How did you balance crew, classwork, and a social life while you were in college?
I didn’t at all. My college experience could be equated to Murphy’s Law – everything that could go wrong went wrong. Looking back I should have advocated for myself a lot more than I did when I talked to my coaches, I should have gone to my professors sooner when I realized I was falling behind, and I should have avoided my advisers entirely since they ended up steering me in the wrong direction more often than not. The way things panned out with rowing and college in general is without question the biggest regret I have.
College itself wasn’t a shock to my system or anything so there really wasn’t an adjustment period there but as soon as classes started I got smacked in the face with crew from every angle. Practice twice a day, weights in the morning twice a week after a row (7-8:30am before classes), not to mention having a teammate as a roommate (alarm clock going off every five minutes for an hour starting at 4:30am … I wanted to kill her) was a lot to deal with on top of the usual college stuff.
I started taking classes over the summer and already had an incredible group of friends before the year even started. I went from seeing them every day to never seeing them. I was way too exhausted to go out on the weekends so I missed a lot of opportunities to hang out and stuff. I justified missing out by saying that rowing in college was what I wanted to do and I knew there were going to be sacrifices and if this was one of them, fine. All work and no play is not healthy.
Classes were a whole separate issue entirely. I was excited about my major and most of my classes but it’s hard to maintain that excitement when you’re late to your morning class every day because you get held over by 20, 30, 40 minutes at practice (and then have to wait for the shuttle back to campus) and are so exhausted at the end of the day that you can’t manage any brain waves when it’s time to actually do your work. I’d come back from afternoon/evening practice around 6-7pm, maybe grab something to eat (justified again by not having enough time, I didn’t feel that hungry anyways, etc.), take a quick break to wind down from the day (usually in the form of a shower, which was the only time during the day when I felt no pressure to do anything), and then start my homework. That’d go from 8pm-2am usually before I’d set my alarm and go to bed. If I got more than 3 hours of sleep a night I was ecstatic. I was constantly running on empty.
I’ve always been a good student but my grades were awful and having never experienced that before, I was constantly kicking my own ass and telling myself to get it together. I was nervous to talk to my professors because I figured they would look at me as an entitled athlete expecting special treatment so I didn’t go to them for help (until it was all but too late) and instead committed myself to figuring out how to fix things on my own. Needless to say, that didn’t work.
Midway through the semester, I hated crew. Like, absolutely hated it. I didn’t feel like I was getting any opportunities to do anything useful when I was at practice and I (and some of the other coxswains) always felt like the coaches were pretty “meh” towards everyone but their “favorite” coxswain. Whenever the subject of crew, the team, etc. would get brought up by friends, family, professors, etc. I could feel the look of disgust on my face. If I never saw another oar, boat, or cox box ever again it would have been too soon. It went from being something that I loved doing more than anything to a job that I despised waking up for. I was stressed beyond belief, I was constantly getting sick (I ended missing nine straight days of classes at one point because I was so run down … the doctors I saw were horrified and almost made me check into the hospital for treatment), I had no energy, and the energy that I did have was spent convincing myself that this was what I wanted. I wanted this!
When I had conversations with my coaches or athletic advisers, I got nowhere. My athletic advisers, instead of finding ways to help me, only offered the suggestion of “just pick an easier major”, which I ignored because that’s literally the most lazy, bullshit piece of advice ever. My coaches guilt tripped me because I had committed myself to the team and I had to fulfill that, blah blah blah. I sat in their offices ready to punch the walls at a moment’s notice because it was like … do you think I don’t know that I made a commitment? Why do you think I’m running myself into the ground right now? I’m doing it because of this commitment!
Eventually it came to the point where I knew I had to walk away. My grades were the number one reason but my health (physical and mental) was another. I had never felt before what I felt my freshman year. I was in a perpetual state of fatigue, hunger, anger, stress, anxiety, depression, etc. that no one understood. The people I did talk to about what was going on knew maybe 1% of everything – the rest of it I kept to myself. People aren’t joking when they say doing that eats away at you. I could feel myself becoming less and less of the person I was before and that only added to everything I was feeling.
Walking away from crew was the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make. I know it doesn’t seem like something that a normal person would agonize over but for me it was. I knew that quitting (something I had never done before) would put an end to my dreams of competing at the elite level. I was back home when I got a call from the assistant coach who said that she could tell something had been going on. No shit, really? Do you think maybe you should have said something beforehand instead of rubbing my “commitment” in my face? I told her I needed some time to figure out what I wanted but I didn’t think I was going to be on the team next season. It wasn’t until I took a step back and realized how miserable I was making myself that I realized the choice was already made. I called my coach back and said I was done.
I hate that I’m that person who is the anomaly and couldn’t make things work out. There are thousands of collegiate rowers out there that do and on some level, I’m envious of that. I’ve realized in the years since that I should have stuck up for myself and I should have told my coaches at the very beginning that something wasn’t right. Whether they could or would have helped me is something I’ll never know but I should have made the effort to at least see what they had to say. Asking for help as a coxswain is something that’s really easy for me but asking for help in “real life” is really hard and it bit me in the ass here.
The simplest piece of advice I have is that the moment you start to feel the ground under you getting a little shaky, figure out why and then go talk to the appropriate people until you’ve got things stabilized. Even if you don’t think you need someone else’s help, down the line you will. If your professors know ahead of time that you’re juggling a lot and struggled a bit with a certain topic, problem set, etc., they can at least throw out a “Hey, how have you been doing since we last talked?” at the beginning or end of class one day. I never had any professors like this but maybe you do. They can’t help you if they don’t know there’s a problem though, regardless of how minor it is.
Don’t ever let anyone tell you to “just switch to an easier major”. In the short term that might solve the problem but in the long run you probably aren’t going to be happy. Also, don’t let your coaches guilt trip you, make school seem like an interference to crew, or make you feel like your concerns are invalid. Don’t let anyone else invalidate your concerns either – family, friends, significant others, teammates, etc. How you balance crew, classes, and having a life is different for each individual too. There’s an experimentation period of trial and error where you find out what works for you before you settle into a routine, but the key is making sure your routine is dictated by you and not someone or something else.