My freshman year of college, I found myself standing in a glass boathouse along the Tennessee River with a large group of particularly tall college girls.
I looked with wide eyes at the sleek boats lining the walls and the racks of long oars hanging by the door.
I had a vague concept of rowing as a sport requiring excessive arm strength and height, but I truly knew absolutely nothing about the rowing – but here I was, trying out to be a part of a Division I athletic tradition.
The prerequisites had already been met – rowers usually stand above 5 feet 8 inches – and our new coach had already tested and timed us for speed and endurance. Following a flurry of examinations, from heart echoes to blood work, I became one of more than 20 of the Lady Vols novice rowing team.
Tennessee has an amazing variety of athletic teams and facilities with the most visible being football and basketball, among others.
Rowing, however – with its boathouse location on the edge of campus nestled along the riverbanks just behind Neyland Stadium – carries a slightly more mysterious aura. One might see the boathouse on a leisurely drive down Neyland Drive. Some catch a glimpse of a boat, moving with smooth tandem, down the Tennessee River on a misty morning or a sunny afternoon.
Rowing's mystique can partially be attributed to the sport's origin; it began as a popular sport in the United Kingdom, especially among universities like Oxford and Cambridge. In my time studying abroad, I saw this distinction firsthand.
England is notoriously devoid of basketball courts, baseball diamonds, football fields and hockey rinks – even the casual jogger receives little respect from the British. However, the rivers provide an important competitive outlet, and British universities popularly hold annual races.
America's inheritance of British culture brought rowing to the athletic tradition of many Northeastern schools, notably those in the Ivy League. Naturally, the sport depends upon a waterway, and the boats and equipment are costly and difficult to maintain.
Gradually, as my teammates and I spent roughly three hours an afternoon at the boathouse – training, running and rowing – I increased greatly in my knowledge of the sport and physical strength. I never imagined I'd reach and surpass incredibly rigorous physical challenges.
We generally trained six days a week for three hours or more per day. My teammates and I spent mornings at the Tennessee track, running in freezing temperatures. We spent a week training more than five hours per day during winter vacation, and on spring break we remained in Knoxville and rowed in the middle of snow flurries. When summer rolled around, the campus emptied, but my team remained for two extra weeks to train for the NCAA regatta.
Without even trying, the girls on the team forged incredibly strong friendships. We were all different, but the nature of the sport and our hours upon hours spent training together made us incredibly cohesive.
Rowing with strength and effectiveness requires that every member in the boat – whether it holds two, four, six or eight – follow each other's rhythm with meticulous accuracy. Small mistakes in speed, tempo, power, blade depth, blade rotation and other movements can result in chaotic motion in a waifish boat.
Although the emotional and physical strain of rowing takes a toll, the sport has an incredible history and tradition at universities around the world and at Tennessee.
I have witnessed firsthand the hard work, the steely commitment to improve and the community the sport encourages. My teammates and I imagined afternoons when we could nap rather than run, or meals where we could drink soda and eat sugar rather than drink endless bottles of water and eat healthfully. Ultimately, however, we continued to train, to push and to work because of each other.
We refused to let each other down, no matter how exhausted we might be.
Rowing provided an incredible opportunity, and Tennessee is exceptionally lucky to have a program that encourage young athletes to pursue new heights of physical competition and to have a unique water sport that is at once exhausting and exhilarating.
Sarah Hagaman is a sophomore in English. She can be reached as firstname.lastname@example.org.