Watching the summer Olympics, witnessing the athletes perform with a practically uncanny degree of precision and prowess, reminded me of a time in my life when I pushed myself beyond perceived limits and exerted every last ounce of strength I could possibly muster.
I joined one of Oxford's novice rowing teams when I studied abroad my junior year at college. I remember getting up at 5:00 a.m. every morning and running to the boathouse in pitch darkness, cutting through cow pastures, using the moos as a guide so I wouldn't mistakenly run into a cow. My teammates and I sprinted along the damp, muddy ground, generating a shield of warmth that tempered the icy winds slapping against our faces. Upon arriving at the boathouse, we plunged into our workout, alternating between lifting free weights and rowing on a creaky, wooden machine before hoisting the actual boat on our shoulders, walking it onto the dock, and plopping it not-so-elegantly onto the water. We'd then grab our oars, settle into our respective positions (I was starboard #2), and start rowing.
Months of practice culminated in our competing in a five-minute regatta along the River Thames. As soon as the gunshot sounded, we sliced our oars into the water, pushing the boat forward as fast as we possibly could. The coxswain's screams ensured that our strokes remained in sync. I committed my entire body to each stroke as I vigorously plowed my oar through the water at just the right angle and just the right time over and over and over again. No amount of practice prepared me for this level of intensity. My hands started to sting from a fresh batch of blisters rubbing against the grainy wood of the oar. A distinct burning sensation infiltrated my legs as my arms dissolved into jelly. My heart was practically leaping out of my body; I could barely catch my breath. About three minutes into the race, I had officially exhausted all of my physical resources, and when my oar horrifically clanked with one of my teammate's oars, since I was no longer in sync with everyone else, the coxswain swiftly directed her screams at me. Ack! I gasped and pleaded with myself to keep going. I cannot disappoint my teammates. Even though I felt like I had nothing left to give, I willed myself to carry on. I can do this. I can do anything for five minutes. Please. Suddenly, a burst of adrenaline from somewhere in the depths surged through my system, giving me just the boost I needed to jump back into the game. Oh thank God.
As we crossed the finish line, I felt utterly spent but utterly exhilarated. I had never in my entire life expended such incredible effort in such a concentrated amount of time. Those five minutes seem pretty insignificant in the scheme of things. After all, what's five minutes? But in that small block of time, I experienced the joy (and pain) of total commitment, of totally using all of myself to finish that race. Tapping into reserves I didn't even know I had somehow propelled me into a heightened reality where anything and everything felt possible. Sure, I could barely move my limbs, but I felt powerful.
Looking back on this experience, I'm struck by just how much physical, emotional, mental, and/or spiritual exertion is needed to achieve anything, especially something great. While certain things can fall into place without much effort at all, no Olympic athlete ever got the gold without putting in the work. And while getting the gold or winning the race matters, what carries even more weight is the willingness to dedicate every last drop of energy in pursuit of a goal. Whatever the results may be, at least you can rest easy in knowing that you did your absolute best to make something happen. Five minutes on the River Thames gave me a deeply rooted sense of my own power and helped me realize that if the willingness and intention is there, everything else will follow.
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