Pain. That’s all that I can feel. I know the floor is cold and hard, but I can’t sense it with my skin as I lay down on the RAC’s indoor track. I remind myself to control my breathing. As I exhale, I lift my feet up about a couple of inches above the ground and move my legs up and down like I’m swimming. We’ve been doing this ab workout for a while now. I feel like I’m almost at my limit…
“Aaaaannd… STOP!” Marco shouts. “Good job, everyone. Get some water!”
A collective sigh of relief waves through the entire group. I lay spread eagle with my back now glued to the floor from sweat. My lungs pump air almost as fast as my heart beats. Sluggish footsteps echo around me as the other guys search for water. I want to get up but this floor is starting to feel comfortable…
“That’s not a good spot to nap, bro.” Someone says nearby. Greg reaches for my hand and pulls me up. The glare from his glasses blinds me on the way up, but I eventually see his piercing dark brown eyes through them. “Rocco slept on the floor after tennis tryouts in high school. Got really sick when he woke up. Our dream of being a Doubles twin team failed before it even took off.”
Someone else passes by Greg and I. Rocco, Greg’s identical twin brother, glares at both of us with familiar piercing eyes. The only difference is that Rocco doesn’t wear glasses.
“That was you. You fell asleep on the floor.” Rocco replies without stopping. “You gotta stop spreading rumors, Greg, we just got here.”
We laugh as we walk to the nearest corner of the track. All the bleachers on the second level of the RAC Arena are pushed up against the wall, so there’s plenty of space on the side of the indoor track. A few of the returning rowers pulled the first row of the bleachers in the corner, so there’s at least where we can sit down. All of the new rowers, the last thirteen out of the original fifty, congregate back to this little corner after they use the water fountain.
We sit at the end of the open bleacher. I hear Greg groan as we sit down. He’s lean like his brother, but they’re both deceptively strong. He’s very vascular, with veins and muscles running and up and down his arms and legs. I rub my spaghetti-soft arms to see if I have any muscles at all.
I look around. Everyone looks so fit. The returning rowers are all built like machines. One of them, I think his name is Tucker, already has his shirt off. I’m sure they’re real, but it looks like someone expertly photoshopped his abs.
“I don’t think I belong here.” I mutter. “I didn’t even know I had stomach muscles until I felt them screaming during that last workout.”
Greg gives a small shrug. “I don’t have abs. It’s too much work to maintain. And come on.” He elbows me on my side. “You’re still here, aren’t you? As long as you can still move, you have every right to be here with us.”
Suddenly I feel someone move on my right side. Greg and I both turn our heads and see one of the returning rowers leaning on the bleachers. He doesn’t seem to notice us as he continues to drink from a Deer Park bottle. A bright red scar travels from his left eyebrow down the side of his face. Sweat drips from his fully shaven head, sparkling in the bright lights of the RAC. I’m actually not sure what his real name is. All I know is that he’s one of the returning rowers and people call him “Daggercalf.”
“Did he… was he just standing there this whole time?” Greg mumbles under his breath. I shake my head to reply, mainly because that’s the only part that my body is willing to move.
Daggercalf stands up straight, then walks away. A black tattoo of a combat dagger sits on the back of his right calf.
“I heard somewhere that Daggercalf used to be a part of Seal Team 6.” Greg whispers to me, even though Daggercalf is already walking up to Coach Marco on the other side of the track. He turns around and leans on the metal railings that stops spectators from falling into the lower level basketball court of the arena.
“Is that another rumor that you made up?” I ask nervously. Greg shakes his head.
After five minutes, Coach waves his hands at us, gesturing for us to walk toward him.
“Get pumped up! We’re doing Fun Runs!” Coach exclaims with a little too much excitement.
I smile at his energy for the next activity. The other new recruits whisper optimistically. After that killer ab workout and the endless circuits we did tonight, all of us are just happy to be doing something light.
Mike begins to snicker as he looks at us. “Fun Runs aren’t fun. There is no ‘fun’ in Crew!”
The returning rowers all laugh with Mike. Coach smiles as we crowd around him, waiting for the laughter to die down.
“Whenever anyone in this sport says the word ‘fun,'” Coach says, adding air quotes while saying ‘fun.’ “… You need to understand that they’re being sarcastic. I’m not saying that you can’t find anything fun or exciting in rowing, though.” He quickly clarifies as the returning rowers continue to giggle.
Coach begins to take off his hoodie and sweatpants as a few people whistle around him. He tosses his clothes on the side of the track, leaving only a shirt and a blue pair of basketball shorts on him.
“We’ll do a modified version of Fun Runs, since we have the track all to ourselves tonight.” Coach declares. “I’ll shout an exercise or action, then we’ll do a lap of it around the track. Sound simple enough, right?” A few people shake their heads. “For example.”
Coach points at the black parallel lines of the track. We all choose a lane, lining up behind the returning rowers already standing in front of the group.
“First one. Jog!”
