Learning How Not To Fly
Updated: Apr 19
I’m going to start my story by telling you I can fly. Or, I used to.
In the liminal space between water and sky on the Charles River in Boston, I spent more hours than I care to count flying across the surface of the water in a centimeters-thick carbon fiber boat called a rowing shell. My oars, gripped in my calloused, sandpapery hands, may as well have sprouted like wings from my back through my shoulders, extensions of my lats and arms. They reached behind me, gripping the mercurial surface of the water, and the spring of my coiled body powered open, propelling me forward in the shell.
The water is a noisy place, full of the rolling wheels of the seat underneath me and the click-thunk of my oars in the oarlocks. I hear the wah-wah of my coach’s voice through the megaphone, far off and often lost behind the hum of the motor. There’s the bark and hiss of my coxswain’s commands, should I be lucky enough to have someone steering my boat and also facing forward. When the boat is really moving well, there’s an effervescent bubbling sound along the hull that fills my body with a happy hum, my muscles feeling the ease that comes with a body and instrument united. But for the most part, my hours and miles were logged in blessed silence, accompanied only by the sounds of the water, the boat and the wind.
It was in this silence that a love and obsession for rowing grew deep roots in my heart. It drove me through seven years of being an athlete and ten years as a rowing coach. In the fall of 2014, I was the head women’s rowing coach at Georgetown University and burned out beyond belief. I remember climbing up the carpeted stairs to see Steve, my therapist, in his office in an old brick building right off campus. I sat in a darkened corner of the narrow hallway waiting for him to be ready. That day, he listened to me drone on about all the things I had asked my body to do over the years I spent dedicated to this sport. Rowers are sort of infamous for this, bragging about how tough and crazy they are, and it gets old fast, even if you’re that idiot bragging about your toughness. I remember this man, unremarkable in body and uncommon in heart, leveling his gaze at me and saying, rather softly, “It sounds like you’ve asked a lot of your body.”
I wept for the body of the woman and girl who was pushing herself to prove who she was: enough. Capable. Talented. Worthy. I used rowing to give the middle finger to every third-grade asshole who pegged my face with rubber balls in gym class and picked me last for kickball. It was for every fifth-grade girl who told me I couldn’t be her friend, because she already had one. I was going to show them all.
When I left college, I was training to make the U.S. National Team. That was my dream; some might say delusion. I was good enough to try, but not good enough to be invited to train with the team directly, so I spent hours on either end of a conventional workday rowing, lifting weights, sweating, and generally exhausting myself. I lived my real life as the sun rose and set on the world each day; the middle eight hours simply paid the bills.
Then, one Thursday in March of 2006, I ended up in a hospital bed, coming out of sedation for a test for my heart, staring into the kind, firm face of my cardiologist. “You’re going to have to stop rowing,” he said frankly and without emotion. “The EP study confirmed my diagnosis.”
At the time, I understood that I was diagnosed with a rare genetic condition called Arrythmogenic Right Ventricular Cardiomyopathy, which is a fancy way of saying exercise is bad for me. My hours-long workouts vanished and my elite-level athletic dreams evaporated in that moment.
In the numb months that followed, I stumbled my way into a new job: coaching rowing. Unable and unwilling to leave the sport behind, I simply changed boats. My coaching launch was powered by a motor that left me slightly deaf in my right ear, and I drove with a megaphone always in hand. I relished the challenge. I loved being a coach, a teacher, a leader, and a communicator. I awakened to awe in the moments I watched my student-athletes embody and embrace their own power. Their joy was mine also.
It was the power of that joy and need to prove myself that propelled me forward, and my experience as an athlete made it easy to push aside the stress, exhaustion, and dread that was building in my body around my job. Truthfully, it’s even deeper than that. Our culture does not allow us — women especially— to show weakness or to rest. There’s a ladder to climb and things to prove. Don’t let up. Don’t give in. And don’t let on that it’s hard.
It was that hardness that helped me into the scratchy polyester chair and dim lighting of Steve’s office. As I wept, I realized who I was really punishing with all that proving and striving energy. I saw her, my physical self, sitting beside me at that moment. She wasn’t mad or disappointed in me. She was grateful to be seen and appreciated. It was as if she put her hand on my leg and said, “It’s OK. I’m still with you. Thanks for seeing all I have done.”
Thanks to Steve, I wove my way out of athletic coaching and into leadership coaching, out of universities and into the land of small business owners. As I did this, my body became my compass for that foggy period where nothing felt clear, but I had very strong sensations about what I did and didn’t want to do. I said yes to things that gave me energy and excitement, and refused things that made me feel dead, bored, or resistant. I found myself incapable of doing things because I was supposed to, because I had nothing left to give. It almost didn’t feel like a choice.
It was as if a light switch had been flicked on. The strength of my sensations and my awareness of my body had been deepened. I couldn’t unsee my body and I couldn’t unfeel what she was sensing and communicating. And thanks to her, I continue to use my body as a leadership coach, curious about the wisdom embodied in others. I wonder at the clarity that comes when we involve our physical selves in the questions and challenges life presents to us. I’m in awe at the swiftness of the answers the body has for us, when the brain often keeps us swirling in our stuckness, arguing all the outcomes, and all the pros and cons.
The body’s wisdom is a sharp knife, cutting to the quick of what matters. And maybe flying isn’t what matters most.