Returning to Rowing

Bullfight critics, ranked in rows,
Crowd the enormous plaza full.
But only one is there who knows,
And he’s the man that fights the bull.

John F. Kennedy used to carry this poem with him in his wallet. I came across it in the winter of 2010 and love the message.

Those four succinct lines of text explain the main reason I decided to return to rowing. I want to be the one who knows, the one who knows what it is to be in the middle of that ring, the one who can find that poise in those moments of focused pressure. Admittedly, being “the one who knows” probably meant something completely different for JFK as president of the United States than it does for me in the world of sport, but the same idea can be applied.

I retired from rowing after the Beijing Olympics, believing that it was time to work towards finding success in another area of my life, i.e. a career. It was time to get on with “real life.”

That post-Olympic transition is a tough one for many athletes who either underestimate how difficult it will be or ignore it completely. The challenge is to go from having a distinct plan and purpose to everything that you do and having this all-encompassing goal on the horizon, to trying to find that purpose and passion in something else. It isn’t easy for most. I drifted through life for a while, trying to find some traction, until finally landing in Vancouver at RBC.

I started working on RBC’s sponsorship of the Olympic Torch Relay and the Vancouver Olympics and gradually settled into a very different kind of life. Starting from scratch in a new career definitely had its share of challenges, and I enjoyed having to use my brain again. I tried to replace the physical aspects of rowing life with training for other athletic events, but it wasn’t quite the same. I missed the daily evaluation and camaraderie that come with training in a group of elite-level athletes. I missed the intensity of emotion that is inherent in the preparation to be in the middle of that ring.

It’s an addictive lifestyle. We have the privilege and the honour of representing our country and dedicating all of our time and energy to achieving these lofty goals that we set for ourselves. I love being able to push myself physically every day. I love being fit and healthy and strong. I love being able to “chase the dream.” Replacing all of that can be difficult.

I settled into a routine in Vancouver and lost touch with the extremities of that life. In the summer of 2010, I moved around within RBC to Dominion Securities and was enjoying the new set of challenges. But as the summer and fall progressed, the fire to compete slowly returned. I raced in Ironman Canada, and then the GranFondo Whistler (a cycling race from Vancouver to Whistler) and noticed how much I enjoyed both preparing to race and racing itself.

The debate went back and forth in my head for months, and I had to ask myself a few tough questions: Would I re-injure my back? Would I be throwing away this new-found career? Was I taking the easy road by sticking to what I know and what I was good at? Would I even be able to compete at the top level anymore? Would it be the same as I remembered?

But the fire continued to build, and by December I had decided to take the risk and go back to Elk Lake to train for the Olympics in London. The window on my competitive athletic life was closing and I wanted to do it all again while I still could. Everything else could wait.

My return to the team was a bit bumpy at first, but after a few months we were able to establish a new training group that was focused on producing the fastest possible pair, four, and double for Canada under the direction of our coach, Terry Paul. The plan was to utilize the sports-science resources available to us and to keep it fresh by adding in a good amount of cross-training. It was all very exciting.

Dave Calder and I (we were partners in Beijing) quickly found ourselves back in a boat together, and while nothing was guaranteed in terms of selection, we both felt like the pair was our best option for London. Our training has been going well. Without question, this is the strongest and fittest that I’ve ever been, and we’ve both taken huge chunks of time off of our personal bests on the erg (rowing machine). The past year has flown by and we now have just over 10 weeks to go until the opening ceremony.

I have no regrets about making the decision to return to rowing. The perspective that I gained during the time away from the sport has made me appreciate this lifestyle even more. I’m lucky to be able to do this and to be a part of a great group of athletes working towards something extraordinary.

This last stretch to the Olympics will be focused on the final mental and physical preparation to ensure that we’re ready for our time in that ring.

Tannis Peterson