A few days ago, Maurizio Ustolin, President of the Italian Rowing Coach Association, invited me to write an article about my rowing. Apparently, a simple request. But then I realised it wasn’t so simple at all.
The penny dropped – he didn’t mean a technical ‘approach’. That would be far too easy. He was looking for a reflection of ‘what’ rowing has meant to me. What it has ‘given me’. Describing this was not going to be straight forward. For me, rowing’s not a ‘memory’, it was and is my life. To talk about only some aspects would be to over-simplify it.
I began rowing in 1963, when I was 17. Convinced by my school friend, Gianpiero Galeazzi, to give it a try, I left basketball and athletics behind. I’d been doing them more out of amusement than for any real passion for them. ‘My’ sport took a forceful hold of my already structured adult life. It started as an ‘add-on’ but over time rowing became everything – even my professional life. But that’s another story. We ‘racing members’ entered the club by the side door, the workman’s entrance. We weren’t allowed to come in through the main entrance. Our areas were solely the ‘side door, stairs, changing room and the river’, where Enzo, the carpenter-caretaker, was always waiting for us – along with Trim, the dog who lived on the landing stage after he adopted us.
When I think back, this was the reason why my relationship with rowing was based around ‘people’ – friends, boats and the water, rather than its ‘structure’. It led me to develop personal links that have lasted more than 55 years and are still here today. In fact, our meeting point was on ‘the water’, not at the ‘club’. And I think this gives it a deeper meaning – it represented a direct connection between us rowers, the boats and the river. I have lasting memories of those times, of every kilometre covered, every stroke, every person I met, with their rituals, superstitions and quips. Gianpiero Galeazzi describes all this in his books far better than I ever could.
How can I describe anecdotes about our coach, Ghiardello? He’d ‘spy on us’ during training outings from behind a newspaper, peering through two holes cut in the sheets of paper, or from behind a moving shrub. Yes, he absolutely did! That shrub was our reference point for the end of a 500-metre piece and every time we’d see it in a different spot. Then we realised – it was him moving it so he could hide behind its leafy branches. Later on, he’d give us his tips despite being a coach at another club. Great characters: Capo Bovo, Malgari, Stefanoni, Trivini (honoured to row with this guy), Santoni and Elio Morille. Just a few of the ‘legends’ I’ve had the pleasure of knowing and calling my friends. ‘My’ rowing has let me feel like time stopped, removing the age gap between generations of rowers. And even today, it still lets me to ‘go out’ in a boat with them, whether champions or young learners. Just by watching them, I feel the same sensations as they do, the same enthusiasm, the same combined effortlessness of a ‘great stroke’, of feeling the ‘wind under your blades’ – our catchphrase from back then.
The heavy feel of a bad stroke, of ‘digging’ into the water, as we’d often say to point out mistakes. I like to remember something my friend Giuseppe Lamanna wrote: “Rowing is much more than a sport, it’s a state of mind. You can be miles from the water yet at the same time feel like you’re on it”. It’s just like that. My rowing was most of all music, rhythm, effortlessness – music! It may seem strange, but even now it’s what I hear and feel when I watch other people rowing. I always quote Lamanna: “boats are not mules. If you shove it too much, it’ll kick you”. How can we forget the master-coach Culot at National collegiate training event, who’d often tell us: “plane en l’air”, meaning ‘glide through the air’. He’d say it every stroke during the recovery – glide through the air – the blade must be like a bird’s wing, plane en l’air, plane en l’air! We understood and we did our best to copy his words, “plen air, plen air”, but it went well all the same. We knew the real meaning behind those words. A rhythm dictated by a voice that got into your head, your heart, your muscles and would never leave you. You’d then transmit it into the boat, like a living thing that resonated through you! It felt amazing! Rhythm, music – and the renowned Italian coach, Rino Galeazzi. Our coach would remind us, even before the strain and effort kicked in, as he shouted: “the oar is not a stick, it’s a violin bow – hold it delicately. The violin is the boat, play it properly.”
Music and rhythm. Again. During outings, after the ritual quips and jokes on the landing stage, there was always immense focus: complete concentration in the boat, on the stroke, the rhythm. There was no time to look at the view. We just listened to our bodies, the run of boat, the sound of the violin. When we were in the boat, our relationship with the rest of the world was bound by the boat, by its ‘run’ and it not ‘dipping’. Even the river or lake became elements of cohesion, part of the entirety where we were rowing. Everything was complementary to the search for the ‘perfect stroke’. My rowing has been and still is my life – it allowed me to build strong friendships even with people who are sadly no longer with us.
I often feel close – despite the distance – to Maurizio Micozzi, Galeazzi, Giampaolo Tailli, Nino Biasi and others. Close to all the friends I’ve rowed with. And with all my students, first and foremost with Claudio Lucisano and Stefano Marini as well as with ‘adversaries’ such as my friend, Fabio Cantoni.
Lifelong friends. Each and every time I meet a ‘rowing partner’, it’s not a simple meeting between people. It’s a fusion of two minds, two emotions, two sensations of living the same moment and with equal intensity. Through the sweat, fatigue – sometimes exhaustion – an ‘encounter’ is created; a magical moment where saying nothing is to say it all, just the same as it is in life. Each individual I have met, each coach, athlete, adversary, every handshake or hug has left its mark, all contributing to make me the man I am today and to my rowing experience. ‘My’ rowing has been fundamental to the course of my life. If I had to do it all over again, I’d do it just the same.