When you think of an Olympic athlete, you might imagine someone who bounds up stairs, runs at superhuman speed, is never out of breath, and has unlimited energy.
The reality of day-to-day life is...quite different. If you knew me when I was training for the World Championships or Olympics, it was safe to say I was the most exhausted person you knew. Training at that level requires two to three practices a day and pushing your body’s limits of strength and endurance. Layer days on days and weeks on weeks of that and you’re not exactly bounding up every set of stairs you see.
Now, life is so different. With a business to run, (once) daily workouts, and a wonderful little family, it can be hard to remember what those days were like. But from time to time, I’ll go to my tall stack of training logs, pull one out, and open it to a random page, just to transport me back to that life for a moment. I kept a training log every day during high school, college, and elite rowing. That’s almost 15 years of logs.
These notebooks are so precious to me; they chronicle my step-by-step experience from chubby kid to Olympian and remind me that big things ARE possible.
This training day is from October 2013. Lemme set the stage before we dive in.
I’d been to the Olympics just over a year earlier, in 2012. After the Games, my rowing partner retired and I seriously contemplated doing the same. Thinking I was hanging up the oars, I got certified as a personal trainer and spent time training (for rowing) lightly before the bug bit me and I dove back into full time training in early 2013.
I was living in Alameda and training at the California Rowing Club, just across the Park Street Bridge in Oakland.
That summer, I’d raced the World Championships in South Korea in the lightweight double where my teammate Kate and I won the silver medal in our event. Lightweight rowers have to average 57 kg (125.7lbs) with no athlete weighing over 59 kg (130 lbs).
[If you’ve ever wondered why I now help women lose weight, living a life of weigh-ins is where I got super good at this!]
We had a two week break following the World Championships before we reconvened in Oakland. I was excited about the next big race we were training for: Head of the Charles in Boston. It’s the largest two day regatta in the world and since it was my hometown course, I always looked forward to it.
I’d had some good success there over the past few years, too; I won the lightweight single event in 2009, 2011, and 2012.
Now, I was training to race the Championship Single. That was considered a tall order, since the majority of the field were heavyweight women. Heavyweight women are often over 6 feet tall and almost always faster. But lightweights can be a bit more competitive over long distances, which Head of the Charles was. I was excited - and nervous - about this new challenge.
At this year’s regatta, I would line up against the reigning Olympic champion in this event from the Czech Republic, the Olympic bronze medallist from Australia, and many fellow Olympians from the US.
The race was ten days away. Here we go.
Wednesday October 9, 2013
Alarm goes off. First thing: my daily weigh in. I clock in at 121.4 pounds. As a lightweight rower, I monitor my weight year-round and honestly, this weigh in is disappointing. I struggled throughout my career with being too heavy at times and too light at others, spanning both ends of the emotional and physical spectrum. Today’s weigh in is too light. If I’m going to race bigger athletes in just a couple weeks, I need to be heavier.
I put my bag together and make my breakfast shake. It’s a banana, a big spoonful of almond butter, and a scoop of plant-based protein powder blended up with water. My (non-rower) roommate keeps saying it’s cool that I run the blender at this hour, but I think she’s just being nice. I check the wind and tides on my phone so I know what to expect from today’s practice. As a rower, I’m glued to my weather apps since it highly affects the water and how I adapt my rowing. Today looks like a 6 mph wind from the east with an outgoing tide. I hop on my bike and head to the boathouse, 2 miles away.
I get to the boathouse, put my stuff in my locker and go for my daily 12 minute warm up jog. It’s October and it’s pitch black out, so I carry a flashlight. When you get up this early, you get to experience the Bay Area at its quietest.
Then it’s back to the boathouse for my dynamic land warm-up in the boat bay. Seven exercises, including lunges, push ups, side plank with reaches, leg swings, and more. I row on a small elite team of fifteen athletes, men and women, lightweights and heavyweights. Everyone starts piling into the boathouse, greeting each other, attempting to wake themselves up, and chatting about what today’s race (against each other) will be like. When you’re training as hard as we are, it feels exhausting to get up for another day of training.
Launch time. Our coach sent out the week’s training calendar on Sunday, so we all know what’s on the schedule for this morning: an all-out race from the High Street Bridge in Alameda to the “Pit” by the Oakland Airport. It’s 4 kilometers long, a near-perfect training distance for Head of the Charles, which is 4.6k. Today, everyone’s racing in singles. I grab my boat + oars and head to the dock.
