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What Makes the Boat Go Faster

I’m honored to be speaking to the current University of Washington rowers this February, as they get ready to head into their racing season, as well as, the alumni, about How to Make the Boat Go Faster.

There were times when my approach to rowing was magical; and other times, I was miserable and suffered. In fact, one time I was suicidal.

In this article, I’ll share what I did during my rowing career that I thought would make the boat go faster, but in actuality slowed it down. Hopefully, you can learn from my success and failures in order to make your goals happen.

You may recognize yourself in these two approaches related to your own goals.

When I showed up to try out for the University of Washington rowing team tryouts, there were 110 other really tall women there. The coach walked up to me and asked, “Do you want to be a coxswain?” (The short and light person that steers the boat.) I said, “No, I want to row!” Without saying a word, she turned on a dime and walked away. Now, with two collegiate national championships, one world championship silver medal, and Olympic experience, I’m glad I did not let that coach derail my dreams.

I hadn’t been an athlete in high school. I had not even heard of rowing until the summer before my freshman year when I saw a made-for-TV movie about rowing, filmed at the University of Washington. It was a love story. They were kissing under the beautiful cherry blossoms in the quad. They showed her watching him row in the eight-person shell, gliding over the water with Mount Rainer in the background. I fell in love with the university and the sport.

I had to learn how to get in shape, how to row. I had no preconceived notions. Everything was new and exciting. I thought: “I want to do this. I can do this!” I wasn’t afraid to look stupid, make a mistake. I just kept getting back up and trying again. I loved making friends and connecting to my teammates. It felt like we were in this together.

Then, I learned that only eight of us were going to be racing in the top boat. What? I wanted to be in that top eight and thought I deserved to be in it. The assistant coach quickly told me, “Lose the attitude. You’re a squirt. You’ll be lucky to do anything in this sport. Plus, if you want even a chance of getting in that boat – you’ve got to be stronger than anyone else, and to learn how to set the rhythm in the boat.”

I got to work.

I remember racing against this 6’, 180 lbs. woman. (I’m 5’6” and 150 lbs.) She looked like she’d squash me in competition. But what she had in height and weight, I had in strength, sensitivity, and rhythm. She was too clunky in the boat and actually slowed it down. I was strong and smooth, and that power translated into the speed of the boat. I was learning how to make boats go fast.

I continued to connect to my heart, my desire, and belief that I could do this. During my WA career, I made the varsity boat, becoming the stroke seat of the boat, and team captain and winning the two national titles. The same energy had me make the US national team, winning silver at the world championships, beating the Russians for the first time in 15 years.

The trouble started when was trying out for the Olympic team. I had a significant level of success but felt like I had to do even better. I put tremendous pressure on myself to win, to become the stroke seat or leader of the boat. That pressure came in the form of self-criticism and self-doubt. My inner critical bully was unleashed.

The bully inside me was a hard-ass male. He judged everything I did as not good enough.

I thought to be better I had to do more. Try harder, and harder, and harder. This created so much mental, emotional, and physical stress. I was constantly putting myself down. I’d become too sensitive. I’d over-react to every little mistake, and then over-correct.

It’s a bit like when you’re out on a date and you know the other person is insecure and trying too hard. They’re nervous, they fumble, they over-share, they jump into quickly. You can feel it, and it’s uncomfortable to be around them, right? It never works.

Well, that’s how I was rowing, trying way too hard.

It was six months before the games. I’d quit my job to train full time. I had become so stressed that I was pushing people away, seeing my teammates as the competition, not support. Even my best friend I had to beat, until suddenly, she was cut. I was shocked. I immediately thought, “Yay, I won!” Then tremendous guilt swallowed me up. How could I be happy about her demise?

She stopped talking to me. I had no one. My emotions were going crazy, but I didn’t know how to process them all. Rather than deal with what was going on, I did what super-achievers do—I suppressed those emotions and tried even harder.

I stopped listening to my body. With overtraining, I pushed past the “bad” pain and eventually got hurt. I was kicked off the water for three months to heal.

In the meantime, everyone was racing and getting faster. All I could do was go to physical therapy and swim in the pool. My Olympic dreams were slipping away. I was miserable. I felt like a failure, powerless to change. Alone, I was consumed with shame. It was as if I was standing in the center of a stadium being ridiculed by the crowd. There was nothing left. I wanted to die, and I was thinking of ways end it all.

