BY ALAN OLDHAM
PHOTO BY PETER SPURRIER
For many in rowing, the question “What comes next?” can be difficult to answer.
Dedicating so much time and energy to a single pursuit often means putting life on hold. Education, work, relationships, self-care–all in turn move further down an athlete’s priorities list and can sometimes fall off the page altogether.
Yet life after rowing is a certainty for anyone who picks up an oar and sits in a boat. Whether a rower’s career of daily strokes is as short as a season or as long as a century, a reckoning with life beyond the boat is as unavoidable as the pain of a race.
Complicating things in this transition is the way that rowing seeps into life and life into rowing, blurring the buoy lines that distinguish future possibility from past and present.
This is a story about three rowers: a Scot, an American, and a Canadian. In narratives of redemption, transformation, and acceptance–themes to some degree familiar to all rowers–they share their personal journey through rowing to life on the other side, and how, in their own ways, all three have found themselves by losing themselves in the service of others.
Few who experience the soaring-like swing of a boat in perfect balance can deny the ability of rowing to put reality on hold and hold the rower in thrall. While calling the sensation life changing might seem like a stretch, the magic of such moments has a power that surpasses understanding.
Spending her time in and out of Britain’s prisons over the last year, Imogen Walsh understands better than most just what the sport can do. As “prisons manager,” the two-time world champion lightweight sculler is both the mind and muscle behind Fulham Reach Boat Club’s Boats not Bars initiative.
“Fulham Reach is a community with the vision that rowing should be accessible to all,” she said. “The Boats not Bars program specifically aims not only to improve the mental health of people in prisons but also to reduce the rate of re-offending after release.”
The seed of inspiration was planted early through an unlikely friendship that forced her to think differently about the sport.
“I’ve known John since he left prison and joined the London Rowing Club,” said Walsh of her friendship with John McAvoy, an ex-felon and once the most-wanted man in Britain. “All the way through my rowing career we’ve been friends and we’ve spoken about how rowing changed his life.”
Through rowing, McAvoy transitioned from maximum-security isolation to reformed role model and record-setting elite athlete.
“For him, that journey began with erging in prison, but it wasn’t just about that,” Walsh said. “It was joining a rowing club that made the most difference. It was about putting in place a new environment outside of prison.”
It was an idea Walsh would put into practice after her own retirement from full-time training brought with it the usual soul searching about what to do next.
Years later, Walsh is finally able to harness the redemptive power of rowing to help a new generation of Britain’s castaways plot a positive path forward
“These are not bad people,” said Walsh. “They have had limited choices. It is easy for me, who grew up in a middle-class family that supported me, to make different choices. If I had grown up in a different environment, I would have had none of that.”
Guns to gunwales
The world of guns, gangs, and drugs, out of which Walsh hopes to lift British prisoners through Boats not Bars, is similar to the reality Arshay Cooper longed to escape as a teenager growing up on Chicago’s West Side during the 1990s.
Cooper was one of the lucky ones. Salvation struck while he was still in school in the form of a rowing team set up with the express purpose of giving Black kids the chance to escape the cycle of intergenerational trauma, poverty, and addiction that plague so many inner cities. Rowing helped Cooper transform his life.
“Growing up in a place where it is hard to trust, the reality is that to survive you have to join a gang or you have to isolate,” said Cooper of his life before rowing. “When all the goodness that you see in the world, everything you imagine for life was only on a TV screen, to have a sport like rowing show up in your school and have someone say that you can work hard and travel and go to college, for me it filled that void.”
“You can’t be what you can’t see,” he added, using a phrase echoed in the recently released documentary A Most Beautiful Thing. Based on his autobiography, which was first published as Suga Water and re-released this year as A Most Beautiful Thing, the movie is directed by former U.S. Olympic rower and award-winning filmmaker Mary Mazzio and narrated by renowned rapper Common. The book and film tell the story of Cooper and his teammates on America’s first all-Black high-school rowing team.
“What really allowed us to let people in,” said Cooper, “were the long bus or van rides to other cities, places where we weren’t worried about watching our backs. The culture of the team made sure we knew that the lessons we learned outside the boat were just as important as the lessons inside the boat.”
