And For My Next Challenge… Learning to Scull

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Sharing my experience taking a learning to scull class at Washington Rowing School in Bladensburg, Maryland
Challenge accepted! At the end of Day 3 of my Learning to Scull class.

Before lockdown, I was going to a gym five mornings a week lifting weights. I did this for a little over two years, and it really showed me that it’s never too late to start something new. As we get older, our bodies may not be as durable or flexible or capable, but a lot of that is not due to our age but our lifestyle. Starting weight training after being non-athletic and relatively sedentary for most of my adult life proved this. I gained flexibility, strength, muscle tone, but most of all a relationship with my body and self-pride.

When the world shut down, I stopped going to the gym but honestly, I was ready for a change. The gym changed my perspective along with my body, but I was looking for something different… a new challenge. I had ordered a Peloton bike just before lockdown and it arrived that first week at home. It worked out to be my perfect next challenge.

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Over the past two years, I have had a few injuries (torn meniscus) and body issues (lower back pain that sent me to a chiropractor), and a lot of sadness, anger, despair, and frustration. I think many of you can relate to this. Just as there seemed to be hope on the horizon, something would happen in our country, the world, or our community that would knock us down again.

I’ve still been riding the Peloton a couple of times a week, I still do regular stretching, but I’ve lost a lot of the strength and flexibility I had as recently as last summer. That has added to my low feelings. And I remembered how low I felt when that gym slid into my Instagram DMs and invited me for a free session that launched a whole new lifestyle for me.

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I realized I was ready for another challenge, and I couldn’t wait for it to come to me. And like the gym, I could not use my current fitness status to hold me back.

Ready for my Next Challenge… Learning to Scull Class

I began a bucket list of things I have always wanted to do, regardless of cost or ability. Then I looked at the list and figured out which of those things I could realistically afford and fit on my schedule in the next few months. And the one thing that really stood out to me was rowing.

I have always been intrigued by rowing, and think if I had a different college experience, I would have joined the rowing team. I like kayaking and canoeing, but only do it a couple of times a year. But I see those boats gliding down the Potomac River and racing so elegantly in the Olympics and I always wanted to try it.  

washington rowing school
What was in my head when I signed up for a learning to scull class: quiet serenity, gliding down the river. Image via Washington Rowing School Facebook page.

So I Googled learn to row classes near me and found a couple of different rowing schools and one was The Washington Rowing School at the Bladensburg Waterfront, which is ten minutes away from where I live in Maryland. The school offered a three-day intensive Learning to Scull class over Memorial Day weekend. I knew we weren’t going anywhere that weekend, and I signed up so fast I couldn’t psych myself out.

The first day of class, the weather could not be more perfect. It was 73 degrees, fluffy white clouds, and only a subtle breeze. There were nine of us in the class, we ranged in age from high school to I’m guessing mid-60s. There were bodies smaller than mine and larger than mine, firmer than mine and softer than mine.

Half the group has some sort of experience, whether it was taking a previous sweep class or being on the crew team in college several years ago. The other half of us had absolutely no experience but were excited to learn something new.

learn to scull maryland
Taking care of my zephyr boat at the end of Day 3. I think trying to get those oars on and off the side of the boat farthest from the dock one of the hardest part of sculling (I had to lie down across the boat to reach out there because of my height). That and trying to get into the boat (getting out I just ungracefully move my ass/hip to the side and squirm to the dock).

Scull boats come in three sizes; we each got a Zephyr, which is the widest option of the individual rowing boats, best for learning. We grabbed oars and carried them to the dock, then went back and in pairs, carried the boats down to the water.

There was the coach, but she also had a handful of assistants from the club. They showed us how to connect the oars, how to get in and out of the boats, and they also went out on the water with us to offer guidance and teach skills. While on the water, the coach pulled up next to me, adjusted the distance of my footrest and recommended I try shorter oars the following day.

The whole experience was fantastic – I felt secure, challenged, relaxed, inspired. We washed our boats and put everything away and I headed to my car with a spring in my step.

The second day, we immediately paired up and grabbed our gear from the boathouse. It was still a sunny day, but no clouds and about 10 degrees warmer. Now that we had basic skills, we could actually row a distance.

This clearly isn't me. This is Gabriel Horchler from a 2016 article in the Washington Post about Horschler's commute to work which included rowing from the Bladensburg Waterfront to the Anacostia Boathouse five miles away. Here he is ready to go under the New York Avenue bridge followed by the Amtrak bridge. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Four of us rowed from the waterfront to a pair of bridges a mile away. The first bridge was part of New York Avenue, right where it connects Maryland and DC. It’s a road I have ridden and driven on hundreds of times and remember looking down as a passenger and seeing scullers just like me rowing merrily along. Inside the channels of the bridge, crew teams from local colleges and high schools left graffiti and it felt like I was part of some secret club to see it.

