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We Don’t See Where We Are Rowing

BY DANIELA NACHAZELOVA
PHOTO PROVIDED

The first time I saw a rowing race was on the top of my dad’s shoulders. I was three years old, and we were at Naplavka, in downtown Prague. We were watching the final day of the prestigious Prague Mayor’s Shield Regatta. I saw these incredibly long, sleek boats cutting across the river at a high pace with a unique grace.

I’ve been fascinated by rowing since I was a little girl. My dad used to coach junior boys, and I would spend afternoons in the boathouse with him. I wanted to row from an early age. I needed to know how to use the awkward equipment that is necessary for rowing. I was so curious about the oars, dusty oarlocks, seats, foot stretchers, wooden boats and athletes who were able to control such a complex system that looked so fragile. Eventually, I started to row.

I spent 15 years chasing my Olympic dream, but it never happened for me. I traveled the world and I tried to learn from the best. I fell in love with rowing, but I also ended up hating it. My federation didn’t protect me from harassment and threats that occurred when I was in training for the Rio Olympics. This experience changed me deeply. It also helped me find the inner passion for rowing, for the sport where we don’t see where we are going, where we have to look over our shoulders to check the course. The parallel with life is inevitable. We human beings want to control our destiny, yet it is uncontrollable. That’s life at its best and that’s why we continue to row.

Women’s Voices in Rowing

When creating my dream team for my book, Women’s Voices in Rowing, I was looking for strong stories. Having a fantastic list of victories, medals, and achievements wasn’t enough for me. I was seeking drama, conflict, tension. Each of the women featured in the book is unique, fighting her own battles and living her ups and downs. But every single one of them is tremendously forceful, empowering, and worth reading about.

Rowing in Secret

Michelle Carpenter (CEO of Irish Rowing)

Tokyo 2020 will be the first gender-equality Olympic Games. Is it a big deal for you?

It’s a huge deal for me. People would say to me: “Michelle, here we go again. The same old story.” But when I started rowing, we had to row in secret, because we weren’t allowed to row.

Was it that bad?

This was my club and many rowing clubs in Ireland at the time. They were behind. We talked about the old boys’ network, and this was a gentlemen’s club. Eventually, they let us in but only on a six months trial.

When was this happening?

It’s not that long ago, I started to row in 1987, and we won the championships in 1988.

Just to be sure that I understood correctly. You said it was in 1987 when you secretly started to row?

Yes, that’s correct.

The Boat Race Experience

Caryn Davies (two-time Olympic Champion, currently training for Tokyo 2020)

You have experienced the growth of women’s rowing first-hand.

I didn’t honestly understand it until I went to Oxford, because I was simply used to it. I was used to having enough resources and to being treated pretty much the same as the men. Then I got to Oxford; 2015 was the first year that women rowed The Boat Race, and things weren’t equal between women and men. The men had built a brand-new boathouse a few years before that where they had very large locker rooms with many showers. We didn’t have that. Our locker rooms were a lot smaller and had fewer showers.

How was The Boat Race experience for you?

Everybody knew about the men’s Boat Race, but nobody knew about us. There were people back then and probably even now who thought that the Women’s Boat Race shouldn’t exist. Actually, we got into trouble because one day when we were training, it was cold. When we got back, we were freezing. Girls were standing outside the showers shivering, waiting for their turn. We had only a few showers in our locker room, and the men weren’t around, so some of the girls went into the men’s locker room and used their showers. I understand the coaches found out, and the men’s coach got very upset. We were very surprised because they weren’t even there! That was something I never experienced before. After that I had this moment when I realized: “Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore!” This country doesn’t have Title IX!

Do you have another experience like this?

One year, I raced with the U.S. team at Henley, a few years before I went to Oxford. My boat was sitting on the starting line just waiting for the start of the race when I looked at my nails and this man on the bank next to us shouted, “What’s the matter, sweetie: Did you break your nail?” I was confused because nobody had ever belittled me as a female athlete before. It made me appreciate Title IX and realize how lucky I’ve been to grow up in the United States.

Being Open, Being Emma Twigg

Emma Twigg (New Zealand single sculler, currently training for Tokyo 2020)

I had an experience rowing with a transgender partner. It raised all kinds of new questions about what sport is. How has it been for you when you came out?

My sexuality isn’t really a big deal. When I was younger, it definitely took some time to come to terms with it. I felt comfortable enough to talk to my family and good friends not from rowing first. The rowers were actually probably the hardest to tell. From when I was 21, 22, everybody knew.

That’s good to hear.

When I say openly gay, it means if anyone would ask, I would tell, but it definitely wasn’t something I would really broadcast, because in my opinion I always thought I wanted to be defined by my athletic pursuits. I want to be known as Emma Twigg who achieved something in sports.

Athlete first, then.

My sexuality is normal to me. More recently, the marriage and things like that have been a nice way to put my sexuality into a public space. Hopefully, it will make young women and men in similar positions feel more comfortable as to who they are. I have never ever come across any kind of discrimination in rowing, and maybe that’s the unique beauty of our sport. Generally, everyone is so happy for everyone at the regattas and very supportive, and there has never been negativity. I feel there’s a bit of privilege, because other people in other sports struggle immensely. I’m happy to be that person who people can look up to and who can speak about it as well.

Daniela Nachazelova is the author of Women’s Voices in Rowing which can be purchased here.

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