Chapel Talk: Finish what you start

Barb Grudt, coach of Peddie's women's crew team, has a long and distinguished career of coaching at the national level. She coached at Dartmouth College and the University of Pennsylvania, headed the U.S. Junior Women's team and was named to the prestigious FISA (Federation Internationale des Societes d'Avrion) Youth Rowing Commission in 2010. Oh yeah - and she's also a two-time Olympian!!

Imagine walking into the Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles for the Opening Ceremonies of the 1984 Olympic Games as a member of “Team U.S.A.”  You are wearing your red, white, and blue Opening Ceremonies uniform.  All the other competing countries are entering the stadium through the tunnel in front of you.  As the host country, you enter last.  Stepping closer to the stadium, the sounds of the cheering crowd get louder.  Your adrenalin is pumping.  Suddenly, at the announcement, “United States of America,” the stadium erupts.   95,000 people are cheering for you.

Well, that’s how I felt anyway.  In reality, there may have been five people in the stands who had any idea I was there.  Still, I felt embraced by the crowd because I was part of something way bigger than anything I had ever imagined.

For the next two weeks, I had the unique experience of living in the Olympic Village with a group of people who were all really good at what they did.  Everyone was the best from their country, striving to be the best in the world.  We were all specialists in our field.  We were all in peak shape.  It was a lot like being in Disney World where everything and everyone seemed perfect, but this time you were the celebrated characters that people came to see. It was fascinating to see all the different body types specific to each sport.  Gymnasts were tiny! Kayakers were all upper body and skinny legs. There were the celebrity sightings like Carl Lewis and Mary Lou Retton. I saw Jackie Joyner Kersey doing laundry.

Living in the village, everything was free. All you had to do was show this I.D. and you could eat whenever you wanted, sit in the athlete section at other events, go to movies, and ride public transportation. There was one catch. Girls had to carry a gender I.D. card. Yes, all of the athletes competing in women’s events had to submit to a chromosome test to prove that we were in fact female.  

If I were to write a book about my experiences, it would probably be called something like “Becoming an Athlete.”  There are three chapters that would have to be included. One would be titled “Getting Started,” another “Mind Games” and the third, “Finish What You Start.”

Chapter 1 - Getting Started. If you are going to be a successful athlete, you need a good coach. I was always pretty good at sports. The problem was that I was never consistently good. At times, I'd pull out a performance that would amaze people, including me. I held my high school discus record until just a few years ago because of one lucky throw. People always said I had so much potential and thought sports were easy for me. I couldn't disagree more. I sabotaged myself frequently with self-doubt. I learned early to loathe the word "potential." I thought it was a curse. Once you had potential, everyone left you alone and went to help the kids without potential. Somehow, you were expected to figure things out for yourself. Well, if it works that way, it's only in rare cases. I realized at some point that I needed a good coach. If I had all of this "potential," then I figured I could do any sport, right? So I set about finding the best coach I could. That's how I found rowing, at age 20.

People always said I had so much potential and thought sports were easy for me.  I couldn't disagree more.  I sabotaged myself frequently with self-doubt.

The summer after my sophomore year in college, my mother set up an introduction with the coach at Vesper Boat Club in Philadelphia, who also happened to be the national team coach at the time. I went for a tryout and seemed to do well enough. After a few weeks, the coach said I had the potential to make a national team in a year, if I worked hard at it. He probably thought he was paying me a compliment, which he certainly was, but my heart actually sank. There was that word again, potential! But later that day something else sank in. He said I'd have to work hard. No one had actually ever told me being good was hard. Everyone assumed being a good athlete was easy, that it just required talent. To a certain point, that’s true. But I realized that day that the coach had touched on the missing link for me.  