793px amtrak anacostia river bridge 1977
Another view of these bridges but from 1977; the one in the foreground is New York Avenue, the one in the center is the Amtrak bridge. This is a Wikipedia photo used in this article from Ghosts of DC about how in 1933 the original train bridge failed, a train fell into the Anacostia, and a man on that train swam to safety and walked back to the Mayflower Hotel where he was staying.

The second bridge was for the Amtrak train, which luckily wasn’t racing by at that time because the noise from the auto traffic under the first bridge was already quite unnerving.

I went through the two bridges fine, turned around, and went through them on the other side. I got a little flustered under one bridge; I was in the last channel and got a little too close to the bridge piers and had to stop and do the scull equivalent of a three-point turn to get out.

But that was okay, it was part of the challenge, I made it. And while I was the last one back to the dock, I was only one of four of us who rowed out that far. I felt proud. The coach told us at the end of the class to be certified, the following day we had to go around the bridges I had already accomplished.

The third and final day was even warmer by ten more degrees, and it was slightly hazy. I was running a bit late (okay, late for me is on time but with a class, I like to be early to get settled before it starts). The waterfront was packed and I had to circle the lot and finally found a parking space far from the dock, which made me feel flustered and behind schedule, even though I was on time.

bladensburg maryland rowing
No surprise, my 5'3″ self did better with the short oars, which I am putting away after my class.

The person I paired up with the day prior, she and I were similar in ability and appeared to be within a decade of the same age. She also had on an Athleta tank I also owned so I decided she would be my class buddy. We paired up again and went to get our oars.

The coach asked if we were ready to step up from the Pienert Zephyrs to the Maas boats, which were a bit more narrow. I was tempted, but already off from the morning, I decided to stay with the Zephyr. My buddy went with the Maas.

types of single rowing boats
My Zephyr is the one at the bottom right of the rack, but this photo shows you the different widths of the boats available.

Even though technically I didn’t have to row all the way to the bridges again, I had decided the day prior I was going to. A second opportunity meant a chance to improve. I was the second person in my class who left the dock that morning and my plan was to head straight for the bridges, get through, and then have a more leisurely row back.

And I powered through and got to the bridges in pretty good time. Already at the point of trying to angle myself just so to get through the right channel, one of the assistants called out and asked me to stop and return. I came back to where she was, and where she had gathered two other students and taught us some skills to get out of hairy situations.

While she was teaching these skills, I didn’t realize I was slowly backing into the shore, surrounded by tree trunks sticking up in the water, branches from the shore hanging down like a curtain. The other students in our group headed to the bridge and I saw other classmates also catch up and head to the bridge, while it took me a while to use those skills I just learned to get out of that mess on the shore.

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It was a physical and mental effort, sweat dripping down my face, sweat making my hands slip on the oars, sweat fogging up my sunglasses, my classmates already finished and rowing back to the dock. But dammit, I was going to go through those bridges again.

rainbow over the anacostia
A photo of folks rowing on the Anacostia under a rainbow. From September 2021 via the Washington Rowing School Facebook page.

Rowing is a mental sport, and if you’re not in the right mindset, it’s hard to get your hands and legs and everything in sync. And on top of it, you’re going backwards and just like any sport, wherever you look is usually where you end up heading.

I headed into a wall, righted myself, got through both bridges, struggled to turn around even though I had become comfortable with that maneuver, and almost headed into a wall on the way back. An assistant was with me the whole time, not telling me what to do but there to make sure I didn’t crash. And we finally got back to the dock.

beginner sculling washington rowing school
This time it's me in the boat! Rowing back to the dock.

I’m a strong rower (when going straight!), and even with all this I got back not long after other students. And on the dock was my husband taking photos with his phone. I was sweaty and maybe cried a bit behind my sunglasses, but I made it and I felt just as exhilarated as I did on that serene first day of class.

I’m so glad I took on this challenge, and I hope the experience buoys me for a long while. I don’t know if I want to continue with sculling. I inspired my husband to take the same class and then we can go out together, or maybe sweep together.

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alison gary rowing
What I wore the last day of class: this Athleta top (which was in this capsule wardrobe), a pair of Nike running shorts I got from a thrift store last year (these are similar), Bombas socks (it was a rough morning, same style different colors) and my EVA Birkenstocks because you don't wear shoes in the boat. I wore a baseball cap and polarized aviators for the sun and a bandana to mop my brow/wipe my sunglasses. When on the boat you carry nothing that isn't attached to you and you're okay with getting wet.

I look forward to my next step. I think I’ll take a sweep class or learning session to experience the difference, and I’ll go out again in a one-person boat with Karl in one nearby. I’m not going to let this be a one-time thing I tell people I did one time ago. And this is the continuation of many challenges I will choose to face, as challenges help us grow and get to better understand ourselves.

Because even if we are grown-ass women, we’re not finished growing. We know a hell of a lot, but we have a hell of a lot more to learn.

A woman with curly hair wearing a plaid blazer holds a green fur coat over her shoulder on a city street.

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  1. This is awesome – you look happy but challenge here!

