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The Zen of Rowing: Athletes drawn to the river early in the morning

Pam LeBlanc, Fit City

Staff Writer
Austin 360
Even the swans might be asleep when an Austin Rowing Club crew glides on Lady Bird Lake before sunrise. The reward for leaving the comfort of a bed is often found in the quiet stillness or one perfect stroke.

At 5 a.m. on a weekday morning, when a thick, gray hush still hangs over the city, the Austin Rowing Club boathouse on Lady Bird Lake sputters to life.

Rowers trickle in, greet one another and stumble back out into the darkness. They hoist long, skinny boats to their shoulders and march them toward docks that reach like stiff fingers into the black.

They lower their craft into the water, slide oars into place and ease onto sliding seats. After a last sip of water and a few deep breaths, they push away from shore, gliding onto the city's most serene thoroughfare.

Rowing isn't like other sports. It's about contrasts — power and grace, intensity and calm, individual effort and the team. Above all, it's about rhythm.

Today, I've joined three experienced scullers for a predawn session.

Sara-Mai Conway, 34, director of the Austin Rowing Club, hands me a pair of spindly oars and points to the third seat in a sleek, four-person shell. Camille Jobe, 41, an architect and president of the club's board, shows me how to slip my feet into the fixed shoes in front of each seat. And bubbly Virginia Hoffman, 55, who is retired, lights up in anticipation of the experience we are about to share.

"You shrink the whole world, the city surrounding you, down into this bubble, this aura that surrounds and follows you," Hoffman says. "Then with each stroke you smooth and perfect that motion, that aura, until you are able to sustain it and carry it back out with you. That is the Zen of rowing and why I love it."

Though East Coast cities like Boston have long been known as rowing hot spots, rowing is far from new in Austin, where regattas were held as early as 1893. And Austin has an advantage: When snow and ice shut down rowing in northern climes, relatively balmy temperatures here keep boats on the water year-round.

Today, rowers and scullers launch from three main facilities — the Austin Rowing Club boathouse near the Four Seasons Hotel, where we are, the Texas Rowing Center near Austin High School, and the Rowing Dock on the south side of the river, just west of MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1).

For many early-morning rowers and scullers (in sweep rowing, each person has a single oar; in sculling, each person holds two), it's as much about the peace of being on the river while the city sleeps as it is about exercise.

Peace is what I'm feeling as we glide across the liquid surface in an imitation of an oversized waterbug.

Neon-trimmed downtown buildings glow in green, red and white. Blinking lights on the river indicate other boats.

We slip west, toward the South First Street, then Lamar Boulevard bridges. Time ticks on, my body heaving forward and back as I try to mimic the other rowers' strokes. Soon, the heavy blackness lifts, and we're drifting in a cloud of light, water-streaked gray. My shoulders glisten with sweat.

The sounds are subtle: The gentle dip of an oar in water. The labored breathing of a straining athlete. The shift of an oar in a bracket.

It's a little eerie. I feel almost like I'm dreaming.

The boat seems to know I've never rowed before. My rough, untrained strokes throw it off slightly.

"To me, it's all about balance, the literal balance of the boat," Conway says. "Every element has a yin and yang to it."

It's aerobically demanding, a full-body but low-impact workout. The power comes from the legs, not the arms.

"It's the only thing I've ever participated in where you're racing, you're completely exhausted, but you still have that inner calm," Jobe says.

It takes coordination, too, as I quickly learn. I struggle to dip the oars in the water just so, not too deep and not too shallow. I rotate my wrists to feather the oars, turning the blade so it is parallel to the water, then square it up to dip it in the water again.

You have to pay attention to what you're doing, but know what everyone else is doing, too. It's not easy.

"I'm always amazed at how many thoughts can go through my head in one stroke," Conway says.

It's all about the quest for that perfect stroke. Get it just right and you know it.

"It makes you feel like everything is one, the boat is an extension of your being. It helps bring it all together," Conway says.

Like playing piano or perfecting a golf swing, it's also a lifelong learning process. Some elite rowers talk for years about a single, perfectly executed stroke they might never again replicate.

For many, the beauty of being on the lake at dawn trumps it all.

One misty morning when Hoffman was out, a blanket of fog on the river made it seem like the boat was sitting 6 inches below the water's surface.

"Every time I stroked the oars, I was slicing below the surface, with absolutely no resistance, like cutting some magical dessert that melts before you can barely touch it," she wrote to her friends in an email that day.

It's moments like that that inspire rowers and scullers to, as she puts it, "leave the comfort of a warm weekend bed piled with soft pillows and comforters, in exchange for a hard row on a cold lake."

Don't get out of your cozy cocoon early and you'll miss the deer watching from shore on that magical stretch of the river between Red Bud Isle and the Loop 1 bridge, where limestone cliffs jut up from the water's edge. Turtles plunk into the water, blue herons flap overhead. A clutch of ducklings scurries out of the way.

Sometimes, you just have to stop your boat and soak it all in.

"I look around and think, ‘I'm incredibly lucky. How many people get this perspective?' " Jobe says.

She's hooked. So are the others. I could be, too, I think, watching the sky melt into the warmth of a new day.

"I've tried to quit before," Jobe says. "It didn't take. Nothing else does all the stuff rowing does."

pleblanc@statesman.com; 445-3994

Video: The Zen of Rowing