For the past two winter school breaks, Laura has abandoned frigid Kansas and her husband for fun and sun – along with some work – in the balmy climes of Puerto Rico and then Hawaii. This winter, the swimming and diving teams returned to Puerto Rico with Laura’s suitcase filled with bikinis, shorts, tank tops, light shirts, a few cover ups and not much more.
What is a guy to do? How about jumping on a plane and joining the rowing team for their winter training in Tampa? Since my trip was only a four-day shot compared to the ten days Laura spent first in Orlando and then Rincon, Puerto Rico, there was no need for me to pack much more than shorts, shirts and a few bits of warm clothing.
There are facts that will help you understand these trips are more than just laid-back times in paradise. Laura had to endure an earthquake and possible tsunami while eight young women could have been lost at sea in a boat with me. Oh, the horrors.
Let me start with Laura. In the early morning of January 13th, the team’s first in Rincon, a 6.4-magnitude quake struck just after midnight about 35 miles north of Puerto Rico, at a depth of 17 miles. Eventually, Laura’s bed began to roll with the quake’s tremors waking her from her sleep.
The Aquaphotog, as I call Laura for her academic and photographic work with KU’s water sports, rolled and swayed right along with her hotel room as she watched in amazement from her balcony. The quake fell just below the 6.5-magnitude mark requiring a mandatory tsunami alert and rapid evacuation trip into the hills for safety.
As for this old man and the sea, novice rowing coach Jen Myers surprised me on my final day of shooting with the offer to let me row in one of the boats. Naturally, I immediately accepted. The beauty and fluidity of a rowing boat in motion always fascinates. Maybe it is because I possess neither. I have studied the stroke while taking photographs and played some on a winter staple of training – an indoor trainer. Yet, I knew neither properly prepared me for the likely embarrassment awaiting me in the presence of women that could share tales with my wife.
As the novice crews stroked to the conclusion of their morning workout, Myers seemed to have forgotten about her offer. I easily could have just continued in the coach’s chase boat not saying a word, but that just would not be me. I spoke up about my interest and almost immediately the boats stopped. I carefully crawled into the boat being sure my feet did not plunge through the bottom of the thin carbon fiber shell. Seated in the fifth seat of the boat, I cinched into the attached rowing shoes and took hold of the oar.
Over the years, I have sat in the coxswain’s seat taking photographs of rowers as the boat cruised along the Kansas River. I have stood in a boat doing the same with what is the gift of good balance. I have mounted remote cameras all over boats, but never have I sat with the oar handle in my hands getting ready to row.
Myers went through some very basic instructions focused on what it feels like to properly place the oar in the water on the catch with my body coiled ready to drive with my legs and let my arms follow. That I knew from my time on a rowing machine.
What I did not know is that although the oar locks in to prevent it from popping up and out, the oar is free to move back and forth in that lock. Here is where I quickly learned how much any tension can ruin a good stroke. From the follow boat, I could hear Myers calling out to me through her bull horn to relax my grip on the oar and to let the stroke flow.
I loved that Myers was yelling out to me just as she does with so many novice rowers every year. These women almost all come to KU with no background in rowing. It is up to Myers to find students interested in rowing, teach them how to row and then row well. No wonder Myers told me earlier that day that she goes through batteries in her bullhorn faster than all the other coaches combined.
Freshman Kat Young sat in front of me in the sixth seat. Her twitter account’s information states, “Living proof that band geeks and six packs can be a package deal.” The six packs she is talking about are her abs hardened from the rowing regimen while she pursues a degree in music as a gifted French horn player.
Happily there were moments that I meshed with Young and my raw stroke fit in with the rowers who earlier in the year felt just like I did in Tampa, but now could move a boat at remarkable speed. That feeling was exhilarating proving why rowing remains one of the longest running athletic team events in the world.
Then there were the times my recovery quickened and I fell out of rhythm with the other rowers. From the chase boat, Carly Iverson, the rower I unseated, photographed my efforts including the time I shamefully smacked my oar into the oar of the rower behind me.
What I wanted more than anything was to row with some semblance of skill to the dock. I relaxed my hands as Myers urged and suddenly the oar remained where it should, keeping me from coming up short on my catch and stroking more air than water. Before I knew it, we cruised up to the dock leaving me wishing for more time in a boat.
The reviews immediately after, and since to Laura, have been generally good. I finished my rowing with something I knew I had to do or be viewed as an interloper forever. I helped hoist the boat up out of the water, rested it on my shoulder and with the young women carried the boat to the racks sitting in an expansive lawn area along with the boats of many other universities that regularly make Tampa their winter break training home.
Not to be outdone, Laura soon found herself standing on the starting block in Puerto Rico, ready to start her leg of a relay composed of swimming staff members pitted against three teams of swimmers and one team of divers. On Laura’s long list of athletic accomplishments, swimming is not ranked near the top. Something drew her to the pool this year though.
Every morning, Laura would venture down the road from the pool to a nearby track with an overgrown infield. There she found her two friends, Freddie and Marge, waiting on the track for a workout. The couple it turns out were a very amorous pair of good-sized iguanas. Freddie stretched the width of two and a half lanes, so as Laura sprinted her intervals, they all kept a friendly watch on each other. Later in the day, Laura would dive into the pool to do laps with a kick board and flippers, a workout first. Seeing Laura in the water led to other staff members hatching a plan for a relay race after the final day’s workout.
With six members on the staff team, and the option of wearing stubby training flippers, three teams of seven swimmers and one team of five divers lined up at the starting blocks. From the text messages and phone calls I received as the relay start neared, I could tell Laura was dead serious about doing well, but also nervous about her first competitive swim event. I would have expected nothing less.
Sadly, there was no swimming glory for Laura and her teammates. Lost goggles on the starts bookended their efforts. Laura swam the second relay leg in the 50-meter pool as hard as her limited swimming skills allowed, as did the others. At the finish, the staff learned, just as I did rowing, that these talented women were on trips filled with far more training than fun and sun.
Certainly there were portions of the day reserved for the most important part of the trip, tanning time. Laura came home with her best winter tan, with her usually white stomach a nice shade of brown. There was less tanning time in Tampa, as the weather was unusually cool and cloudy for many of the team’s ten days. Yet, a trip to Clearwater Beach and a Tampa Bay Lightning NHL hockey game gave the rowers a break from their boats as did beach fun, including parasailing, for the swimmers and divers.
For the coaches, the most important fun fact of their world is that both teams compiled massive amounts of miles, meters and dives. Rowing coach Rob Catloth informed me the top two varsity boats rowed 211.25 miles. For some perspective it is 218 miles from Lawrence to Hays, Kansas. No wonder hands were heavily taped to cover blisters. Coach Clark Campbell’s swimmers amassed an impressive 45,000 meters, while the coach Brian Pritt’s divers plunged over and over into the water that eventually had to feel more like concrete than water.
Every year that swimming and diving says thank you to Laura for her academic and photographic work by inviting her to join them is a privilege. That was the same feeling for me when asked to join the rowing team. We both see these young women often at work, but to share in something as fun and grueling as one of these trips is a real bonding experience.
In tribute we attach a sampling of the photographs we made in two galleries. We also include some of the two of us proving that we owe our thanks to so many for letting us have some fun along with them.
Special thanks to Carly Iverson for rowing photographs of Jeff Jacobsen and to Tegan Thornberry for photographs of Laura Jacobsen seen at the ends of both galleries.