Linda Stocker, Margie Orrick and Claire Griffin practice their stroke on the Potomac River.
PULLING TOGETHER For eight middle-aged women, competitive rowing has changed their lives By Lisa Braun-Kenigsberg / Photos by Daniel Schreiber
5:15 a.m. Four middle-aged women in maroon and navy team jackets and wearing unforgiving spandex pants meet in the predawn darkness. Four mornings each week the women carpool from the Carderock Springs neighborhood in Bethesda to the Thompson Boat Center in Georgetown. Today’s driver is Margie Orrick, 54, who is surprisingly alert, full of good cheer and coherent conversation. Her passengers are fellow Carderock residents Lisa Wilcox Deyo, 51, and Linda Stocker, 57, as well as Bonnie Hill, 50, who lives 212 Bethesda Magazine HEALTH September/October 2008
in the River Falls section of Potomac. The four, along with about 30 other women from the Bethesda area, Washington, D.C., and northern Virginia, are members of the boat center’s Master Women’s competitive rowing club for “women of a certain age,” as their coach, Ryan Gibson, 24, judiciously puts it. While younger women are permitted to join, the majority are in their 40s and 50s, says Orrick. Orrick, Deyo and Hill call themselves former soccer moms, and indeed they met at their chil-
Coxswain Abby Collazo (front) and rowers Lisa Deyo, Suzanne Milton, Bonnie Hill, Danna Katzman, Linda Stocker, Margie Orrick, Claire Griffin and Robin Hassani.
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dren’s fields of battle. Now, they’re engaging in their own battles on the Potomac River each year from March through midNovember—rowing against the elements, the currents and other teams. During the winter months, the women participate in a rigorous conditioning regimen at the unheated Thompson boathouse, which lacks running water that time of year. “We know someone’s waiting for us, so we can’t sleep in,” says Orrick, the carpool’s organizer and an intrepid recruiter of team newcomers. A mother of three who worked at Oracle for 15 years, Orrick calls herself “a work in progress.” She and Deyo have been rowing for four years. Hill has been at it for three, and Stocker is a newbie with just one year under her belt. Orrick confesses that she is not a morning person and never played team sports before joining the rowing group. “And here I am, willingly getting up really early in the morning and getting all endorphined up and feeling really good about it. It works for me, and I’ve organized my life around it,” she says. Her husband and children, she adds, are amazed that she picked up the sport and stuck with it. Orrick’s three daughters rowed at Walt Whitman High School, and she calls rowing her children’s gift to her. Having spent a lot of time at boathouses over the years, Orrick eventually decided to give the sport a try. “I never tire of the view of the morning sunlight on the river and the monuments,” she says. Her middle daughter, Karen, 19, rows for Dartmouth College. She arrived home last Christmas to discover that her mom had installed a pull-up bar in a bathroom doorway. “I was really upset she could do more pull-ups than me,” Karen admits, laughing. But she says it’s good that they have the sport in common. Mother and daughter sometimes get into a double boat and row together on the river. Deyo is a landscape designer with two teenage daughters. Emily, 15, rows on Whitman’s team with the youngest of Orrick’s daughters, Eliza, also 15. “The neat thing is, [Emily] learned about rowing from me,” Deyo says. Her husband Tom, 51, says it
has been fun watching his wife get into rowing. He has had to take over some of the early morning duties at home, but the payoff—a wife with higher energy levels, a more toned body and more “spunk”— is well worth it, he says. Stocker, an account manager with Qwest Government Services in Arlington, Va., was inspired to row by daughter Kaira, 34, a former high school rower. Intrigued by an item about the rowers’ carpool in the monthly Carderock neighborhood newsletter, Stocker first had to overcome a deep-seated fear connected to her childhood in Iowa, when a young child she knew drowned in a local river. Hill, a life coach who has a son in college and another son and daughter at Whitman, had her own epiphany several years ago at a kids soccer game, when an insistent Orrick urged her to try rowing, telling Hill, “You can do it!” After a 20-minute drive in the dark along blissfully empty highways, the four women arrive at the Thompson Boat Center, where dozens of men and women are gathering. All around the boathouse, young and older prepare for the morning’s outing on the river. Some stretch their bodies on rowing equipment. Others are busy chatting, catching up on each other’s lives. The rowers head to the river after Gibson posts boat assignments.