Three aspects of that culture stick in Cooper’s mind:
“First, leave the boathouse better than you found it. What does that really mean? It is also about leaving the practice or your teammates or your classroom better than you found it. Your job, a person you just met, or the world, you want it to be better because you were here.
“Second is balance, not just balancing the boat, but balance in life outside of it. It is all the same thing: Be fast and be diverse. You have to go after it in the boat, in your academics, in life.
“The third thing we were taught is that to get the results you want, you have to give what hurts. Time, talent, treasure, we have to give what hurts.”
These simple, powerful notions have guided Cooper through his post-rowing career as an internationally trained cordon bleu chef–something he could never have imagined before holding an oar.
Through his work as a public speaker and diversity consultant, Cooper is opening access to rowing in the hope that a new generation of America’s marginalized youth can learn these same lessons. By providing a community of support, and teaching skills needed to heal the harm of poverty and hate, he is giving young people the chance to transform their lives for the better far beyond the boat.
For Walsh’s prisoners re-engaging with society after years behind bars, and Cooper’s inner-city youth, searching for escape from a life sentence of limited choices and harsh consequences, the importance of supportive places and people is hard to overstate.
Yet the role of community support in improving the lives of society’s most vulnerable becomes even more apparent when the struggle to belong is seen as something affecting even those counted among the world’s most successful.
Michael Phelps’ recently released HBO documentary, The Weight of Gold, gives a glimpse of the dark places into which athletes’ mental health can descend during and after their time in the spotlight. Rowers are not immune.
“The worst that could happen is suicide,” said Canada’s Jeremiah Brown, speaking of the consequences when athletes cannot find support or support suddenly disappears, as can happen with retirement or injury.
“We lose these people when they are so far removed from any band of society. For some, their team has become their whole reason for existence–the laughs, the joys, so much is wrapped up with that performance environment–and then things change, sometimes overnight.”
After four years on Canada’s national team and a silver medal in the men’s eight at the 2012 London Olympics, Brown found that his greatest struggle was the return to reality, coming to grips with the new normal.
“As an Olympian, people look at you and think, ‘You’re a high achiever, you’ll figure it out.’ The bigger problem is that you believe that, too. You put it on your shoulders and try to power through rather than accepting that you are where you are, starting over from scratch. That is where you need help and peers and mentors.”
Athletes face a range of challenges as they transition out of sport, explained Brown, who served for four years as head of the Canadian Olympic Committee’s “Game Plan” initiative that set out to provide support for elite athletes in transition after sport.
Although he has since handed over the reins of that important work, Brown–who published a book, The Four Year Olympian, and committed himself to public speaking–has applied the lessons learned from helping other athletes to his own challenges.
“The biggest challenge is the matter of identity, trying to morph and transform yourself into whatever is next while people are still celebrating you for what you have done in your past,” he said. “People mirror back your athlete identity while you are trying to create a new one.
“You lose your funding, and all of a sudden you have got to pay the rent, but job prospects can be bleak. You have this hole on your resume. Interviewers want to talk about your sport background and then often overlook you because you don’t have [the experience] they’re looking for.”
All of that, explained Brown, can take a heavy mental toll. “When your identity is not on solid ground anymore it really creates mental-health challenges,” he said. “Anxiety and situational depression are common. You need to take action to move out of this state of going from what you were to what you will be, but there is paralysis.
“It can take years to accept the changes in your life. I have talked to a number of Olympians who even 10 years or more after the Games were still wrestling with figuring out what’s next. It is something that I deal with myself. It has taken me a long time to get there.
“The glory of an Olympic medal fades pretty fast, and what are you left with? In the long term, athletes say similar things. Whether you won three Olympic gold medals or you didn’t meet your performance goals, you are still struggling with the same things and the same question: ‘Who am I now that I have invested so much of my life in this?’”
Late but in earnest
“You can feel that you have put everything into your training for years and not even come away with what you wanted,” said Walsh, of her own transition out of elite rowing back to “normal” life.
After a career that included two gold medals at the World Rowing Championships (2011 and 2016, lightweight women’s quad), and one silver (2015, lightweight women’s single), Walsh drifted away from the sport.
“I wasn’t sure if I wanted to stop rowing or not, but there was always a better reason for me not to go back than there was for me to go back,” she recalled.
