Back in the Boat: Reflections on Returning to Rowing

Back in the Boat: Reflections on Returning to Rowing

by Michael Kohlhaas, Row New York Competitive Masters Rower

My legs are still burning from three races the day before as I settle down into my seat. For the work week, I am swapping spandex unisuit and trainers for two-piece suit, tie and dress shoes. So how did I get here?

For as long as I can remember, I liked the water. I grew up across the street from my rowing club in Germany’s beautiful Ruhr valley. For someone who mainly associates the Ruhr area with its coal mines, steel works, a who-is-who of German industry powerhouses, and the two dominant football clubs in the region, Schalke and Dortmund (you can only be a fan of one, not both. Yellow-black or blue-white, for life!), it is not apparent that these pockets of quiet nature even exist. Actually, they abound.

It was only natural that I ended up rowing. The call of the narrow shells cutting through the glistening water was loud, certainly louder than football or field hockey, or tennis, and I listened. I joined and won my very first race in April or May of 1995, and lost my second race the next day. Don’t worry, my career as a rower and its unbelievable exploits (or lack thereof!) will not be my main topic.

In a sense, rowing was what made me into who I am today. In hindsight, the phases of my greatest success in rowing coincided with the greatest success in high school. Rowing taught me to focus and achieve things through dedication to a long-term goal, and in school, I picked up a lot of slack thanks to this “input equals outcome” mindset that competitive rowing gave me.

Success in rowing came thanks to my friends, fellow lightweights and teammates in our coxless four, Moritz (“Momo”), Luis and Axel. Input equaled outcome that season, and when it didn’t, we simply put on a reversed raincoat and went for a jog until the scales said 62.5 kilos (only lightweights may be able to relate to this, and I apologize if this is the case). Winning a silver medal in the German junior championships in June 2002 marked the high point and also, the end of my competitive career. Or so I thought at the time.

Fast forward twelve years, an undergraduate and postgraduate degree and some work experience gathered in London, UK, host city to some of the world’s most well-known rowing clubs and regattas. And next to zero rowing experience during that time, you see, the Thames was far away and London’s distractions were closer. Although I can boast that I raced the Winklevoss twins (who are two great supporters of Row New York) during that time, they were doing their MBAs at Oxford while I was at LBS, and we went head to head (or in this case, unsurprisingly, start to finish in favor of the twins) on a lake in Paris during a business school olympiad, and rowed around Lake Geneva as part of the annual Tour du Lac Leman competition.

I had tried to reconnect to rowing when I moved to New York in 2012. Come April 2014, I tripped over a Facebook ad for Row New York. Its idea of combining rowing and academic coaching resonated with me, given my own positive experience.

I made the trip up to the Peter Jay Sharp boathouse for a Saturday teach-in and when the coach, Matt, asked whether we were all here for the competitive rowing team with the 6 AM starts, I heard myself say yes, and resumed my journey on the water.

What is it like to pick up a physically demanding sport such as rowing after such a long time? Well, a dozen years of slumping in office chairs and probably, more trips to the pub than to the gym make for a rude awakening in the world of competitive rowing. Every one of the first five hundred meters on the erg seemed to ask the question – why, pray, are we doing this again?

Then, the magic happened: With every session I attended, I seemed to regain strength and shape that I had believed I couldn’t regain. Rowing with RNY was also a way of regaining a balance between my professional life and my time off, and didn’t have to trade off one for the other. In fact, they reinforced themselves–let me explain: rowing forced me to excel at time management; getting up early means going to bed early, and getting everything done before that. Better time management got noticed by my bosses, so my role evolved. All positive, none negative. Except for no more lie-ins in the mornings.

My first real race after this long break from rowing was during the Carnegie Lake Regatta, and that provided me with a long-forgotten familiar kick, that sting to compete. We went through the 2014 season with two great highlights, our participation in the Canadian Henley Regatta and the Head of the Charles Regatta. Here’s where the wonderful social experience that is Row New York masters rowing comes into play – we masters (beware: Masters means age, not skill!) are from hugely diverse backgrounds and our ages range from twenty to seventy. Our group dynamic is fun and I’ve made many friends over the last two years. I guess my only regret is not to have found out about the program earlier!

It’s good to be back in the boat.