BY JEN WHITING
It doesn’t happen in every race, but maybe you’ve felt it. Despite your best training, despite your early-morning practices, despite tending to your nutrition and hydration, your boat wasn’t in the mix, wasn’t even close to the podium places of first, second, and third. Maybe it felt like the water in your lane was thicker than the water in other lanes. Or maybe it felt like your crew couldn’t get in sync, the timing was off, and the rhythm was uncertain. Or maybe the power in your body that you sensed in that last good practice just wasn’t there, and it was–all at once–puzzling, surprising, and frustrating.
These feelings typically move through the boat up to the coxswain. Most coxswains won’t admit it, but they can feel a race getting away from the crew. They can feel the rower’s inability to respond, the loss of control—the sheer reality of being something other than what you were before—cementing the certain understanding that making it over the finish line is all they can hope for.
It is in this moment, however, that your crew has perhaps the most agency. When the race seems to be happening ahead of you, and the strong finish your crew usually musters is moving further out of reach, this is when you have the most latitude to resurrect your rhythm and restore your timing. This is when you can take a chance and go for it. This is when the conception you had of yourself as a rower can be forged from things other than splits and stroke ratings. This is also when the definition of the word winning may take on new meaning.
Recovery on Water is a rowing club in Chicago whose members understand this moment, sometimes even before they’ve put an oar in the water. All the members of this club have found themselves facing a reality they weren’t ready for—a moment when what they were expecting from life shifted and they were compelled to rebuild.
“We’re an unusual rowing club,” said Tara Hoffmann, executive director of Recovery on Water, with an engaging smile.
Founded in 2007, Recovery on Water (ROW) was the dream of Sue Ann Glaser, a breast-cancer survivor, and Jenn Gibbons, a high-school rowing coach. Glaser knew that exercise was essential to recovering from breast cancer, especially exercise that could be done unilaterally to isolate one side of the body after surgery. Gibbons knew that rowing was an opportunity for a team to form, for women to come together to pursue the agency and control that moving a boat as a member of a crew intrinsically offers. Every member of the Recovery on Water rowing club is a breast-cancer survivor. Hoffmann summarized it simply: “Rowing is the perfect prescription.”
Recovery on Water operates out of the Chicago Park District’s Eleanor Boathouse, and its members row on the south branch of the Chicago River. The club has over 80 members, all breast-cancer patients or survivors. There are exercise options year-round, in-person, and virtually. The coaching staff is a group of volunteers and paid staff, and their fundraising efforts allow members to take advantage of scholarship opportunities if needed. Some of the Recovery on Water members have rowed before, but many have never touched an oar or an erg handle before joining the team.
“We have women who join while they’re in treatment, immediately after treatment, or even years after treatment. Some of our members were already athletes with a fitness habit who wanted to try a new sport, some were encouraged by their doctors or physical therapists to get more exercise, and some join because rowing is more interesting that going to a gym.” Hoffmann said. “Rowing levels the playing field. Nobody learned to row on the playground. I might have an athlete who has the physical ability but she comes in as a novice and learns together with those who have little experience. For all of us, the focus is to counter the anxiety of breast- cancer treatment, to have a forward focus on something that’s new—something that isn’t treatment but a way of defining life now.”
Hoffmann’s own experience as a cancer survivor is the foundation of her knowledge about why rowing is so valuable to breast-cancer survivors.
“Exercise has been correlated to the mitigation of the side effects of treatment and to reducing the rate of breast-cancer recurrence by up to 50 percent, which is higher than for other types of cancer,” she explained. “Rowing improves the lives of other cancer patients–and non-patients– but breast-cancer recovery is particularly affected by exercise.
“At the end of breast-cancer treatment, it’s often the case that the support network dissolves but the lingering fear of recurrence can remain. It’s not always easy to talk about this with family and friends, so finding a place where it’s safe to talk about this is important. Our members often come for the exercise but stay for the support network.”
Recovery on Water members range from women in their 30s to women in their 70s, and noted Hoffmann, “rowing ages really well with us.”
“If you choose to take on the challenge of exercise after your diagnosis, you build an identity not just as an athlete but as a rower. That’s hard to let go of, so we find most of our members will maintain that fitness habit. It’s an unusual thing to undertake when you’re recovering, and it’s an unlikely thing to let go of. I experienced the depth of impact firsthand and am passionate about sharing it.”