5:45 a.m. The Carderock crew is joined by Danna Katzman, Suzanne Milton and Robin Hassani, all of Silver Spring, as well as Claire Griffin of Chevy Chase. Just getting one of these eight-seat, 60-foot-long, 24-inch-wide boats into the water is a complex endeavor, but the eight women are able to lift a boat off the rack and neatly flip the 200-pounder smack into the water by the dock. Stepping into the boat and getting seated requires something akin to a complex dance routine. Once settled, the rowers place their socked feet into the “one size fits all” shoes attached in front of each assigned position. With oars locked in place, the women push off forcefully and glide
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smoothly along the river. Gibson, at the helm of a small launch, accompanies the boats. Most of the women in the group are old enough to be his mother, but out on the water, he is their captain, their boss and their cheerleading section. Age on the river is irrelevant, as is status—all that truly matters here is how you pull your weight on the long, narrow boats as they slice gracefully through the water. Lights from the Key Bridge glitter in the distance as the day begins to dawn. The Kennedy Center, the monuments, the lush greenery of Theodore Roosevelt Island all are on view, but the rowers don’t have a spare moment to contemplate them. Every second is spent in intense concentration as they follow the rowing commands of the coxswain, heed instructions from Gibson and remain in unison with fellow rowers. Even a fleeting distraction causes a lack of unity and a subsequent loss of speed. “Be powerful but controlled!” Gibson shouts through a megaphone as he sends the women down the river to do a series of five-minute sprints. “This is a very hard-working and dedicated group,” Gibson says. “They are also very interesting women—it’s crazy, the diversity of backgrounds of these women. I appreciate what they expose me to in life. Some people may laugh and say, who wants to coach 35 middle-aged women at 6 a.m., but this group is a positive, fun bunch.” The Thompson Boat Center’s Master Women’s members participate in as many as 12 regattas a year up and down the East Coast, some of which are open to all rowers and others more selective, all in the Masters Women division. In June, the club entered two boats at the Charm City Sprints in Baltimore: Suzanne Milton and Lisa Deyo were two of the rowers who finished in first place; Danna Katzman and Claire Griffin were in the boat that came in second. And at the August 2007 Royal Canadian Henley Regatta in St. Catherines, Ontario, Milton rowed in the boat that placed second, with Deyo and Katzman in another boat placing fourth in a competition
"Coach Ryan Gibson, 24, stands with some of his team, most of whom are old enough to be his mother. From left, Gibson, Robin Hassani, Lisa Deyo, Claire Griffin, Margie Orrick, Danna Katzman, Bonnie Hill, Suzanne Milton, Linda Stocker and Abby Collazo."
with rowers from some 150 clubs. On the river, speed is always of the essence. But smoothness and flow are also critical, and not so easy when middle-aged joints and muscles are in play. On this day, the boat glides down the Potomac to the 14 th Street Bridge and back. Sometimes the women row as far as Reagan National Airport, with planes taking off and landing overhead. Gibson, a US Airways Express pilot based at National, frequently finds himself either on the river or just above it.
6:45 a.m. The smooth water becomes choppy as the wind rises, and the women fight the tide and time. A steady drizzle falls, but
the air and the rain are warm. After the sprints, they work on strokes while Gibson shouts detailed critiques. For club member Danna Katzman, 51, rowing is a return to an earlier passion. She first rowed as a Duke University senior after seeing a sign that read: “Rowers Needed: No Experience Necessary.” She grew up camping, canoeing and hiking, and always loved the water. Since college, however, she had rowed only sporadically. Then Katzman read an annual Christmas letter from friend Suzanne Milton, 48, in which Milton mentioned that she wanted to get back into the sport someday. Milton had rowed all four years at what then was known as Radcliffe College, becoming captain by her senior year.
But she’d rarely spent time in a boat since. Katzman decided to seize the moment. Calling Milton, she announced that they were joining the Thompson Boat Center’s Master Women’s club. So it was that the two found themselves at the boathouse at 5 a.m. on a cold, dark morning in March 2005. Katzman recalls asking Milton, “What are we doing? Are we crazy? She replied, ‘Yes,’ and we never stopped.” Katzman, a government contractor for the Federal Aviation Administration’s Web site, is the mother of two boys, 12 and 15, who, she says, are old enough to get themselves out the door in the morning. She, like the other members of the group, has a husband who is very supportive of what she calls her “need to row.”
