Our college rowing coach isn’t easily excited, but when he is, he stands up in his boat, backlit by the suggestion of a sunrise, losing and then regaining his balance, flailing his arms, and hollering in that booming voice: That’s amazing! That’s fucking amazing! You’re flying! His excitement is rare. It startles us, and we row faster. I hear his boat’s engine rev as he accelerates to keep up.
Also he is impatient and mercurial and unreliable and petulant and manipulative and arrogant.
Well, it’s true.
He calls me a pain in the ass. He says if he ever has to name a boat after me, that’s what he’ll call it: the Pain in the Ass. What would you call my boat? he asks, like it’s a challenge. I say I can’t think of anything, and his face falls. I can tell he is used to making an impression, even the kind of impression that would make me insult him right back.
The first time we lose, I dropped the stroke rate too low in the head wind — thirty-four strokes per minute when it should have been a clean thirty-six — which means he and I will both interpret the failure as my fault. As the girls and I carry the boat on our shoulders along the river, spectators who would have slapped our backs and beamed if we had gold slung around our necks just let us walk by. I understand now why he hates losing so much, why he refuses to let us do it: we are suddenly unremarkable, and we have made him unremarkable, too. He is waiting at the trailer, using the canvas of our boat sling like a makeshift hammock. His belly spills over the sides of it, and he doesn’t stand up as we set the boat on the rack and huddle around him. Our breathing has not yet quieted. I feel the raw burn of our 2K race in the back of my throat, the lactic acid lighting into my quads, and I realize this is how racing feels when the adrenaline of victory is not there to blunt it. His breathing is almost as heavy as ours. He is silent for a while, which makes our little movements feel loud, and then he looks right at me. You are useless, he says. We could have won that race with a lawn gnome in your seat. I feel something in me shatter, but I knew this was coming, and I do not cry. You have done more to hurt this crew than anyone, he says. The girls are squirming, and one of them says, Coach— He says, Don’t you dare contradict me, and she does not.
In an especially tumultuous coaches’ meeting, he fires his entire staff, including two volunteers. He points wildly at each person to be released. He fires the ceiling. He fires the trash bin. The novice coach cries. The seventy-year-old technical trainer just shrugs and walks out. When, of course, he rehires everyone the next day, he does it with none of the same fanfare. He seems defeated.
Things he says and doesn’t mean:
I’ll make you girls dinner. I owe you. (He didn’t.)
Your weight is not important. (It was, so we stopped eating.)
I promise. (Later: It’s not like I promised or something!)
We won’t row if the combined air and water temperature is lower than fifty degrees. (A freshman girl got hypothermia and frostbite.)
Easy row tomorrow. (Surprise five by 1K races to earn our seats in the boat.)
Oh, but when we win the national championship, he careens down to the medals dock and splashes water into our boat as we row up, as if he has simply forgotten to be middle-aged and angry. He keeps splattering water despite the photographers’ protests, until we are all drenched in a strange sort of baptism. He nearly topples into the river, and the grandstand gasps collectively, but when he stands back up, he is radiating adrenaline. We can almost convince ourselves that he is proud of us, which is something we’ve never seen before. We awkwardly return his hugs as he makes his way from stern to bow and says to each of us the things we had long ago stopped hoping to hear.
Steve Redgrave, who won five Olympic gold medals for British rowing, stands at the podium to talk to our team. They’re not really made of gold, he says. He and his teammate checked with a jeweler. They’re sterling silver with gold coating. Now he lets his daughters run around the house with them. They’re practically worthless, just emblems, really, these things we fight so hard for.
My teammates elect me the next team president. You’re not afraid of him, they tell me, by way of explanation. According to deep-seated rowing tradition, the next boat bought for the crew will be named after me. I am proud of this, because in college rowing we know our predecessors not from their victories but from their surnames pasted on the bows of the boats in the dusty boathouse. The election results are announced at a rally in our college auditorium, and afterward I find him waiting outside, huddled against the chill, stuffed into a too-small windbreaker like an overpacked suitcase. I am smiling. I ask if we will call my boat the Pain in the Ass. He does not look up when he tells me he’s killing the tradition; it’s not going to happen. You’re not the right person to be president, he says. Your teammates made a mistake. I say, Coach, I can do it. He says, You will break.
