15 or so years ago, while I was recruiting for Peace Corps, I decided I wanted to start taking yoga classes (for meditation and flexibility) and kick boxing (for self defense and cardio). One of my co-workers at the time, Kelvin, suggested I try Aikido instead, where I could combine the meditation, flexibility, self-defense and cardio all into one activity. I took his advice, tried it and loved it! I was in great shape while I practiced Aikido, able to transfer the Aikido moves to swing dancing, and for the first time in my life, I was extremely limber–able to do a backward roll which I had never done before (I failed my gymnastics unit in middle school). I felt strong, appreciated the comararderie of bonding with a group of adults over a common activity, and respected the mental growth this martial arts form influenced. I only trained for a couple of years and then other things got in the way, but I did appreciate that experience immensely.
Since returning to Chicago last summer, I’ve been on the look out for something again. I wasn’t sure what, however. I hopped around, attending a dinner with the Chicago Returned Peace Corps Volunteers Association and monthly support group meetings with Gilda’s Club. I even made a couple of attempts at attending Aikido and swing dancing classes, but they didn’t work out. Terry and I have also talked about bringing our kayaks down to Chicago from Lake Charlevoix, but haven’t made it happen and I considered sailing again, but my favorite sailing friends have moved to the East Coast. Nothing seemed to really click. If I would have consciously put a request out into the universe, I would have been looking for exercise, a group of people who ‘get’ the breast cancer community, a new ‘thing’ (it’s all about EMWA–Expand My World Ability–with me, right?), and a way to play. But, I didn’t consciously put out that request. I was just in an auto-pilot searching mode while readjusting to life in the Windy City.
One thing I have done consistently since moving back to Chicago, however, has been walking Bleu (and Zoey when she was alive) at least two times a day, for 15-60 minute stretches at a time. I’ve developed an appreciation for the Kenwood/Hyde Park community where we live, met some interesting people, taken a ton of pictures, and benefited from the exercise. In March, just before St. Patrick’s Day, Bleu and I were out walking and ran into a fellow dog owner, Joan, and her dog Callie. We had spoken before, about our dogs and the weather mainly, but this time I inquired about Joan’s uniquely bright blue hat and gloves (I had left my own hat and gloves at home and it was chilly so I was really envying hers). She told me that they were gear from a rowing team she was a member of that crewed out of the Chicago Southside community of Bridgeport–a crew that had a team of brave ladies who were going to go out on the very cold Chicago River for upcoming St. Patty’s Day festivities. Joan said that it was an organization that I really didn’t want to be a member of, however. Huh? We continued talking and it turned out that this crew is unique: it is only for women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer! Not only was I intrigued by the color blue of the crew gear, but suddenly there was this Southside crew for women with breast cancer that was all about exercise and community and support that just entered my world like magic.
I was hooked before I even went to the first open house!
I found out that the rowing team is called ROW–Recovery on Water and they were actively recruiting new members. I drove with Joan to the open house at ROW Headquarters in the Bridgewater Arts Center after St. Patrick’s Day and was able to meet other ladies and a number of coaches, as well as get on an ‘erg’ (ergometer rowing machine). I had been on rowing machines in the past, but these are hard-core machines for rowers, rather than simply machines to burn calories. What a rush!
I learned that ROW is “a rowing team that gives survivors of breast cancer the unique opportunity to interact, become active in their recovery, and gain support from fellow survivors.” Established in the winter of 2007-2008 by Sue Ann Glasser and Jenn Gibbons, ROW’s beginnings are pretty random. Jenn Gibbons had rowed at Michigan State University as well as volunteered with a program in East Lansing for women dealing with breast cancer. She looked to be involved in a similar program here in Chicago while coaching the St. Ignatius High School Chicago Crew (ICC), but there wasn’t one and so she went about creating one. Sue Ann Glasser was diagnosed in March 2007 with breast cancer and urged by her oncologist to exercise as a way to mitigate the side effects of chemo and reduce recurrence. Having lived in Boston, she knew that row crews for women with breast cancer existed and went on the hunt for one in Chicago. She too found that one did not exist and so was looking into starting a group. Luck (or the inadvertent connection of a Parks District employee) put Jenn and Sue Ann together and Recovery on Water was created. Jenn enlisted her ICC student volunteers to attend practices to help carry the 200 pound rowing shells, serve as assistant coaches, and provide other support to the ROW team, while receiving community service hours for their time at practice. She began hosting weekly practices in the winter months of 2007-8, and the first group of women began practicing on the water in the spring of 2008. The program has continued to work with ICC, purchased equipment of its own, hired more coaches and partnered with other rowing programs in Chicago to bring this sport and support service to Chicago’s breast cancer survivors. Membership has grown every year, now serving at least fifty women and growing.
ROW provides exercise programs for survivors 6 days a week, year round. During the winter months, participants are on indoor machines, while during the spring, summer, and fall they are either in rowing shells on the Chicago River or erg-ing at Headquarters or at another facility in Skokie, Illinois. The program includes 3 different squads to meet the varying needs and interests of survivors:
ROW 1 is dedicated to new and current ROW members who wish to improve their basic skills. (They will have the option to compete in one or more regattas if they choose)
ROW 2 is for veteran members who wish to focus on their general fitness through rowing and may occasionally compete in regattas.
ROW 3 is made up of ROW veterans and/or individuals with previous rowing experience who wish to practice and compete at a more competitive level, focusing on training and racing.
All new survivors are required to start out in ROW 1 and this year’s group is one of the largest novice groups to date. There are at least 17 of us signed up! The truly exceptional aspect of the program is that ROW is not just for hard core athletes or women who are water babies like me, it is for women of all ability levels.
ROW is designed for breast cancer survivors, regardless of physical conditioning. We begin very slowly to make certain that everyone is able to participate fully. In fact, many ROW participants have never taken part in any type of organized athletic activity before starting to row as adults. Practices focus on basic rowing skills, rowing terms and teamwork, with an emphasis on learning to row as a team. Participants develop knowledge about rowing and build confidence in their abilities. As a result, many participants form strong friendships from the shared experience.
The other unique aspect is that because all of the rowers are breast cancer survivors, there is a basic commonality to each member. Each has been diagnosed, each has been treated and yet all are looking to rowing as something new, challenging, and healthy to do.
So, the week after the open house, I went up to Chicago’s North Side with Joan to a practice at the Clark Row House where they have a rowing pool which simulates the rowing experience. A little intimidating, but I was able to row with other novice rowers, so it wasn’t so bad.
By April 14th, with only 4 Erg practices and 1 pool practice of experience, I was registered for Row 1 Intro Week. 10-12 of us newbies erged at Headquarters on the 14th, met at the Clark Row House for pool practice the 16th and headed out on the Chicago River’s Bubbly Creek for the first time on the 18th.
Coaches and experienced Row 2 & 3 members were there to help out the novices which was awesome, and helped make the introduction go smoothly. Not everyone made it out on the water that first (very chilly) day, but I did. Being out on the water for the first time was exhilarating and I had a goofy grin on my face the whole time!
What an amazing experience!