Robin Cline works for a nonprofit land trust where neighbors create open spaces to bring the community together (think community gardens). She began with Recovery on Water immediately after receiving her cancer diagnosis.
“My work is really about helping people carry big things, metaphorically and physically. I’d never rowed before; I’d just fantasized about it. Carrying the boat for the first time with a bunch of other people… it just felt right.” She became a ROW member nine days before her scheduled surgery.
“I wanted to get out on the water before surgery so I could have that feeling in my mind, in my body. This is one of things about being in the ROW community—that there are these shared understandings—and Tara worked hard to get me in the boat. The week before surgery, there was lots of adrenaline for what I was about to go through, holding a diagnosis that is super personal inside my body, feeling isolated and exposed all at the same time.
“When I got on the water, I felt a peace, a lightness, an enormous sense of relief. I didn’t have to carry everything myself. With all our group effort, I felt like we were lifting something heavy, but it was as light as a feather. It was magic. And then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the oars all dropping in unison. I got to be outside of myself. I needed that feeling to get me through my surgery.”
Angela Williams’s oncologist recommended she join ROW as part of her recovery from a cancer diagnosis. She took the pamphlet he handed her and put it in her purse. “I thought to myself, ‘I’ll give this to someone else,’” she remembers.
Within a week, while watching The View, she learned that Oprah’s favorite exercise device is the rowing machine.
“Now I’m not the type of person who thinks that if a celebrity has something, that I need it, but the back-to-back reminders about rowing made me take the next step.” She called Tara Hoffmann and scheduled her first session on the erg.
“After the first two days,I thought, ‘I don’t care if Oprah likes this or not. I can barely walk up the stairs!’”
Nevertheless, Williams persevered.
“I haven’t missed a day since. I go to all the meetings. I tried to learn as much as I could during the pandemic, and I love it. It’s helped me so much. I feel better; something is rebuilding. It’s comfortable because we all understand. We support each other. We may not have the exact same experience, but we’ve all dealt with breast cancer. It’s a sisterhood. We do one thing: We come out there to whack that water and move that boat. We win what we need to win, even if it’s just sitting in the boat or the launch. Some days, that’s a win.”
Sarah Dunn rowed at Columbia University when she was an undergraduate. She now runs an architecture firm with her husband and lives in the same neighborhood as the ROW boathouse. She was diagnosed with breast cancer just over a year ago.
“When I was diagnosed, I thought to myself, ‘Well, at least I can join that rowing team now,’” recalled Dunn, who will be in treatment for the rest of her life.
“ROW is for people who need to do something. It’s not a group where you’re sitting and talking. When I’m rowing, it’s one of the only times when I’m not, well…,” she trailed off,
“When I’m rowing, all I think about is rowing. All I can think about is the next stroke.
It’s an opportunity for me to get out of my head, to affect my mental and physical well-being. But what it’s really about is the community of breast-cancer survivors who are all around you. It’s amazing to row with people who understand what I’m going through. It’s a shared understanding. It’s corny, but it’s just really beautiful.”
For the women who come together to recover on the water—moving together in a rowing shell, sharing the knowledge it takes to recover from breast cancer–the race is won ultimately not between the buoy lines. The rowing itself is the winning, and the recovery is what takes place when they won’t put the oar down.
“I recently lost all my hair,” Dunn continued. “A group of my teammates came with me to my wig fitting. I felt like I was back in college when I hung out with my teammates–lunch, studying, shopping–it was just so natural. I’m not sure the salesperson knew what to do with a bunch of rowers making jokes about wigs. But they understood. Some of them had been through this very thing before, and the others just understood. To take something potentially hard and make it easier just by being there, that’s the nicest part of the team.”
Dunn is enrolled in a clinical trial and plans to row for as long as possible.
“So far I’ve been able to swing it most days,” she said, “but I’m not sure if I’ll be able to continue. I’m trying, though. It’s so good for my physical and mental health.
“My parents used to come to all my races in college. They always brought this amazing chicken salad to make sandwiches with. This year, they’ve been asking when the next ROW race is so they can make that chicken salad and drive out from the East Coast with it in an ice chest.”
Does she consider herself a “cancer survivor”?
“Every day you’re alive you’re surviving,” she replied swiftly. “We’re rowers who happen to have this other thing, rather than the other way around.”