The first row begins to jog, and the rest of us follow. I run on outside lanes while the faster runners take on the inside lanes instead. Coach runs side by side with Mike and Daggercalf. It’s so unnatural to see a coach of any team doing the same workouts as their athletes, but Coach seems like he’s in his element.
We finish the lap at different times. Diet and Luke bring up the rear, still making their way around the last turn.
“Here’s the thing about ‘Fun Runs.'” Coach says as we all look at the last two runners. “The sooner you finish the lap, the more time you’ll be able to rest in between. We start the next one after they cross the line…. Aaaaaand… Sprint!”
All of us make a mad dash forward. The fast runners during the jog become even faster, with Tucker leading the entire team in the sprint. I finish right before Diet and Luke, who are once again last to finish. I hope we don’t sprint again.
We move forward at a jogging pace while bringing our knees up as high as we can like we’re stepping on coals.
The new guys and I freeze in place. The returning rowers don’t miss a beat. They begin skipping; they hop with one leg after another, lightly bouncing up and down the track. We try to copy them and struggle for a few moments.
Every now and then, Coach would say he’s “feeling merciful” and throw in a “JOG!” or “SKIP!” before pumping up the difficulty once again. After one more “SPRINT!” Coach pauses longer than normal as I cross the line and finish last.
“All right… It’s been a good week of practice.” Coach says, talking even when he’s catching his breath. “Our next practice is Monday at 5AM, here at the RAC.” A few people, even Mike, groan out loud. “We’ll be practicing with the Women’s team from here on out.” A lot of people, including Mike, cheer with glee. “It’s gonna be a good solid few days til then, so I’ll make this last lap interesting.”
Coach points across the room.
“We’ll do two different exercises, half a lap each. We’ll stop and wait for everyone on the other side, then we’ll do the last exercise. First up… Crab Walks!”
The returning rowers all groan in unison. Even Diet, who I have never seen express any negative emotion, appears to look defeated.
“All right, everyone, assume the position!” Coach shouts as he sits down on the floor with his front facing us. We copy his movements and mimic his body position. “Crab walk from here to the halfway point!”
We move gingerly across the floor, trying our best to stay in the lines of the track.
I lead with my arms as I move backwards, pushing off with my legs to propel me forward. As soon as I make it around the first bend of the track, I start to slow down. Sweat begins to drip from my arms to my hands, making them slip as I try to move them off the floor. My legs, which has been feeling like Jell-O all week, ignore my commands to go any faster and instead do the opposite.
I finish the crab walks last, but Coach doesn’t start the final leg of the lap.
“Last one.” Coach declares.
He puts his feet together, then bends down and places his hands on the floor, creating an upside down V with his body.
He moves his hands four steps forward, alternating left and right. Then his legs follow the same motion, moving up four steps to return him in the same V position.
“Move up using your hands, about one yard at a time. Then follow it up with the legs. Any questions? I’ll see you at the end!”
We all move like little caterpillars on the floor, moving our hands first then following it up with our feet. It seems simple enough, but I’m starting to see and feel why the returning rowers groaned earlier. The toughest part of this maneuver is right after you finish moving your hands and before you move your legs. My weak legs and arms shake as they extend up to that position.
It seems like a few people had different methods to doing these. Diet, who has been helping Luke all week, keeps spelling the word Inchworm as he moves his hands and legs. Further up, Mike keeps doing pushups after he moves his hands, then proceeds to move his feet.
I find my own rhythm and stick to it. Three hand-lengths up with my hands, then follow up with my feet. It’s not the best, but it’s the most efficient. And at this point, efficiency is needed on my part.
Not even a quarter of the way there, I can feel my energy draining from my body. I stand up, giving my lungs a chance to move air in and out without moving. My arms now feel like ramen. My shoes keep slipping on the sweat that drips from my face. I see other people in front of me stand up for a moment too before continuing on our last lap.
I’m in dead last by the time that I start up again. I look up ahead and see everyone moving farther and farther away. I need to focus. Move my arms. Then legs. That’s it. Keep doing it. Breathe, don’t forget to breathe. Don’t forget!
It’s been a while since I looked up. It seems that I’m just about to make the final turn around the bend to the finish line. I can’t believe I made this far.
But no one else is in front of me. I try to move my arms forward but instead I collapse on the floor. My body moves up and down as I heave for air.
“Everybody wait here.” I hear Coach’s voice say. “Craig, come with me.” Two pairs of footsteps get closer and louder. I open my eyes when I hear them stop right in front of me. “You’re Ansel, right?”
“Yes, Coach…” I manage to blurt out. My mouth has never been this dry.
Coach looks at Daggercalf, who looks down at me with an emotionless stare. Daggercalf kneels down and hands me a bottle of water. I sit up and I drink from it. My throat sings with relief as the water drenches it.
“Ansel, are you able to keep going? Are you able to reach the finish line?” Coach asks, kneeling down with Daggercalf.
I shake my head, but I can’t say it out loud. I don’t want to admit that I can’t finish something that everyone else in here could accomplish. I don’t even know how to say that out loud. Complaining won’t change anything. I shouldn’t have gone to practice today. I should have quit earlier.
