People say certain things when they find out I’m a rower: “Wow, you must have really strong arms!” or “You mean in one of those long, skinny things? Like the Olympics?” while they make a funny back-and-forth motion with their upper body. I smile and nod when strangers exclaim, “Oh, I know all about that. I’ve read The Boys in the Boat!”
I grew up a two-mile drive from Sarasota Crew’s Bay Preserve practice property, so the sport basically fell into my lap. To say I hit the athletic jackpot would be an understatement. I was an awkward, lanky pre-teen. I fell over myself constantly and my athletic pursuits were rewarded with scrapes and bruises. Rowing was a sport where being tall was an asset, but little hand-eye coordination was required, and you could sit down while you competed. I was hooked.
Beyond the physical benefits, rowing allowed me to explore the waterways of Sarasota. Rowing out from Crew headquarters into Little Sarasota Bay was always an adventure. We battled wakes, dodged bridges, and rowed through many an infamous Florida rainstorm.
On many occasions, we stopped to watch manatees poke their noses up mere feet from our oars and yelled as fish (and once a stingray!) jumped into the boat with us. Over the years, I became familiar with the long stretch of water we practiced on. I could navigate around mangroves, pilings and sandbars with ease and knew where all the best spots were for flat water. The bay became an extension of my home.
My senior year of high school, the team had seven returning rowers in our varsity eight. We were hungry for a national title, and we spent the entire year focusing on that single goal. During this time, when I was striving for perfection in the boat, I came to appreciate the beauty of Sarasota.
On predawn Saturday practice mornings, the water was flat and calm. It was too early for boat traffic or wind, and we relished the stillness. As our boat moved through our warm-up sequence, the sun would rise over the mangroves and give a golden glow to the water. Occasionally dolphins would surface alongside our oars as if they were egging us on. There was nothing more important in those moments than the entrance of the blades into the water, of working together in the intense pursuit of the perfect stroke.
I remember my high school years with a feeling of euphoria: the joy of hugging teammates on the medals dock, late-night movies and swimming after a regatta, dancing in between sets of lifting weights on the Sarasota Crew property.
The joy I get from my teammates is a big part of what drives me in rowing, and the reason I chose to pursue the sport in college. An unbreakable bond comes from the willingness to suffer, to tear yourself apart, to push harder because you love your team. After dedicating almost half my life to the pursuit of rowing, that feeling keeps me coming back.
And the feeling of freedom, of finding and challenging my limits, and the beauty of those early-morning hours on Little Sarasota Bay helped form me and will follow me wherever I go.
Kate Flanders, a member of Yale’s rowing team, was a summer intern at Sarasota Magazine.