Over the weekend we saw some amazing racing from some incredible athletes. At the same time, George Bridgewater was reflecting on his past few years pursuing his Rio Olympic dream and reality of not quite making that regatta. It’s a tough transition, and the reality is more rowers experience the hard grind than that ultimate glory, so upon reading George’s words we had to ask if he would let us share them on our website. Below are George’s musings, they are poignant, insightful and incredibly relevant to anyone who is currently rowing and who will ultimately find themselves on another path in the future. George, we can’t thank you enough for letting us share this very personal post of yours, it’s a fantastic reflection of you as both a rower and a person.
“Well, I said that in time I would write more…
Sport can be very black and white. At least in contrast to many other things in life where there is a lot in between. Often we are encouraged early in life to get as much sport in as possible. Perhaps parents feel it teaches their kids things that theory cannot and how to deal with situations or how to deal with people. But often this stops as the teenage years roll on and school finishes – organized sport is no longer as easy stepping out of class and onto the field. Work takes up more time and if we’re lucky exercise becomes something that is squeezed in between nights at the pub to resemble a human being that’s healthy enough. Not many experience sport as an all-consuming roller coaster ride that most full-time athletes will.
Functioning in this world that is so black & white, so immediate in its feedback every day, has been exhilarating. Can you imagine four years of work coming down to one six minute performance, where you need to be physically, mentally, emotionally en pointe to measure your effort for the last four years? What if just one member of your team got injured or sick? For something that is so physical, the contrasting delicacy of the situation is so stark that it’s almost comical. In training, you can win a session in the AM and feel confidence is sky high, and then come back later that day and lose a session to the same opponent. Your body and mind sharpens to being in a competitive environment and you begin to be ready for anything because that’s what you are practicing for.
For me, after I left rowing competitively, I initially embraced the life of an office worker. Sitting in a chair for 12 hours a day on the 36th floor in Hong Kong, gym after work two weekdays plus Saturday mornings, weekends free to do what I wanted, bars, restaurants, holidays etc. The novelty lasted for a bit, it was great to be getting an income and have a ‘job’. But after a few months, I realized I wasn’t near to being world class at this new job and it became disappointing to deal with the fact that ‘you’re not good at what you do’ (of course I am not so unrealistic to think that I would, it’s the contrast between the two worlds and everything that goes with that which was a sea-change). I don’t think this was specific to the job or industry I was working in, just when you try something new and worthwhile, you’re most likely not to be good at it to begin with. After a couple of years I figured out how to get by, but also realize how people change according to your standing in the hierarchy – which obviously changes significantly from organization to organization. The learning was ongoing every day, which was one of the big upsides, but after two years I had learnt enough to not say stupid things and which people were to be avoided. From that point on, as I came up for air and took a look around, my confidence grew but satisfaction did not come with it. As a cog in a machine, any member of our team could take a day off or be on holiday and the rest of the team functioned perfectly well. This didn’t sit particularly well with me and I sought something else, something more lucid.
It’s my belief that, for many spectators, sport is craved on a primal level because of its physically, emotionally charged unpredictability. And it’s very clear who is the best at the end of the day. Humans are outcome-oriented creatures; watch a movie and there is always a sense of closure at the end – and if there is not, we will usually lament the fact. Sport offers the ultimate non-fatal short timeframe outcome – and we like to believe it is played fairly and to the best of individual ability. With corruption, or doping, sports become infected – outcomes become scripted and predictable, and sport will gradually become less and less competitive. Our international governing bodies and committees hold so much responsibility in keeping things on the right track, and in these times its just so difficult to have faith across the board that sport and sport management is pure.
To me, one of the beautiful things about rowing is that money hasn’t quite corrupted (although the wolf is never far from the gates when the sport is brought into the Olympic fold). International rowers race maybe twice a year and those races are generally dead-beat boring-to-watch – even ever-supportive parents usually only fly to the destinations that have the better holiday bolt-ons. It’s not a spectator sport so therefore it is not a sport that generates a lot of money. Like many things, the presence of money determines the size, shape and direction of the sphere. And with higher cash stakes involved, the more likely doping lurks beneath the surface.
The people involved in rowing generally aren’t naturally gifted athletes, often large people with limited coordination which has ruled them out from other more popular sports. They don’t play for money, they play to challenge what is possible from minds and bodies that otherwise would have gone out and got an office job somewhere. They’ve put starting a career, or a family, substantially on hold to follow a passion in which ability peaks only too early in life. What else could you be the best in the world at age 25?
Its been a hell of a journey returning to rowing after five years away – and after the first step of making the decision to return, not a day has been daunting.
So despite my failing to qualify for the Olympic Games in Rio, which will be held in a couple of months’ time, there are no regrets about putting career on hold. The journey has been rewarding and most days have been exciting, rather than arduous.
It’s hard to explain a lot of the learning’s, particularly the minutiae, but understanding what makes me feel happy has been particularly practical. I’ve realized that I am a person who needs to understand what my role in the big picture or mission is, and while this sounds obvious, in some settings it’s not really apparent. Learning can be from both positive and negative situations, enhancing the arsenal which we can complete tasks with, but to be around passionate and courageous people who are clear in purpose is especially endearing and something I will continue to prioritize wherever it is a possibility.” – George Bridgewater