I agree to baby-sit his sons, whom I taught to row last summer. The pay is ten bucks and anything I want from the fridge. He admits that the boys ask for me, and he doesn’t sound thrilled about it. When he answers the front door, he squints at me and says, Your hair looks less frizzy today, and his wife appears behind him to admonish him for his lack of sensitivity before they head out for Italian. His sons are known among the girls on the team for pointedly ignoring baby-sitters, but the two of them have deemed me worthy of conversation (an endorsement that will prompt him to insist that they do it just to upset him). A few hours later he bursts into the living room, drunk and singing Italian folk songs in a surprisingly melodic baritone. Then he pulls me aside, turns serious, and asks how the boys were. His wife shouts from the kitchen, No more rowing talk! He yells, We’re not! He turns back to me, and I say they were fine; we played basketball. He grins and tells me they both made the middle-school team this year, and their first game is next week. He will miss it because we have a race in California, and for a minute he looks as far away as those salty West Coast skies. But we are going to win out there, he says, brightening, and we do.
I ask him to go for a walk with me every Wednesday on my lunch hour. To talk about the team, I say. He grumbles but agrees, and we form a habit of circling the campus along the paved pathways. I pretend it is very important to me, and he pretends that it is not at all important to him. We argue, but we laugh. The contention between us feels amiable, and in those moments I believe I will prove him wrong about me. He starts to lose some weight, says the walking helps, that he’s trying to stay healthy for his boys. He says I’m a damn strong athlete and that I am teaching him things, but he never says what they are. Some Wednesdays I show up at his office at our scheduled time and he’s not there, and the receptionist smiles kind of sadly and gives me a mint.
A few of us on the crew go sledding over Christmas. The boathouse hill is too slick for it, and I smash my head so hard the pain radiates through my eyeballs. For a minute I can’t speak. Our trainer says the impact caused a concussion, and she’s not impressed. She says she would rather get a concussion herself than tell him I am injured, so I have to do it. Today. Before practice. I expect him to be mad at our recklessness, so I rehearse what I’m going to say. When I start to speak, he interrupts: Don’t come to me with problems; come to me with solutions. We stare at each other, and as a solution I sit down on a rowing machine, and he nods and says, That is the honorable thing. Music pumps through the training center now, and he stands right behind me, where he can see my screen, and he doesn’t move, even though my elbows hit him in the belly with every stroke. I feel a terrible ringing behind my eyes, and I think my skull is cracking open along its fissures like tectonic plates, so I drop the stroke rate, back off, slow down. He yells to all the girls rowing alongside me — though I can tell by the direction of his voice that he hasn’t turned his gaze away from my screen — You call this leadership? Your president is losing you another championship. Who is going to show her what it takes to win? I take a breath and sprint, and I’m fast, fast enough to call it leadership after all. My elbows strike him harder, but he still doesn’t move. When the 6K test is over, I drop the handle, which bounces up and bangs against the rowing machine, and then I vomit. Don’t drop the handle, he says, and he walks away.
On the dock that day, after we won the championship, the thing he said to me when he hugged me was this: When I call you a pain in the ass, it’s a compliment. Kid, I wouldn’t have you any other way.