The sun is just starting to come up. Start time for our scrimmage. It’s run time-trial style with a 10 second break between boats. We gather our boats just before the start line and joke around about who’s going to pass who. We’ll start in reverse order from slowest to fastest so we’re chasing each other down.
We’re racing against the tide and into the wind, which is met with groans from all the rowers because it’s going to be a long race. When you’re in the single, you’re responsible for steering (we face backwards) and executing as perfect of a “piece” (aka race) as you can, so we’ll be cutting the turns as tightly as possible. The race takes about 18 minutes.
We row back to the docks after the race and a half hour cool-down. Only 14.5k total mileage for the morning - less than usual since it included a race. My teammate and I head out for a 53 minute run.
Back at the boathouse, I sit on the floor of the locker room stretching, drinking coffee out of my thermos, and eating a big bowl of oatmeal I’ve packed the night before. It has rolled oats, coconut flakes, ground flax seeds, chia seeds, protein powder, almonds and hazelnuts. Most of my teammates have gone off to work already.
After stretching and showering, I bike to the gym to see clients. Thank goodness I live on a flat island so I don’t have to bike up any hills after my workouts! I started personal training between practices as a way to pay the bills, and today I have my first session at 10:30 am.
After seeing 3 clients back-to-back, I bike home to get some food and rest. Lunch is a generous helping from a giant Thai noodle salad I made earlier in the week: soba noodles, cabbage, green onions, carrots, cilantro, and homemade peanut sauce.
Back to the boathouse for “Endurance Weights.” We do this lift 3 times a week leading up to the Charles. It’s a brutal lift where we try to match the tempo of strokes we’d take on the water as we did the lifts. As much as I dread it every time, I’m always thankful for it in the third quarter of a long-distance race. My legs would be screaming, my whole body on fire, but I’d remember how strong and tough this circuit got me.
Our lifting area is a thrown-together space at the back of the boathouse. Our coach got many of the weights from the local flea market and off Craiglist. Several Olympians have come out of this boathouse, but you wouldn’t guess that by looking at it.
I’m doing today’s lift with one of my teammates. Afternoon workouts are on your own to accommodate everyone’s work schedules. Our coach rarely checks if we’ve done the workout; at this level, everyone’s highly self-motivated.
I do a 12 minute warm-up on the rowing machine, load up the bars, then go through three rounds of:
- 50 Weighted Back Squats in 2 minutes
- 25 Back extensions in 1 minute
- 80 Barbell Bench Pulls in 2:20
- 15 Lunge and Twist on each side, 25 lb plate, FAST
- 20 Weighted Toe Touches in 1 minute
- 60 Leg Press Machine in 2 minutes
- 25 Medicine Ball Throws in 1 minute
- 20 Weighted Squat to Chin Pulls in under a minute
- 20 Weighted Box Jumps in 2 minute
- 100 second Wall Sit
For each lift, you lift as much weight as you can where you can still meet the time limit. If you meet it, you go heavier in the next round. If you don’t, you go lighter. Each exercise is a painful race against the clock.
Exhausted, I finish out with a 10 minute cool-down on the rowing machine and a stretching and rolling sesh while eating an energy bar.
Go home after a long day. We get the ranking from this morning’s race and I’m second on the team. Since our team is men and women, we’re ranked according to our percentage off of World Record time in our respective boat classes.
After my second shower of the day, I make and eat dinner. Tonight, it’s a sweet potato and quinoa mash with a ton of sauteed veggies.
Hydrate, do a little more foam rolling, prepare workout plans for tomorrow’s clients, and of course, have a scoop of mint choc chip ice cream for dessert!
A good day in the books. I head to bed before another one tomorrow.
For all the thrills of competition, day-to-day rowing life definitely wasn’t glamorous. It was a lot of hours of grinding, day after day. We regularly tested the physical and emotional limits of our bodies. It required me to manage my emotions, my sleep, my food intake, my weight, my energy, my race strategy, and any potential injuries.
But it was also a whole lot of passion. To be around elite athletes who loved what they were doing and had a deep desire to improve, perfect their craft, and be the best was inspiring. Every time I reflect on that time in my life I feel one thing: gratitude. For the journey, the people, and the opportunity to do what I loved.
Oh, and I ended up getting 6th at Head of the Charles that year!
Now I want to hear from YOU: what part of my typical training day surprised you? What do you want to hear more about? Leave a comment on Instagram and let me know!