I was excited to come to the boathouse the next day, because I liked to work hard. I also came with very low expectations. Not that I didn't want to be really good at this new sport. I just wanted to take the time to build a strong foundation upon which I could build success and keep getting better. I didn't care how long it took me to get good at this sport.  I just wanted to learn one step at a time.  For some reason, I felt at home in this environment.  For all the trauma and effort that was about to come, I was happy to be there on the river. I loved the sport without knowing anything about it other than it required every part of me to do it. It also didn't hurt that the role models with whom I learned were the women of the boycotted 1980 Olympic Team. A dream was kindled in those early days. If I could make a national team in a year, what could I do in four? That's when the next Olympics would be in Los Angeles.

What I’m going to say next is embarrassing, but true. On my first day at the boathouse, I couldn't run a mile. Other members of the club were going for a jog to warm up. They invited me along. Me, who quit the cross-country team in high school, because I was so bad, me, who used to say I was going for a jog after track practice and would walk the mile to my house. STRENGTH was my thing, NOT endurance. Anyway, everyone started jogging and I brought up the rear. Half a mile from the boathouse, I was done. Finished. Embarrassed, I walked back.

They say all journeys begin with the first step. I prefer Ben Franklin’s approach, “Little strokes fell great oaks.” Same message with a rowing slant if you use your imagination. I kept showing up for practice. The task of not flipping the 11-inch wide single I was learning in was enough to distract me from the fact that I was starting to cover some distance on the river. About a month later, I tried to jog again and went two miles. Holy cow! Was I actually so out of shape when I started rowing that I had to row to get in shape to jog, so that I could jog to get in shape to row? That was pathetic.

Thankfully, I had genetics on my side. My grandmother was a great swimmer who missed the 1924 and 1928 Olympics by less than a second combined. I still have her canceled Olympic passport. The thing is, genes are a lot like potential. If you don’t develop them, they’re just genes. That first year of training was hard. I actually spent most of it in West Germany doing 13 workouts a week with two women from their national team. The U.S. national team was only doing nine workouts a week back then. It took forever to get through practices. And when I jogged, some of the German guys used to yell, “Can you run any slower???” as they blew past me. But as I said, genetic potential can be developed, and that year did wonders for getting me started.

Chapter 2 - Mind Games. When I came home from Germany the next year, we had to run "5-minute hills" hills for training. That was about a half mile. There weren't many half mile hills in Philadelphia, so a friend of mine suggested running the Ben Franklin Bridge. I know, it sounds a little crazy, but I can be like that. I like doing "big" things. He suggested we could run to New Jersey and back for starters. Running from state to state sounded good to me, even if it was only a matter of a mile or so. One day, we were running up the Ben Franklin Bridge, which happened to take me exactly five minutes from bottom to top, and I was just having a horrible day. I was complaining so much about being tired and slow and generally cranky that my friend stopped and asked, "What can I do to support you?" 

"Let me win," came out of my mouth before I could stop it. So he did. Once I was in front of him going up the bridge, things looked a whole lot different. I could do this! So then I decided to experiment. I asked him to start behind me, pass me for a little while, then slip back again as we went up the bridge. With my friend behind me, I felt like I could conquer the world. As he began passing me, my brain immediately shifted to, "Here we go again. Yup, I knew it. I’m terrible at running hills. Who am I kid...Wait a minute. He's slowing down. I'm gaining. I'm pulling ahead. I knew I could do it!" At the top of the bridge, I thought I was schizophrenic. If I was in front, I was amazing, if I was behind, I was a failure. Whoa. That's ridiculous! But recognizing how I psyched myself out so thoroughly was great for me. At least I knew what I was doing to myself, so that I could come up with positive ways to change my thinking during races.  

There’s another mind game I learned from doing hills, or in this case stadiums. You’ve got to face the things you’re not good at, the things you dread. In my first year trying out for a national team, I was also rowing at Penn. We had to run stadiums. I hated stadiums. I thought I’d puke every time. They hurt. I was slow. I thought I’d trip on a step and break my leg. I dreaded stadium day, and I apparently let my teammates know. The captain pulled me aside one day and asked me to either shut up or quit.  

