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Lessons I Learned From Rowing

Many people are somewhat surprised to learn that I, CrisMarie, competed at the Olympics.

I’m not an especially “outdoorsy” person and I don’t have an intense, burning passion for “the world of sports.” When I’ve got a day off, you’ll usually find me relaxing with a glass of wine, getting a massage, or maybe seeing a play or musical…not watching Sportscenter on ESPN!

But yes, it’s true. I’m an Olympian. Back during my undergraduate days, I decided to try rowing—and I was immediately hooked. There was just something about rowing that made me feel alive. That inexplicable feeling from deep inside, saying, “Yes. This feels right. Right now, this is what I’m supposed to be doing. This is where I’m meant to be.”

While I wasn’t a natural or lifelong athlete (far from it!) I trained incredibly hard—and before too long, I was offered the chance to represent the United States at the Olympics. It was one of the most remarkable experiences of my life.

Years later, I was asked to speak to some young rowers about the lessons I’d learned. As I was writing my talk, I realized that many of these lessons apply to the business world, too. Learning to row teaches you so much about leadership, communication, team work, handling conflict, resilience, and relationships in all areas of life. So, I thought I’d share these reflections with you.

Treasure These Relationships

You can do so much more together than separately. I didn’t know it when I was in your shoes, but my teammates would become lifelong friends. They saw me through thick and thin.

You are going through many trials and tribulations together: early morning workouts, rowing in rain, running stairs, the ergometer tests, weight workouts, road trips, injuries, wins and losses. You’re bonding in ways you don’t even recognize. You need each other. There are nine people in that boat and even more on the team. Treasure your time together and be good to each other.

Don’t just try to get your seat in the boat. If you do beat out your best friend, know that winning is not everything. Tend to your relationship. Give your friend some time and space to recover, but then don’t let them wallow. Make sure they know they can still count on you as a friend to kick their butt and get them going.

This is true in business as well. Yes, you want your business to win, but this is a marathon, not a sprint. There are few get-rich-quick paths to success. It takes time and hard work, but even more, it takes building lasting relationships. Jobs change, businesses fail, but people live on.

You want to be the person that people trust and can count on. The one that says thank you and lets people know you appreciate them. You want to pull your friends up when they’re down. You want to be the one that cares about the relationship as much as the results—maybe even more.

Visualize Success

In the fall and throughout the winter at Washington rowing, every Friday we’d do Ham and Egger races, which are races where the line-ups for the boats are selected randomly. When I was a junior, our senior class was a packed with powerhouse rowers.

When the people in my boat were on the dock before launching, I’d pull the other rowers and coxswain together and give them a pep talk, “I know those other boats they have a stacked lineup. Sure, it’s intimidating, but believe me, we can do this. We’ll win if we row well together. We can’t just pull hard we’ve got to be in sync. See and believe us winning together.”

During my junior year, no matter who was in my boat, we won fifteen out of eighteen races. It wasn’t because I was the strongest. It was because I had the audacity to believe we could win and visualized it every time.

I used this same technique when I was training for the Olympic team. I was injured in March before the games and was off the water for three months. I was in agony, but after my physical therapy and swimming, I’d lie down and visualize myself rowing.

I felt the smooth glide up, putting my blade in the water, then the power of the drive with my legs and the rhythm of the swing, the boat surging forward underneath me. When I got back on the water three months later at the Olympic selection camp it took me only a few weeks to climb my way up back into the Olympic eight headed for Seoul, Korea in September.

In business, it’s never a slam dunk. The competition can look intimidating. The economy and political climate changes—it all can affect who’s buying your product. However, based on our own business performance and being in countless executive board rooms, the teams and businesses that do well, even in changing times, are the ones that continue to believe and visualize their success.

Trust your body

I wasn’t an athlete when I got to college and tried out for the rowing team. As I caught the bug of training and the desire to make the top boat each year, I pushed my body hard.

Heck, I didn’t care how much it hurt - I was determined. You could regularly see me in the training room with my ankle in an ice bucket, bags of ice on my shoulders, knees, and back. Let’s just say, it’s had a lasting impact.

Yes, you want to push your body, that’s how muscle breaks down and builds back up, that’s how you mentally and emotionally learn you can tolerate much more than you ever thought you could endure.

When you’re rowing you may think you need to tolerate anything to win, but start to notice the good pain from the bad pain. Pain is the body’s way of saying, “Pay attention. Something’s not right for me.” Heed that warning and get curious.

You want to race through the pain, but you don’t want to constantly train through pain—bad pain.

Your body is not a machine. Be kind and learn its language. It’s a living breathing feeling organism with natural rhythms. Your body has good days and bad days. Don’t be so hard on it. When something’s wrong yes, talk to your coach, but in the end, trust yourself. Your body is your one enduring partner, you need to learn to trust your body and trust your gut.

In business, most of our work is not physically taxing. However, if you are putting in long hours without a break, not getting enough sleep, exercise, or aren’t eating right—on a continuous basis, your body will start to talk. Pay attention. It may not seem as loud but those signals may even be more critical to listen to.

Making a dramatic push to complete a project or support a launch might be okay every once in a while, but don’t assume that’s sustainable or even healthy! Your body is not a machine, nor is anyone else’s within your organization. Listen and trust your body; listen and trust your team.

My experience as a rower was life changing and has framed the rest of my life. It’s surprising, but I’m still mining my experiences for gold.

“Ready all, row,”



CrisMarie Campbell and Susan Clarke

Coaches, Business Consultants, Speakers and Authors of The Beauty of Conflict

CrisMarie and Susan work leaders and teams, couples in business, and professional women.

They help turnaround dysfunctional teams into high performing, cohesive teams who trust each other, deal with differences directly, and have clarity and alignment on their business strategy so they create great results.

Check out their website: Connect with CrisMarie and Susan on LinkedIn. Watch their TEDx Talk: Conflict – Use It, Don’t Defuse It! Find your copy of The Beauty of Conflict: Harnessing Your Team's Competitive Advantage here.

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