“I was actually offered a role through World Rowing and Olympic Solidarity to go and coach in the Maldives. It was an amazing opportunity, and I coached there for seven months. After that, there was always another adventure to go on.
“When I moved back to the UK in 2017, I did find it hard not to have an identity after full-time rowing. It is often associated with people who reach the highest heights and go to the Olympics, but I think it is also hard for those who don’t reach that goal. It is about finding something you are really passionate about and moving on.”
Fortunately for Walsh, who came to the sport first in university and started full-time training only in her mid-20s, life outside rowing had already begun taking shape well before she set her eyes on international racing. That early experience in the nonprofit sector has proved invaluable in her life after rowing.
“Before rowing on the British team, I worked for an overseas development charity,” she said. “It was the same kind of principle [as what I do now], trying to enable people to fulfil their potential.”
Perhaps because of her late start, Walsh saw rowing as something that added to rather than defined her life.
“I wasn’t sporty,” she said of her teenage years. “I didn’t trial for rowing until I was 26. My initial goal was to go into [the British national-team] trials, one time, one year, and then go back to my life in Scotland. It kept building and building. In the end, it didn’t work out. I was on the team for five years and didn’t go to the Rio Olympics. It is something that will always have an edge for me.
“Although I didn’t end up going all the way to the Olympics, I don’t regret the journey. Where I am now, I probably would not be had I not done my rowing.”
A community of care
The power of community to anchor an individual to life is something in which Walsh, Cooper and Brown have put their faith.
Once people feel they belong inside a rowing club, they enjoy a sense of community that many rowers on the “inside” take for granted, said Walsh. “Rowers and rowing clubs really are like family. The support network is ready made there for anyone who joins.”
For Walsh, rowing’s reputation as a sport of privilege, beyond the experience and even imagination of most prison inmates, is what can give it power to change lives for the better.
“It is not a sport that a lot of people in prison expect to do,” she said. “I want to challenge their self-perception. Getting them involved in a sport that they feel is not for them has a powerful effect in changing their whole mindset.”
The impact on someone’s life when they are invited in from the outside can be profound. Whatever their background, for those who do come inside, success in the sport, and in life beyond it, requires the right support from the very start.
“It is hard to do other things while you are at the elite level,” said Brown. “For rowers, taking care of yourself and your long-term life plan have got to be part of the high-school and college levels of the sport. Coaches at these levels have a responsibility not to pretend that they are taking people to the Olympics. You have to understand what stage [of athletes] you are coaching.
“The more that coaches are talking about these things, getting to understand their athletes, building trust and encouraging them in all areas of life, the better it is going to be.”
Even more than coaches, said Brown, family and close friends can keep athletes grounded. “They are the community that helps someone realize there is more to life than what’s right in front of them.”
“There are people who grow up like I did with anger toward people who don’t look like them,” said Cooper. “Recasting that narrative is what really fires me up. The stories of hope keep me going. Every young person who rows–white, black, Hispanic–can tell you the first time they had hope from rowing and when they had hope to give.
“I have not changed the world,” said Cooper, “but I have sparked the brains of those who will make this sport diverse. That fire is contagious. I am fanning the flame for these young people to catch. They are more radical, talented, and have more energy. Black collegiate rowers [can finally] say, ‘Now I believe I can make it on the national team and row for this country.’”
“Rowing has taught me that anything is possible,” said Walsh. “Rowing was never on my radar. It was never something that I thought I could do. I was fortunate to have people around me who opened my eyes to that possibility and gave me a nudge.
“It is rewarding to see people achieve things that they didn’t think they were capable of. What I find most rewarding about coaching is not just someone going faster–although that is good–but their growing confidence and then growing in other areas. It is people saying, ‘Oh, he is really coming out of himself now,’ or ‘being more helpful,’ or people themselves saying, ‘I used to be depressed, but now I feel so much better.’”
It is a feeling Cooper eloquently summed up in his book, describing why he and his teammates kept showing up for a sport that only months before they had known nothing about: “We don’t just live to row, we row to live.”
Whether someone has an eye on the next Olympics or even just the next stroke, seeing rowing as part of life’s journey rather than the ultimate destination might just be the difference between merely living life and loving it.