    In the UK, we only sweep (not scull), so it looks a lot more intimidating (since it’s necessary to pair up)…

    1. Not true! I have done both in the UK (at Oxford) and you’ll see people sculling on the Thames in London. I found sculling was super hard from a coordination POV, but I love sweep.

  2. I got a rowing machine and started doing quite a bit of indoor rowing since 2020 — it’s a great back-up exercise, if I didn’t make it outside or during wildfire season in Cali. I really love it (you have to be present/mindful rowing, even indoors!) and I find I already generally really like online rowing trainers. They seem more down-to-earth and they have these great, strong, solid bodies (no matter what shape or how tall/short they might be), esp. the women. Since I’ve started doing it, I’ve been thinking it’d be great to row outdoors too. Only thing is, I’m not a great swimmer! Find your story inspiring! Good for you!

  3. Loved your story. I’m 52 and I started rowing 5 years ago. It has definitely changed my life for the better. I encourage you to keep at it.

  4. Yay, you! That is so cool, Alison. And your timing is perfect for inspiration. I live next to the Potomac in Maryland, near where all the kayakers launch their boats. Sometimes the kayak traffic can be a bit annoying, truthfully. But then I thought, why not join them! I’m 54, my kid will be a sophomore this year, my husband is an avid cyclist. Time for me to stop being an indoor cat 🙂 You’ve inspired me and I signed up for kayaking classes today.

    Fun side note? The photo from “Ghosts of DC”? I am friends with the guy who started that blog and Twitter account. He and his work are fantastic 🙂

  5. I love this. I feel like with my kids getting older and my body still (relatively) young – 51 – there is space and time to get some new skills and I am super excited about it. I’m learning handstands. I agree rowing looks so gorgeous and graceful! Congrats on learning.

  6. Once again, you’re inspiring me! My 15yo joined a rowing club last fall, and quickly found her groove. She’s training in 4-person sweep right now and is joining the competitive group! I hope that her club (https://rownewyork.org/) has a parents’ day so I can try it out myself!

  7. Thank you so much for sharing this!! I’ve been feeling a little down lately and couldn’t pinpoint it, but just felt a little lost and stuck. As I was reading this, I realized that I keep talking about wanting to learn to ride a real bike, not just my peloton, and after a quick google, I realized that New York City offers free classes to adults, so guess who signed up before she could second guess herself!

    Thank you for sharing your ups and downs with us. I’ve been a reader for a while and your perspective has always been really valuable to me.

  8. Congratulations on trying something new & thanks for sharing it with us! I think you’re right about the need to challenge ourselves as we age. Not always easy but usually worth it. In the past few years, I’ve taken surfing lessons (I actually got up a on the board few times & my husband even got video & photos of it!); I was so nervous, but I did it. It was exhilarating & hard (to me). On the same trip, I tried stand up paddle boarding & really enjoyed it. Did I fall off several times, sure I did! But it was fun & I found it enjoyable to sometimes just sit on my knees & really take in the beauty around me. Last summer, I kayaked on the Chicago River—5 miles. It was the longest I’ve ever kayaked & by the last mile, I was so tired & wanted to cry. But I had to get back to the dock & I did. I’m not athletic so all of these feel special to me.

  9. I see rowers near where I live all the time and often thought I’d like to give it a go. But being shy and feeling I’m a bit too old/out of shape, I’ve never felt like signing up on my own. Maybe it’s time to face that challenge. Well done and thanks for sharing your experiences.

  10. Prior to the pandemic, my boss (in DC) rowed from Bethesda to Arlington every day. I was impressed, but scared for him. The whole “going backwards down a busy waterway with unknown hazards” freaked (freaks) me out.

    Good for you for giving it a try!

  11. This is so exciting, my favorite blogger is now a rower!! I’ve followed you for years but never commented, however, I’m thrilled that you learned to row. I’m a former college rower who recently came back to it after 20 years. I love (and sometimes hate) the challenge of it, but in my opinion, there is nothing like it! I will say that I find rowing in boats with other people much more enjoyable so I’m looking forward to seeing if you find the same.

  12. I am so jealous! Ever since reading the book Racing Odysseus, I have wanted to learn to row. The closest venue to me is an hour away, so I can’t do it right now, but it’s on my list. Good on you for giving it a go!

  13. Well done you. My friends convinced me to go paddle boarding in September (they had booked it as a surprise). I am really nervous about my balance, and I didn’t stand up (I was too worried that if I fell in I wouldn’t be able to get on the board again – that is hard). I was pretty scared the whole time, and staying on my knees was hard on them. But really pleased to have at least tried it. It’s definitely good to push beyond your comfort zone.

  14. Congratulations! I’m so impressed with you!
    My learnings this year are more around new technologies at work, but at 58, almost 59, it feels good to be pushing my team/colleagues into new technologies. But like you I’m ready to start a new fitness something, just not sure what as I’m still not ready for heading back to the Pilates studio

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