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“I changed from a sleep-in person to one who rises at 4:55; from a couch potato to an athlete; from a whiner to someone who is routinely chilled, soaked, bruised and blistered and shrugs it off because it’s all part of the sport.” — C l a i re G r i ff i n “I just love being out there on the water with the mist and the sun rising. It’s peaceful, quiet and Zen-like, and a really good workout. I’m high when I get off the river—I feel great,” Katzman says. She has also learned how to let go. “When you row, you have to give up control. You can’t have a big ego—you’re one-eighth of a whole. It takes everybody doing their one-eighth to work, and when it works perfectly, it’s beautiful—like ballet,” she says. Milton, an attorney and mother of two, rows four times a week in the spring, summer and fall, then drives home to Silver Spring to shower and then heads to her office in Columbia, arriving at her desk by 9 or 9:30.“It’s an incredible bunch of women,” she says of the team. When Robin Hassani, 52, joined a health club 10 years ago, the only exercise equipment consistently available to her was a rowing machine. She began rowing indoors and kept at it, even posting the digital readouts of her sessions– the number of minutes to row 2000 meters–on a Web site maintained by the equipment manufacter. Orrick, ever on the lookout for new talent, managed to recruit Hassani to the team after spotting her impressive times. For Hassani, an empty nester with three grown children who works in facilities management at Brookside Gardens in Wheaton, it was perfect timing. “Your kids eventually grow up. It’s wonderful—then you can have a life,” she says. Orrick told her about “this great group of women who have an awful lot of fun in the mornings,” and she was quickly hooked. Though Hassani’s transition from the indoor rowing machine to the water this past March was somewhat scary, she says she loves it. “Rowing with a group is so much better [than rowing alone],” she says.
Claire Griffin, 58, is the group’s poet laureate. A writing teacher at Montgomery College, as well as a freelance writer, she has put together a poem titled, “Ode to the Unisuit or There are Many Forms of Courage,” which addresses the sticky topic of encasing a middle-aged body in skintight rowers’ clothing: I didn’t know when I started rowing How much of my skin would be showing…. The season’s great challenge is how to look cute While attired in a racing unisuit This skintight garment was hardly designed For shapes as expansive as yours and mine… With seven years on the river, Griffin is the most-seasoned rower among the Montgomery County group. Encouraged by an acquaintance, she took up the sport as a newcomer to the Washington area as a means of getting to know the city and to meet people. Her husband and two children—now grown— knew how much she hated exercise and were highly skeptical that her interest would last. She proved them wrong. “The experience of becoming a rower changed me profoundly,” she says. “…I changed from a sleep-in person to one who rises at 4:55; from a couch potato to an athlete; from a whiner to someone who is routinely chilled, soaked, bruised and blistered and shrugs it off because it’s all part of the sport.” Perhaps most important: “It’s such a team sport—no matter how tired or how your hands hurt, stopping is not an
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option. You have to keep going—it’s like being the leg of a horse,” Griffin says.
7:45 a.m. The four members of the Carderock crew are back in Orrick’s car and heading home. After rowing, “You don’t feel sore— you feel invigorated,” Orrick insists. “Speak for yourself! I feel sore,” Deyo says. “But it’s a good sore,” Orrick points out. “There are so many things to keep in your head while you’re rowing, to make the next stroke better. That’s what keeps me coming back,” Hill says. What also keeps her and the others coming back are the friendships. “It’s a great group, with great camaraderie. We’re competitive as a team, but not of each other,” she explains. “We accept each other as we are. It’s fun to be with a group of women and not worry about what you look like,” Deyo says. “It gets down to the core—no one cares about clothes or hair,” Stocker says. Rowing has changed them in other ways. “I’ve got muscles and definition where there was absolutely none before,” Orrick says. “My entire body has become more toned and defined—my legs, my arms and my core abdominal muscles.” Before rowing, Orrick couldn’t do a single push-up; now she can do 20. In gaining all that muscle, her weight has remained the same, but her body has been dramatically transformed. “We’re in the best shape of our lives— it’s astonishing,” Orrick says. Freelance writer Lisa Braun-Kenigsberg lives in Potomac.