Then someone, I don’t remember who, gave me a copy of the book: The Mental Athlete. It was like divine intervention. The book describes visualizing as a way of building the neural pathways to your muscles, even when you’re injured. Finally, there was something I could do!

By visualizing myself in the boat and rowing every day, I could feel my legs drive, my body swing open with the rhythm of the boat. I would come back from physical therapy. I’d create a recording of the rowing stroke, the boat moving in the water, moving ahead of the next boat. I regained the felt-sense of rowing and fell in love with the sport again.

A few weeks later, I got an invitation to the training camp where they’d pick the Olympic team.

After a conversation with my doctor, I showed up. I was at the bottom of the pack. The coach made fun of how badly I was rowing, but I didn’t care—I was back.

They started racing me against each person from the bottom up. I kept winning. I climbed my way until I was racing for the last seat in the Olympic eight.

During those races, I had one of those magical experiences you may have experienced or heard athletes talk about, of being in “The Zone.” It was amazing. Time slowed down. It felt effortless. The boat surged ahead, and looking around I thought, “How is this happening so easily?” I was making the boat go really fast.

The coach couldn’t believe the results. He kept testing me, and every time I made the boat go faster. Finally, I won the last seat in the Olympic boat. I’d made the Olympic team.

How to Make Boats Go Fast

Whether you want to make the Olympic team, or start your business, or become a successful (fill in the blank)—what makes boats go fast is the same thing that helps you in work, in relationships, and in life.

It’s not how much talent you have, how smart you are, how pretty you are, how many connections you have, how much money you have. It’s none of that. Really. I didn’t have the experience, the height, or even know what it took to be an athlete trying out for a collegiate, nationally ranked rowing team!

It’s not what you have or what you’re doing – but how you’re doing it.

It’s so easy to get into a habit of:

  • Listening to the critic in your head

  • Getting caught in self-doubt

  • Putting too much pressure on yourself to be perfect

  • Thinking you’re not good enough - not talented enough, not strong enough, not pretty enough, not smart enough…

  • Isolating yourself from other people

When you do this, you cut yourself off from all your natural resources. If you want to “make boats go fast,” the first step is to become aware of how you are treating yourself.

Sure signs that you are caught in the negative pattern are:

  • You feel cranky.

  • You’re not laughing much and taking everything seriously

  • You’re googling for a magic answer or person to solve your issues.

  • You’re trying too hard and feeling frustrated.

  • You’re not trying at all. Instead, you’re sitting on your couch binge watching Netflix and eating ice cream.

  • You push people away and isolate yourself.

Notice your pattern and make another choice. Yes, you need to break that seductive habit of seeing yourself as not enough. No one is going to believe in you until you do.

#1 Factor-in Your Success

The number one factor in whether you are successful or not is based on how you treat yourself every day. It’s your relationship to your thoughts, your feelings, your body, and other people.

It’s how you deal with your THINKING.

Do you believe a critic in your head that tells you: “You’re no good, you can’t do this,” or “You have to do this or else!” Or do you believe your heart that knows, “Yes, I want this!”, and tells you – “You can do this!”

Develop the discipline to notice what’s right about you, because there are things that are right and good.

It’s how you deal with your EMOTIONS.

Do you honor what you feel and know you feel this way for some good reason? Do you allow yourself to feel? Or do you think you shouldn’t be feeling this way. Do you avoid, repress, or suppress your emotions?

It’s how you treat your BODY.

Do you judge it and treat it like a tool to do your bidding? Or, do recognize your body as a lifelong partner who deserves to be treated preciously. Do you feed it good food, get enough sleep, notice when it’s hurting?

It’s how you treat other PEOPLE.

Do you see them as the competition? Do you constantly compare yourself them? Do you isolate yourself from them? Or do you reach out as a fellow human being who wants to connect with them and share their struggles?

When you do these things, you naturally connect to yourself differently. You access more of your natural resources. You see opportunities when they pop up. You make connections because you are meeting people.

Learning how to make boats go fast, and accomplish other goals, is a marathon, not a sprint. I continue to work with these principles in my life on a daily basis as I build my business as a life coach and speaker. I coach women to help them believe in themselves and confidently go after their dreams.

Making boats go fast,


P.S. If you want to learn how you can access all of your resources and have a bunch more fun accomplishing your goals, reach out to me at crismarie@thriveinc.com. I’d love to coach you to success.

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: www.thriveinc.com. 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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