“Ah, so you’ve hit your first wall, huh?” Coach asks, sitting down in front of me. Daggercalf immediately steps away and gives us space, but I still feel his eyes staring me down from nearby. “That crushing feeling of defeat. Thoughts of being useless and weak. Questioning why you’re even here in the first place.”
I’ve never seen Coach Marco up this close. Sweat glints on his skin like crystals. Dark circles hang around his hazel eyes. He furrows his eyebrows, and small creases form on his forehead. His smile, while slight and small, brings a warm feeling to wave through my body.
“But it’s true, though.” I manage to blurt out. “Look at them. Look at him!” I nod my head towards Daggercalf. “I’m cookie dough compared to them.”
Coach chuckles. “Physical strength is not the only thing I’m looking for.” He gets up and assumes the starting V position of the inchworm. “Come on, I’ll show you something amazing.”
I just stare at him for a moment. He looks so eager as he looks at me with a smirk on his face. I cave in and do as he says.
“There we go. That’s step one.” Coach says. “Step two is a little tricky though. You gotta do everything that I say, all right? Ignore that voice inside your head. Just listen to me. Go ahead and start when you’re ready.”
I nod my head. I do the first inchworm and immediately feel all the fatigue in my body once again. After a few more, I look up and see the rest of the team standing at the finish line. I freeze on the spot as I feel the weight of their gaze. They’re judging me. They’re wondering why a weakling like me is even on this team.
“Don’t stop, don’t stop, you’re almost there!” Coach says firmly, a little louder this time. “Forget them for a moment, you’re doing something amazing here. Focus!”
Oh, right. I’m just moving my hands, then my legs. Hands first, then I move my legs. My abs are still burning, and I’m not sure if it’s from the circuits from earlier or because of this stupid Inchworm thing. I can’t even figure out why I’m hurting, I’m so dumb. I’m a piece of shit—
“Remember what I said earlier?” Coach asks. “I know that voice is telling you that you’re a stupid piece of shit right now. I can see it on your face.” I look over to Coach, who mirrors my movements as I move across the floor. “I can only yell encouraging things at you from here, the rest has to come from you!”
I slow down, but I don’t stop. Hands, then legs. Hands, then legs. Everyone can see me struggle. This is so embarrassing. My arms buckle and I fall on the floor, but I push myself up before Coach could call me out on it. Hands, then legs. I’m such a loser. I look nothing like Tucker or Mike or Greg or Daggercalf, I don’t belong here. I don’t belong here.
“ARGHHH!” An angry, terrifying roar comes out from my mouth.
I pause, my chest heaving up and down. I still feel tired, but I feel a strange burst of energy in my body. I look at Coach, who now sports a proud smile on his face.
“Almost there! Show them what you’re made of!” He matches the volume of my scream. He continues to encourage me with every move that I make. “If you have to scream like that to get yourself to move, then do it. You can bark, meow, or moo, do whatever you need to do!”
Hands, then legs. Yes, I’m a piece of shit. Listen to me. I’m moaning like a bitch, in front of twenty dudes who are better than I am. Hands, then legs. I don’t look like any of them. I’m not strong like them either. Hands, then legs.
But I’m still here! And as long as I can still move, this is where I belong!
I open my eyes as I hear them roar. I see the white tape of the finish line right below me on the floor. I collapse, but as I inhale as much air as I possibly can, I can feel myself smiling through it.
“No no, remember what I told you!” Greg taps me on the head and pulls me up into a sitting position, next to the metal railing. “Thought we lost you there for a bit. Glad you made it through.”
“Alright, everyone, go get water. We’ll start stretching in a bit.” Coach commands. He turns to me and pats me on the shoulder. “Good job this evening. I’ll have Craig take a look at you first before you join us, okay? Take it easy for a bit.”
Coach walks away while Daggercalf… I mean, Craig… stays behind with me. He tosses another water bottle at me that I immediately uncap and drink. I watch the form a circle and begin stretching, starting with their arms.
I lean my head on the railings and sigh. “I can’t believe I had to get the coach to yell at me just to finish that last lap…”
“It happens to everyone.” Craig says out of nowhere. I’ve never heard him talk before. His face appears softer, but maybe that’s just because I’m dead tired. His voice was low and smooth, making my bones vibrate just a little bit.
“What do you mean?” I ask, trying my best to get up on my feet. “You’re all fit and strong…”
“We all have that voice in our heads.” Craig says as he pulls me up from the floor. “We all have our own demons that we’re fighting. We can’t win every battle. We won’t win every battle.”
I’m starting to feel like Craig isn’t just talking about Crew anymore.
“That’s why we have coxswains on the boats to lead us.” Craig continues. We both walk to the circle. “That’s why we have a coach to teach us. That’s why we have teammates who we can trust to row on even when things get rough.” He nudges me gently. “Someone like you.”
Coach Marco sees us walking up and waves for us to join. Craig finds a spot next to Mike and Tucker, while I sit between the twins. Greg, sitting on my right, high fives me as I sit down to stretch with my team.