Unsolicited poetry exchanges, sermons from The Wall Street Journal reminding me to be productive at home, and aggressively marketed yoga suggest people are desperately craving any digital vector of motivation in this dearth of normalcy during the COVID-19 pandemic. While the rest of the world itches to return to normal, the Class of 2020 does not get to go back to our normal. Our daily reality vanished into the past. When COVID-19 claimed my senior national rowing championship, I found myself asking the same question as many senior athletes across the country: Was it all worth it? When I look at the younger athletes we leave behind to take our place and enjoy the home we’ve built for them, I know it was.
I know it was all worth it because I don’t trust outcomes to justify the process. As a rower for Georgetown University, I ironically found pure happiness in the chaotic dissatisfaction of a sport that does not promise many tangible results. Jesuit education asked me to demand magis, or more, of myself, of others and of institutions. Since I was rarely satiated by academic answers or my athletic results, I felt an exhilarating hunger to persist in a vague quest for greater truth and meaning. I didn’t want to feel defined by tests on the ergometer or on economics. Hope gave me a deep foundation of happiness at Georgetown that couldn’t be uprooted by my quantitative erg splits and grades. And isn’t hope just our certainty that the uncertain is worth the ride?
Rowing can make your hope feel like a fork in a garbage disposal. We trained 364 days a year for a seven-minute race, which will sound irrational to a sane reader. Rowing assigned meaning to everything. Every bite I put into my body and every minute of sleep I logged inched me toward the splits I chased for years. Practice was never really over. There was no way to isolate rowing from the rest of my life, which became dedicated to marginal increases in speed. Herniated discs, nerve pain, asthma, mono, high blood pressure, searing hand blisters and electrocardiograms gave me every reason to stop. Disgracing my economics degree by ignoring the sunk cost fallacy, I stubbornly refused to let my pain and fatigue stand for nothing. My often destructive sport set the bar impossibly high, but I loyally obliged. Being an athlete taught me everything I hoped to learn from college. Rowing skewed the standards of comfort and normalcy so I could achieve the absurd.
Perhaps fittingly, my speed-obsessed life ended in a flash. Miles outside civilization in rural North Carolina, my team inadvertently self-isolated during our spring break training. Poor WiFi allowed us to spend seven hours a day doing the only thing directly in our control: keeping our heads in the boat and taking stroke after stroke. We had little idea our coaches were spending every minute on land fighting for our careers. The season was canceled. I took the final strokes of my career.
When the rest of senior year was pronounced virtual, all the complexities and emotions of surviving college were collapsed into a two-dimensional simulation. We were supposed to be returning to campus as stronger versions of ourselves. Pulling up to a silent campus and unloading our rowing machines for the final time, I felt my weakest, having lost the vision, mission and purpose I served for four years.
As I weighed the pros and cons of deleting Gmail to evade bad news, commencement was postponed and the university declared degree-awarding ceremonies would be held online. Milestones and ceremonies give us safety in numbers. Admitting the passage of time together helps us cope with finality. But losing the quotidian bits and pieces that glued college together stung the most. Inside Georgetown’s weight and ergometer rooms, I found peace in the eye of the swirling hurricane of 5,000 colliding schedules. I would give anything to stand once more in the places that built me and say thank you.
This unforeseeable conclusion to our careers starts to feel justified when I think about the younger athletes left to finish the job. Standing eight inches shorter than some of my teammates, I look up to them. While we abide by the values of Georgetown athletics, we don’t articulate our own rulebook. We know our standards in our team heart and fall into the rhythm of a common instinct. I could list those values if I wanted, but enumerating them cannot account for the complexity, the oxymorons, the elusive hypocrisies of graceful power. Never have I seen a population so innately led by vision and legacy, by the girls alongside us and the girls who stood before us.
So, I ask myself once more, what was it all for? All the marginal watts of raw power I produced for my teammates forced me to break my life down to the fractional second. Going fast when it counted most required that I slow down enough to recover and reflect when alone on land, just as social distancing asks us to do now. While COVID-19 robbed senior athletes of those seconds and chances, our sacrifices endure. We equipped younger athletes to fight for what we love, and we can feel at peace leaving our sports, poised to lead with the very sense of purpose that was seized from us too soon.
Carly Glickenhaus is a senior in the School of Foreign Service.