|Patrick C. Crowell
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AN EXCERPT FROM HOSTILE ENVIRONMENT
As the women raced down the course, Adel Blair sensed the remaining single
shells around the starting platform pulling into their respective lanes. Checking
her oarlocks to ensure they were tight, she spied out of the corner of her
eye a couple of the male scullers glaring at her.
She never looked directly at opponents before a big race, to convey she was
as unconcerned about them as a hunting lioness about the birds in the sky.
She was not about to change. This was about speed, and speed alone.
Hers was the only Fluidesign boat in the race, distinguished by its sleek lines,
relative length and stiffness, and distinctive design with the rigger behind
the rower rather than in front. The manufacturer’s owner, Gord Henry,
had convinced Adel that the boat’s aerodynamics were better this way,
much like an airplane. She knew she’d have to test Gord’s theory,
because today she would have to fly. With one powerful stroke her narrow Fluidesign
glided into lane three, in the middle of the men.
It bothered some of them that Adel ignored their annoyance. The man in lane
four said with a sneer, “Hey baby, why don’t you save yourself
some pain and go get me a beer for after the race.”
I’ll have time after I finish,” Adel said.
The rower in lane two smiled.
Adel wondered what it was—was it instinctual fear that not only might
they lose, but that they might lose to a woman? She shrugged her strong shoulders,
too focused on winning to let her mind be disturbed by anything.
Adel balanced her delicate, twenty-nine pound shell at her starting position
and took a practice-start. The sleek, black, twenty-seven foot craft jumped
forward with instant velocity. After her sixth quick and light stroke she moved
her hands down to the gunnels, causing her oar-blades to rise, and glided with
perfect balance upon the water until the fragile, carbon-fiber shell coasted
to a dead stop. After a moment of controlled poise, she un-weighted her hands,
causing her oar-blades to smack hard against the water. Then she pivoted her
boat one hundred and eighty degrees in her lane, sculling it around with her
oars. She paddled back, turned around again, and took her position at the line.
The six rowers—five men and Adel Blair—readied themselves.
Give me strength, Daddy,” Adel said, summoning the personal drive and
mental toughness of her deceased father as she drew her body to starting position
and focused on the referee.
The aligner raised his white flag signaling to the referee that there was alignment.
There was one person assigned to lean over and hold the stern of each shell
from the platform, and through headsets he’d instructed each of them
in order to align the bows perfectly. The referee polled the rowers, and the
red starting flag went up.
Adel fixated on the red flag. She always watched the flag because the sight
of its movement was quicker than the sound of the referee’s voice.
The rowers sat erect.
Are you ready?" the referee yelled. The rowers stiffened.
The starting command bombarded their eardrums a split second after the referee
swung the starting flag down. Adel took off on the flag’s movement, gaining
a slight jump on the men, but all six boats lurched forward with sudden speed
like silent starships transmuting from inertia to instant motion and disappearing
into warp speed. From the aligner’s position on the side, he saw six
bows jumping forward at differing cadences, each propelled by forceful drives
of the rower’s oars through the water. One in the middle of the pack
seemed to take more leaps forward, grabbing shorter bites of water, but climbing
away from the other boats at a higher stroke rate. It was Adel Blair!
Adel knew she had to row at a higher rate if she wanted to beat the larger,
more powerful men. Bigger bodies would get more from each stroke at any rate.
She had to row high—higher than the men. She exhibited determination
as she sensed herself pulling to an early lead at forty-four strokes per minute.
It was the kind of resolve that endurance athletes and soldiers know well—to
perform through the most fearsome circumstances and pain. It was a small slice
of perfection she served up, something few can ever experience, as she heard
the simultaneous catches of her oar-blades striking the water, felt each accelerating
drive through the water, pulling back to her chest and forcing her hands down
and away quickly and smoothly. She pulled a full start and thirty strokes at
that speedy rate, building a three-quarter-boat lead over the men!
Ten more high, she told herself, glancing down at her electronic stroke monitor.
Still at forty-two! Smoothness! she thought, as her extra ten high-strokes
netted a full boat length lead.
Settle now! She felt her legs and bottom move slower up the sliding seat without
disturbing the precious speed she’d developed. Power ten on the settle,
she called to herself, and her boat maintained pace without check.
Lactic acid in her long, sinewy legs began to build like mortar hardening between
concrete blocks. There’s the pain! she thought. Accept the pain! It was
only her companion for a short eternity.
At the five hundred meter mark—halfway—she still led by a length,
but she gained no more. The less taxing, lower rates of the men were becoming
more efficient compared to her tiring thirty-six beats per minute—especially
in lanes two and four. She knew the rower in lane two. He was a slow starter
and strong finisher. He’d be coming on.
Smoothness, she thought. Accept the pain! Drive it through! Smoothness through
the two-fifty. Fast hands!
The men were gaining, chasing her furiously. She didn’t hear the announcer
calling the race on the loudspeaker and lamenting with amazement at her lingering
lead. She couldn’t distinguish the astonished cheers, and jeers, of the
crowd watching from bleachers and chairs on the banks of the lake. It was all
suppressed by unmitigated focus. All that mattered in the world was that lane
two on her left was back within a half-length and closing with each stroke,
and lane four on her right was charging them both. Even the other three men
were coming on.
Power ten! Adel commanded her soul at the two-fifty mark, momentarily holding
off the horde. Pain exploded in her quadriceps. Her abs and hips seized up,
hurting like an eight-cylinder motor running without oil. Even her powerful
forearms and shoulders wanted to fail her now—but she wouldn’t
She saw the rower in lane two take it up—increasing his stroke rate—then
lane four. They’re coming at me! she thought. The men are coming. The
men are coming! Lane two moved on her again with one fantastic stroke. He’s
within a quarter length! Gaining momentum! Lane four—within a half-length!
No pain!" Adel uttered. It wasn’t a scream. It wasn’t directed.
It was the sound of unadulterated intent to compete, as though that was her
single purpose in life. Her body transformed into sheer will power. Something
visceral overtook her soul, and through force of mind alone she hung on, willing
her boat forward through a murky gel of extreme pain.
Lane two—pulling even! Lane four—right behind! Up again!
She stroked with fury, minding nothing but driving force, blocking out the
feverish burn as though by self-induced epidural. Feeling the boat, becoming
the boat, her legs as hard as the carbon fiber hull, she stroked as fast as
human ability allowed, knowing she was almost to the merciful finish. Keep
The race was so close, the line judge could only trigger his horn twice for
the three rowers, and the second sound fell late. The other men followed shortly
after. It was over.
Copyright © Patrick C. Crowell 1995-2004.
All rights reserved. Rev. 3-2