strokes for Older Folks at Trials." And my favorite part of the story:

"Perhaps the pair had about as much chance to win the French Open doubles title as they did making it past this weekend, but that never was the point of the comeback. The message was to not be afraid to try. 'We showed up,' Kiesling said. 'There's a lot of talent out there, a lot of real raw talent, and they didn't show up. They didn't want to take a crack at it because they were afraid of losing. He who gets embarrassed first loses. You've just got to show up."

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