“Australia. Great Britain. China. France. United States. Italy. Attention.”
The announcer in the starting tower gave the commands for which we had all been waiting. The starting dock stretched perpendicularly across the racecourse like an E with three extra legs. At the end of each leg floated a boat. My partner, Oksana, and I were in lane five staring straight ahead at a small stoplight positioned at the end of our dock. Also at the end of our dock was a race volunteer, holding the stern of our boat steady. At the opposite end of the boat was a basket that held our bow steady. Our oars were placed in the water, and we were leaning forward at full reach like two cobras coiled and ready to strike. After five minutes of sitting and trying everything I could think of, including singing a song from Rocky(Take You Back), to relieve the tension, it was time. Time to make good on the base of support that had reshaped me physically from a soft, bed ridden shell of what I once was back to the man that I had been, and further. Time to make my partner’s dream a reality. Time to put all of the work I had suffered through, and the attention that I had paid to use. Time to win one for the USA. Time to make everybody proud. Time to be an example of what a man can do in two years if he works for it. I took one more deep breath, and put away some oxygen. The buzzer sounded, and the red light changed to green.
The first few strokes of a race always feel a little weird to me. Probably because most times I will have been sitting there for a good five minutes doing nothing besides focusing on the next four minutes. All of the tension that has been built leading up to the race is finally released. The first few strokes of our race were done at a rate of 45 strokes per minute. Based on our two previous races at the Paralympics, we decided our best plan of attack was to ease it off the line, and increase our speed throughout the race. We knew that every boat was going to be exploding from the start, and would most likely fizzle out as the meters stacked up. Thus, we shot like a rocket off the line…directly into last place. It is times like these where one can lose confidence. Standing apart from the group inevitably makes us doubt ourselves. However, as long as one can trust their training, and their plan, but not stubbornly stick to it, they will be ok. I knew that we had consistently had the third fastest time for every race. I knew that we had put in hundreds of hours of practice, and hard work. But when we were still in sixth place at the 250 meter mark, none of that could stop the voices in my head from saying, “shit, I hope I was right about this.” And it wasn’t the first nor would it be the last time I would hear those words in my head, either.
The first 250 meters is the easiest part of the race. My body hadn’t started feeling the effects of the oxygen deficit, the carbon dioxide build up, or the delay in glycogen getting to my muscles. I felt like I could have kept that pace up forever. Until I got to 251 meters. Then I began to notice that I was breathing pretty damn hard. I began to notice a little burning sensation in my arms, and that my back had a little sore spot in it that wasn’t there ten seconds prior. I noticed that it was getting a little bit harder to keep the boat at the same speed. Welcome to the race. Luckily for us, we weren’t alone. Everybody was feeling this. The winners are separated from the losers based on how much of these painful sensations they can endure without letting the pain convince them to slow their pace. The only hope a person has is to delay them for as long as possible. If you can get your mind tougher than your opponent, your muscles stronger than your opponent, your body more efficient than your opponent, and delay the pain for just a second longer, you will win the race. The only way to do this is training both the body and the mind. And training them a lot.
After having disappeared from my peripheral vision at the start of the race, the Italians came back into view on my right. It didn’t take us long to pass them, and set our sights on the Australians all the way on the opposite side of the course. We had beaten them before, so I knew we would catch them. We were in fifth place at the 500 meter mark, with half the race to go when my partner called for a ten stroke burst. I responded by increasing our stroke rate from the 39 we had been cruising at to a 42, and pulling with the extra muscle fibers that I had in reserve. It was enough to catch the Australians, and leave them behind. With four boats left to pass, we were running out of time, and they weren’t prone to let us advance.
We were coming into the final 250. By this time, the crowds on either side were losing it cheering for their preferred boat. I knew my parents and brother were in those stands somewhere watching, along with other supporters who had made the trip. Despite this deafening roar being generated by the stands, down on the water it was quiet besides the sounds of our breathing, the blades cutting into the water, and the clanking of the oars rotating in the oarlocks. Maybe this was because by this time, my senses weren’t quite functioning at full capacity. My vision was blurry around the edges, and my ears seemed like they had cotton stuffed in them. Even my hands and forearms were numb, but somehow they held onto the oar handles. They knew what to do without my brain even having to tell them. On the contrary, however, my biceps were burning like somebody dumped a gallon of acid on them. My lungs didn’t feel any better. My heart was pounding like a jackhammer against my ribs as if it were trying to break through them. My throat was dry and scratched from all of the air I had been sucking in and blowing back out. But they were all still working. The great thing about the body is that even though it may be experiencing excruciating pain, and may want to shut down, it still listens to the brain. And it is the brain that matters in the last part of a race. It is difficult to endure all of these different organs all sending you alerts that you need to slow down. Like a great military leader, it is the mind that can calm them down, and get them to come together and hold on for just a little longer, not for themselves, but for each other. It is the mind that holds together when everything is starting to fall apart, that gets you across the line.
At this point I was trying everything to figure out a way to make this pain go away without stopping. I thought that if I could think about something more painful than the physical pain I was presently experiencing, then it would work to relieve my suffering. I thought about being dumped by girlfriends, about excruciating training sessions I had made it through, and even the pain of having both legs severed in the blink of an eye. None of it had any effect. There was nothing that could make it stop other than the finish line. And we would be there soon.
We greeted the final 250 with an increase in stroke rate, and power application. At this point I was pulling with all of my might, nearly as fast as I could. We were behind the Great British boat by less than a length. We reached the grandstand, and came up on the red carpeted awards dock on our left. Half way through the awards dock was the point at which we had decided to empty out the reserve, and sprint for the finish. Or, as our coach Roger had succinctly put it, “sell our souls.” It was the final 150 meters of the final race of the Paralympics. There was no time left. Despite the numb forearms, the heaving lungs, and the burning biceps, we increased the stroke rate even more and found a few extra muscle fibers to add to the mix. We were inching forward with every stroke with the Great British boat in our sights. With one final stroke we pulled across the line and stopped rowing. The most painful moment of a race for me comes not during the effort, but in the split second after I stop, as everything finally catches up to me. The effect is similar to that of taking a shot of Jack Daniels. The liquid passes through the mouth with no reaction, but swallowing causes the face to contort as you realize what you just drank. Immediately following, everything slowly but surely started feeling better. The extra hydrogen from my muscle contractions began to get cleared away, the oxygen deficit came back to normal, the carbon dioxide was expelled, and my heart rate started returning to resting levels. Once I could lift my head, I took a glance to my left to check where the Great British were. Had we passed them? I had been so focused on maintaining our speed that I hadn’t looked. I knew it had been close, but I couldn’t tell if they were ahead of us, or behind when we crossed the finish line. I moved my eyes to focus on the results board that was conveniently situated next to the finish tower. It read, “1. CHN 2. FRA.” No third place. Who had crossed first? If I could have, I would have been holding my breath. We waited for what seemed like forever, but in reality was only ten seconds. It had been so close, the judges needed to be extra sure of what they had seen. Finally it came up. 3. USA 4. GBR 5. AUS. 6. ITA. We had placed third by a mere two tenths of a second. I allowed myself a rare show of celebration, and gave a small pump of my fist. I reached back for a low five from my partner, and together we rowed towards the awards dock.