Those stadiums built character. When we got back on the water and had to race each other for seats, I fought with a strength and determination that was new to me. This was my domain. If I could survive stadiums, no one was going to stop me here. I honestly thought about stadium running throughout every seat race during selection camp that year. I may not have been good at them, but they made me tough. Tough enough to make the national team in my first attempt. Tough enough to win a silver medal at the World Championships.

I honestly thought about stadium running throughout every seat race during selection camp that year.  I may not have been good at them, but they made me tough.  Tough enough to make the national team in my first attempt.  Tough enough to win a silver medal at the World Championships.

What I learned next was that you can’t negotiate with success. I figured the next year I tried out for a team, if I could make the national team in my first attempt and win a medal at the World Championships, I could probably still make the team if I did everything in my training except run hills. Bad negotiation. Could I have made the team? Maybe. But for me, those hills were the key. Why? Because of the mental side of the game. When you compete at the elite level, you can’t leave any stone unturned. You have to know you've done everything possible to prepare. You have to have faced your demons and conquered them in practice so that you fight with your life during competition to defend all you've put into your preparation. Let's face it. In competition, it's war. There is nothing romantic about what goes through an athlete's head as he or she battles lactic acid along with the competition stroke for stroke down the racecourse. It hurts and it's hard and you'd better be ready.  

What I did by negotiating myself out of running hills the next year was lose the mental edge. I avoided something that challenged me. Most people I trained with were good at running and saw hills as just another workout. What they hated was training on the rowing machine. Those machines in the back corner of the Athletic Center by the treadmills? Those were my domain. Everyone has a demon. Mine was hills. I did not make the team the next year.  

How do you go from being one of the best in the world at what you do to feeling like a pariah at camp? That was a mental process that took me about five years to figure out, and running hills again was part of the solution.  

Chapter 3 - Finish What You Start. In the meantime, 1984 rolled around, and I was not doing well. I was cut from camp again. To say I was frustrated doesn’t begin to cover it. I was heart-broken, confused, disappointed. The last thing I wanted to see was an oar or a boat. The heck with rowing. Stupid sport.

When I got cut, there were still four weeks until the final trials opportunity to make the Olympic Team. I wasn’t interested. I just wanted to run away. So I did. I started running. Not unlike Forrest Gump, I just kept running. For two hours. Pretty good for someone who couldn’t run a mile four years earlier. I needed time to think, and I needed to be moving. At the end of my run, I knew one thing. Ten years from now, if I looked back on this year and hadn’t completed every opportunity to make the team, I’d have regrets. I’d never know whether or not I could have made it. That wasn’t something I was willing to live with.  

I found a pair partner and we started training. It was awful. Even the coach we had originally asked to work with us gave up and found someone else to coach. Right up until the week of the trials, we could not make our boat go straight or get our stroke rate up to a racing cadence, which would have been about 32 strokes per minute. Usually, the quicker you take strokes with your oars, the faster you go. On the first day of the trials, our coach told us we could win the heats if we raced at 38 strokes per minute. Imagine our thoughts. If we can’t coordinate taking 32 strokes in a minute, how are we going to get to 38? Now, I have to say that my partner and I did spend a sleepless night going over our race plan stroke by stroke again and again and again. In spite of how badly things had been going, we were still committed to giving everything we had. We had also been so nervous that day that our coach had told us to take the afternoon off. No one takes the afternoon off before a competition. He suggested we go see a movie. We did.

We crossed the finish line first the next day. After the race, another coach came up to us and said, “That was the most amazing 38 strokes a minute I’ve ever seen! You guys rowed like the East Germans!!” Our coach was just smiling. We were giddy and dazed. The next day, against ALL expectations, we won again. We were on the Olympic Team. Wow. And the best part was when the crew that finished second, the one that was supposed to win, came up to us and said, “We would have beaten you except that we lost track of where you were.” We thought that was a fairly big mistake.

