TopRow NYC’s Debut at the Head of the Charles Regatta on October 19, 2019

“Bow 16, you have to yield! YIELD!” Perry Hamilton bellowed as we worked our way through the crowd under the Charles’ stoic bridges. With skilled expertise, Perry shepherded D.D. Meakin, Hilary Callahan, Jessica Sabat and me through the 55th Head of the Charles. Our backgrounds with the HOCR varied with Hilary, Perry and D.D. participating for the fourth, fifth and sixth times, respectively, and Jessica and me repping the noobs. Over the preceding months, we had prepared to do something I once only dreamt of doing. When finally on the Charles for my first time in 17 years, I sensed a buzz from 11,000 athletes eager to glide through the crisp New England weather.

TopRow NYC’s MW4+ boat during our pre-race pep talk. Mel (coach), D.D. (stroke, starboard), Kristi (3 seat, port), Perry (coxswain), Hilary (2 seat, port), and Jessica (bow, starboard), from left to right.

TopRow’s debut at the HOCR did not disappoint as far as HOCRs go: we passed and got passed by a few boats and even clashed oars while pinched by two boats through Anderson Bridge. We raced as one of the oldest boats in our event (a proud average of 49.5, ex-cox). Our row was certainly mentally and physically challenging, but those 21 minutes and 59 seconds were also a mere flicker in the body of our HOCR experience. Those 21:59 were the culmination of hours of trust building.

I gifted myself weekend rowing in New York in 2015 as a respite from the clamor of professional life. I also avoided joining the competitive team in part because of my college rowing memories. Over an otherwise ordinary post-practice breakfast at Wellesley College, my pair partner/roommate, Ashley Hartz, summed it up best: “We’re young, we eat healthy and work out…yet I feel like crap!” Among the competing priorities that naturally accompany Division III athletics, rowing eventually weighed on me. I quit when I felt myself constantly questioning my adequacy as both a rower and student. Wellesley’s mission, “women who will make a difference in the world,” is a terrifying mantra to embody—yet I couldn’t keep myself from trying.

After agreeing to try out for the HOCR MW4+ boat, these feelings often returned, like geese on a dock. This time, though, I was able to sweep away the inner dialogue by setting appropriate expectations for my teammates and myself. I learned to sanely balance rowing against other obligations. It was challenging, but not lonely, as my teammates also navigate the insatiable thirst for excellence both in and out of the boat. At times, we frustrated each other on the water, but always ended practice with constructive discussion and conscious recognition of the things we needed to master. In a 4+, minute movements can create misery for all. Tap down? Lean in? Swing together? We couldn’t simply check these off a list (as my Type A personality desires), but by spending many hours as a boat we built trust in the boat.

As one of the oldest boats in the MW4+ (40+) event, we had our work cut out for us!

In the final weeks before the Charles, we rowed fully in stride. I took joy in hearing the “choonk” of four oars feathering, watching our well-matched puddles eddy behind our wake, and flying in a boat with run. Our practice regatta at the Head of the Christina in Wilmington, DE felt natural and fun, until the end. No one had rowed this regatta before. After considerable sleuthing, landmarks were the best guidance our aptly named coach, Mel Abler, could give us. That afternoon, with all six of us in the back of Jessica’s car to Manhattan, we commiserated in realizing the words “where is that stupid second crane?” had crossed all four minds during the sprint. Even our minds were swinging as one!

The entire HOCR experience proved to be so much more than I had expected. Hours before the race, the six of us gathered in the corner of a babbling hotel lobby to meet for the last time. As a capstone to the long season, we gave each other compliments and small gifts (and a few tears). Regardless of the result, learning from and growing with this band of sisters made this HOCR unlike any other. In fact, I would not have shed my mental misgivings from college without “trusting the boat.” When I woke up on Sunday October 20, 2019, I scrolled through the congratulatory Facebook photos and comments to a thread where Jessica described her morning as “tangible liberation and let down all in one!” While we weren’t in the boat at that moment, our minds still swung together.

TopRow is an international organization focused on expanding the sport. Photo credits: D.D. Meakin.

Kristi Sue-Ako is a member of the TopRow NYC club. She works at Credit Suisse and lives in Manhattan with her husband, Rajat Bhatia, and cat, Opihi. She has rowed out of Peter Jay Sharp boathouse since 2015. When the water is too cold, she enjoys snowboarding with her husband through the trees.

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