He complains of chest pain while the team is on the road, and I volunteer to drive him to the emergency room. An assistant coach (recently rehired) tosses me the keys to the team truck, where he sits shotgun and says nothing on the way, save to bemoan my driving skills, which compels me to take the turns more sharply, which doesn’t help. When we arrive, they put him in a gown and on a gurney and take him to be examined. You must be the rower, a nurse says when she sees me in my spandex in the waiting room. Go on in, but be careful. He’s a little . . . cantankerous. He doesn’t like my seeing him like this, and I don’t like it either. In the dimly lit labyrinth of wheeled stretchers and low voices, he is separated from neighboring patients by thin curtains. His gown doesn’t cover his whole belly, and he looks like a big injured animal. He is crying, and his words trip over each other. My wife is leaving me, he says. She’s taking my sons! Then, like an afterthought, I have a blood clot. I say, Coach, I’m so sorry. His eyes focus on me, and he hollers (the same way he does on the river when our propulsion per stroke is not quite enough), Get away from me! Get the hell out of here! until the nurses run over to make sure that I do, and when I am far enough down the hall that he cannot see or hear, I collapse against a wall and cry so hard my muscles convulse. A passing doctor stops, bends to set his hands on my knees, and says, It’s always hard to see our loved ones suffer. I look up. The idea of loving my coach feels like an accusation. I want to spurn the very notion of it, but the doctor has a kind smile, and I can’t think of how I would begin to explain. I draw shaky breaths and thank him. Then my teammates call to ask why I’m not back; they’re waiting; it’s time to row.
February feels dreary on the river. The oar rubs bloody blisters into my palms, and when we dock, he asks how I like starboard side. Because I will not admit how difficult it is, I just say that the water is nice — it is; it’s glass — and he says, You’re a fighter, kid. I say, Sometimes I don’t think I’m good for the team. We are silent, and I think: Wait, that’s not true at all. I don’t believe that. Where did that come from? I realize it’s something he has told me over and over, and I think he realizes this, too, because he takes a moment to wipe the sweat from his brow and squints against the gray sky. Have you ever stopped trying? he asks. We both know I have not.
I see him walking out of a building downtown. It’s a psychiatrist’s office. He asks me not to tell anyone.
The truth is I really was a pain in the ass. I asked too many questions. I fought back. I remembered the promises he didn’t keep. When he trusted me to hold a thirty-six, I let him down.
His director criticizes him for the way he treats his rowers, for his disregard for anyone’s opinions but his own: Maybe 4 AM is too early to practice. Maybe the team shouldn’t drive through the night to races in other states. Everyone tries to be gentle with him but nothing changes. He yells and stomps and storms, and he is hated, but his boats are faster than anyone else’s. Parents cringe at the comments he makes over the loudspeaker. Other teams report him. Officials give him warnings. The university gives him warnings. I have to sit in on the meetings because I am the team president, but I am silent: the honorable thing. You won’t make me leave, he says. It’s not just about winning, they tell him.
Tomorrow’s championship represents the completion of my collegiate rowing career — four years of morning training and fast boats and winning records. I never missed a practice, and if the world is fair, he will thank me or at least he won’t compare me to a lawn gnome, and I will believe that we got somewhere together. I’m polishing these hopes from my seat in the hotel lobby when he plops onto the couch next to me and asks how I feel about being done. Then, without waiting for my answer, he says, You see, I taught you not to quit no matter what, and that is a lesson you can take anywhere. I nod and then promptly take that lesson across the street to a pub, where I order a beer, even though it’s almost midnight and we race in eight hours. The bartender recognizes my rowing jacket and says he’s a former rower himself. I mention the race tomorrow, and he seems to understand what it means to be drinking the night before a championship. He tells me the story of Xeno Müller, a Swiss rower with two Olympic medals to his name who was sitting at a starting line to qualify for the 2004 Athens Olympics when, moments before the buzzer for a race he almost certainly would have won, he calmly rowed himself back to the docks and put his boat away. You can quit, the bartender tells me. Just like that. I draw circles in the condensation of my glass and wonder what it would be like to let someone else mark the rate and shoulder the weight of the outcome. And yet. I know I’ll wake up in the morning and pull as hard as I can into whatever head wind drives across the river this year and have the right to say, I didn’t quit! to the man who spent four years telling me I would, and who would have been happier if I did, but who will now claim even the tiny sliver of accomplishment that I earn by proving him wrong.