Thrive vs Survive
I coach a group of amazing individuals, cancer survivors, over the summer. After they join the rowing program, they become “thrivers” instead of “survivors”, which is how they are referred to by the hospital. Coaching rowing to these exceptional people is the most meaningful work I have ever done in my entire life. They are my people. Their bodies have been through hell and back, yet they keep pushing forward.
Huntsman Cancer Institute
I first met Richard Fisher at the introductory meeting at the Huntsman Cancer Institute in April 2017. Richard was the ultimate hardcore thriver. He was practically squirming in his seat he was so excited to set up his first rowing session. His enthusiasm was contagious. If we could have driven out to the Great Salt Lake that moment and had a big group lesson, we would have. Unfortunately, it was April and we don’t get on the water until June.
Richard was an over the top gung-ho athlete. He pretty much lived his life full of passion and dedication to his physical pursuits. Over the course of the past 4 months, I got to learn about Richard’s love of all things fitness related. After 71 years of living life to the fullest, (cyclist, runner, swimmer, grandfather, husband, and father extraordinaire) he was given the opportunity to learn the sport of rowing. As much as it is considered a gentlemen’s sport, rowing is an intense experience, to say the least. We experience its intensity on all levels - physical, mental and spiritual. Let me explain.
The Olympic event and at the elite collegiate level in the Spring the race course is 2,000 meters. All shells are lined up in a row and the countdown begins - 5,4, 3, 2, 1, - Ready all, ROW!! Just typing that gives me the goosebumps and makes me feel emotional. It’s a powerful experience pulling your guts out and letting your cardiovascular output hit its maximum threshold at 40 seconds into the race. The race lasts 7 - 8 minutes. Your entire body begins burning with lactic acid one minute into the race. The pain threshold that is endured to successfully complete a race is not quantifiable in words. Just trust me, it’s intense.
The mental discipline of rowing is experienced because of the technical nature of the stroke. The rowing stroke takes a lifetime to master but during our first rowing experience, we can get a taste of what a perfect stroke can and should feel like. We oar people spend the rest of our lives in pursuit of taking the perfect stroke. If you are in a boat with more than just you (doubles, quads, or eights) not only is there your own individual stroke that takes a lifetime to master but you also get to master the art of precision and harmony with another perfection seeking oarsman. The balance and precision that is required to create a harmonious rowing experience for you and your crew take 100% presence. No daydreaming in this sport! The level of mental engagement required to successfully row with a group of people anchors us in the present moment like no other sport I have done. An hour or two row by and you realize that you haven’t thought about anything else except how to move your body in the correct way to achieve rowing stroke nirvana.
The spiritual discipline of rowing happens effortlessly. It’s what happens when you have nature, beautiful scenery, special people and passion yoked together into one experience. Richard and I didn’t go fast in our double scull together. In fact, one of the reasons I wanted to write about him and our rowing experience together is because he taught me a lot about what really matters to me as a coach- to pass on the LOVE of my sport.
I spend most of my 9-3 days working with teenagers. I teach at a public charter school full time. I adore my students. They are the light of our future and I have great faith that they will make right of our current troubled climate one day. However, they are the masters, and I mean masters of excuses. Just thinking of all the interesting excuses I have heard over the last 8 years of teaching makes me chuckle.
Richard was the polar opposite of my teens. Medically, Richard could have been full of very legitimate excuses. There were a couple times when he had to sit out because his breathing was so compromised. But nothing could stop Richard! He even inquired about racing in a very strenuous 5,000-meter head race at the end of September. I actually entertained the idea of being his partner so he could do it but his heart condition became a prohibitive factor when it came time to register.
Richard could have very well been the most challenging rowing student I have ever had. Our first four lessons together I didn’t even take strokes while seated behind him because I had to “set up the boat” (this means to press the blades against the water to make sure we didn’t tip). His learning curve for the sport was much less steep than many of the other rowers I have taught over the past 20 years. Richard suffered some side effects from the medications he was on that challenged his balance and retention. I found myself getting frustrated and fearing for our safety several times in the beginning.
Tenacity, passion, and dedication
But Richard kept showing up and pouring his heart and soul into learning the stroke. He would watch videos, take private lessons with other coaches, read manuals, do anything in his power to become an oarsman when we weren’t at the lake.
The last few times we got to row together in the double after an entire summer of rowing together, we both felt IT - the perfection, the harmony, the unity. No excuses for Richard, just pure 100% effort, passion, and SUCCESS! I wept tears of joy and accomplishment while seated behind him as we rowed our final time together in the double.
His example of tenacity, passion, and dedication will forever be an example of why I do what I do and how I want to approach all endeavors in my life. Richard never held back, made excuses or gave up. I want to be like Richard when I grow up.
Rest in Peace, Richard Fisher. You are an oarsman.
The concept of Heaven holds the image of perfection and unity for me, much like my beloved sport of rowing. I sure hope Richard has found his own single scull to glide around Heaven. I wanted to write this over the summer when Richard was still alive, but he sadly passed away October 7, 2017 in Salt Lake City after a two-year battle with cancer and some heart complications that finally took him. He was a 71-year-old who, after reading The Boys in The Boat (an excellent read, btw!) was DETERMINED and SUCCEEDED to learn how to row.