I don’t know where that effort came from at the ’84 pair trials. Well, perhaps I do. For both my pair partner and I, winning that race meant more than just making a team. We fought to prove to ourselves that we were just as good as anyone else out there. We deserved to win. And we never would have had that experience if we hadn’t completed the process. I was this close (an inch) from never knowing that I could not only make one Olympic Team but two.

The next few years didn’t go well for me at all. I couldn’t make a team to save my life. The ’84 games seemed long ago. I went back to rowing a single so that I wouldn’t drag anyone else down while I tried to figure out how I could have been so good once when I was now physically and mentally stronger than ever. I needed to do something drastic to get myself out of this rut. In the fall of 1986, I decided to take a risk. I needed to find a way to train with Anne Marden, the best single sculler in the U.S. and one of the best in the world. If you’re in the kind of rut I was in, you don’t do what I was about to do.

I loaded my single on top of my car with the riggers on, so I'd be ready for anything. I guessed that Anne would practice sometime between 6:00 and 8:00 AM Saturday morning.  Sunrise was around 5:45, so I got up at 4:00 and arrived in Princeton at 5:30. Sure enough, there was a light glowing in the boathouse window. My heart was POUNDING in my chest. What am I doing? Does she even know who I am? Is she going to think I'm nuts?? This is so out of the blue. I should leave. So I started walking toward the boathouse.

I took a deep breath and opened the door. There she was. Anne Marden, legend, sipping a cup of coffee and reading the Wall Street Journal on a table saw in the shop. She looked up, and before she could say anything, I blurted out, "Hi. You're probably wondering what I'm doing here. Well, my rowing career is in the toilet right now, and I believe if you want to be the best, you've got to train with the best and I think you are the best. Can I go for a row with you?"  

Anne blinked once or twice without changing expression and said, "Sure!  It would be nice to have some company." 

Wheeeewwwww! OK, she said yes. Wow. This is good. Shoot. I never thought to ask just what she was doing for a workout. Well, I said I was willing to do whatever it took to get back on track. Whatever the workout is, I'm in. I surrender.  

For the next two hours, I could not row slowly enough to stay with Anne. The whole time, she explained why she thought she was the best single sculler in the U.S. It had to do with how most American rowers over-trained and pulled too hard all year. Mind you, the next thing we did when we got off the water was run the hill from Carnegie Lake up to Nassau Street (five minutes long, coincidentally), where she systematically crushed me, but what she said made sense. The more she talked, the more I reconnected to those first weeks on the river in 1980 when I was relaxed and willing to do whatever it took in whatever time it took to row well. Training with Anne rekindled my love of the sport and enabled me to re-engage with an open heart. I never negotiated another workout. I began to relax and feel the water again, and I rowed because I loved it, not because I had to be good. The next year, we were on the team together winning a medal at the World Championships.

By the time 1988 rolled around, I was back on top. I started running hills two months before anyone else. I knew I was making a difference in boats. Everyone assumed I would be on the team. If not for an injury, my path to Seoul would have been pretty direct.  As it was, I ended up going through the last pair trials again. From the first practice with my new partner, I knew the boat was even faster than four years before. We won the trials easily and stamped our passports for Seoul.

In that moment, I couldn’t help but remember my grandmother. Sixty years earlier, she had set out on her Olympic quest. When my partner and I won the ’84 trials, I went to see her to share the news. I had a beach towel with the Olympic rings on it. She wanted a picture of us together holding the towel. When I look back at that photo, I see the excitement in her eyes. A few weeks later, we learned that she had terminal cancer. After competing in LA, I came home with bags of gear and hundreds of pictures. I went to see my grandmother in the hospital. She kicked everyone out and wanted me to tell her everything about the Olympics. Six weeks later, she died. I can’t help but believe that my making the team had been some sort of completion for her.  

Finish what you start. You never know where you might end up.

Go Peddie. Go U.S.A.