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Peter Mallory's Blog

By pmallory - Posted on 20 June 2012

17 January 2012

"Rowing is Never Having to Say You're Sorry." - Erich Segal

I didn’t sleep very well last night. I was dreaming that I was having a conversation with some nameless coach I knew, no face, nobody specific, but he kept saying to me, I wish you hadn’t written about that year.

I kept asking him why, and he would say something like how it had been tough that year, that things hadn’t worked out, that they had worked hard enough to win, that they had expected to win, that everybody had expected them to win, that they should have won . . . but they didn’t. And now nobody wants to go back and remember that year, not him, not the athletes. Why bring up such sad memories?

And then I woke up.

For hours I kept trying to get back into that dream. I kept the conversation going in my head as I lay there in the middle of the night. I wanted to tell that coach that he has been so successful so often, but that his career had way more to teach others when his crews fell short than when they won the Olympics. I wanted the chance to tell him that failure is so much more interesting than success, that we always learn more from our losses than from our wins.

But in my mind he was having none of it, and so I lay there staring at the ceiling . . .

Now that the pressure of writing and editing is off me, I’ve been treating myself and rereading The Sport of Rowing from start to finish. Wow! There are some tough stories in there: the one fellow that told me there was not a single morning when he didn’t get up and rue the day that he had lost the Olympic Trials by two feet 57 years earlier, another fellow denied entry to Henley spending the rest of his life getting even, the 1968 Olympic Trials where Penn missed a shot at Olympic glory by four inches . . . and then Harvard couldn’t recapture the magic of their courageous Trials victory because of injury and illness at high altitude.

And the list goes on . . .

Sometimes victory rises from the ashes of defeat, like when the defending Olympic Champion Dutch Men’s Double lost in 1992 to two lightweights from Australia, but from that defeat came the 1996 Olympic Champion Dutch Men’s Eight. And could the Canadian Men’s Eight have won so convincingly in 2008 without their heartbreaking loss of 2004?

It is easy to see the nobility of a loss when it lays the foundation for a later win, but surely it goes much deeper than that. Each time any of us goes to the start line, we run the risk of losing, and I believe we should embrace that possibility in everything we do. Winning means nothing if it is assured, and since there are far more losers than winners at a regatta, we must all recognize that we are all brothers and sisters united in an identical quest, that winners depend on losers to validate their efforts, that losers depend on winners to validate their aspirations.

And there is so much benefit in reviewing the great losses of the rowing past. There is so much to learn in my book from the defeats described, in what works and what doesn’t. History is a series of cautionary tales, and if you succeed tomorrow because you read today about a defeat from yesterday, you give meaning to the pain and disappointments suffered by those predecessors.

When someone wins in my book, my heart leaps with theirs, and I swell with their pride, but my favorite parts of the book are the heartfelt moments of tears and regret . . . Likewise, while it brings me great satisfaction to describe the basic ingredients of an overachieving team: the training, the technique, the personalities, the way they found motivation, it is in deconstructing the underachievers that I have learned the most. It is here that my book has the most to offer the reader.

Was this easy to accomplish? No, it wasn’t. I promised myself that I would hold nothing back, sugar-coat nothing, that I would tell all sides of a disagreement, and still every person mentioned in the book would be able to show what I had written to their loved ones without embarrassment.

But how do you do all that for those who fell short of their ultimate goal, who sadly rowed back to the dock and into oblivion as others mounted the podium and another country’s anthem played? There was one particular chapter that took me seven years to get right. First I thought I would have to leave it out entirely. To paraphrase Erich Segal a second time, “What can you say about a twenty-five-year-old girl who lost the Olympics?”

But I quickly realized that this particular crew deserved to be honored with inclusion. So for years I interviewed various athletes, often going back three and four times, and soon it became clear to me that the real story was in the group dynamic. But it took a long time to convince anybody to talk honestly. Pride and esprit de corps banged up against anger, frustration, a sense of powerlessness and something close to post-traumatic stress. Even the rewriting took years . . . but the result was a glimpse into the brutal world of competitive international rowing at its most intense . . . and perhaps a sense that in rowing more than in most other pastimes individuals can find themselves prisoners of a destiny they do not even perceive.

This afternoon I find myself still talking to that coach in last night's dream: Your story belongs to history now, sir, and others will seek guidance from it . . . and if I’ve done my job anywhere near right, they will respect you more for the example you have set, for the lofty goal you strived for, for blazing the trail. And when others achieve the goal that remained just out of your own grasp that year, it will be because they were standing on your shoulders.