The Northern Michigan outdoors is prone to inspiring sportsmen—golfers, fishermen, and sailors alike find themselves impassioned by the stunning landscapes and terrain of the area. Traverse City-born and -inspired rower, Jamie Chapman reflects on life as an athlete and the challenges involved in working to become world class.
She fought her way to the Olympic time trials, but ultimately did not make the team. Traverse Citian Jamie Chapman reflects on the intense training, the emotional outfall, and the hope she finds in seeing rowing teams get started in her hometown.
One week after placing fourth at Olympic Trials, I quit the National Rowing Team.
The night before meeting with my coach, I fell asleep mentally rehearsing my exact three sentences so as not to fill the inevitable silence with emotional babble. We met. I stuck to my script and fumbled anyway. My coach extended his hand and said three words: “Thank you, Jamie,” then nodded as I thanked him once more, blabbering a “Good luck—this sum—at the Olympics,” volume fading as I turned toward the mysterious abyss of My Future.
My younger, idealistic self could not believe what I had just done. During recess kickball games at Eastern Elementary, in Traverse City, I idolized the high school athletes on the adjacent practice fields and dreamed of someday meeting an Olympian, if I was lucky. Now, here I was. I had clawed my way to get an invitation to train with the team and once there, hovered around the bottom of the results sheet. The United States women’s eight rowing team is a dominant international force, having not lost a race since 2005. After four years of tunnel-vision training, I had just quit the opportunity to train with the highest caliber of rowers.
For two weeks afterward, I luxuriated in the spontaneous schedule of nothing—a welcome reprieve from the structured and monastic existence of an elite athlete. I wanted only to sit, be in the shade and quiet, in a non-stimulating environment that was tiring in no way. It felt beyond lame, as a person in superb physical condition, to refuse an activity because it might involve standing.
Every week, the team rowed a benchmark piece on the erg (short for ergometer, a rowing machine). One Wednesday, I crushed mine, rowing far faster than I ever had. My quads retained a burning sensation akin to icy hot for two days afterward. It was a massive personal victory and yet a very private one.
Regardless, that isolated success dumped lighter fluid on my inner fire. I texted my college teammate: “Whoa,” she said. “How do you feel?” I responded frankly and honestly, no clichés: “Like the sky’s the limit.” She wrote back, “It is, bébé.”
Scrawled after meticulous lists of splits, times, conditions, and results, my training journals offer brutally honest insight to the condition of my spirit. Many pages are laced with profanity, days when I cried purely from exhaustion, and moments of hopelessness. But many more pages reflect the powerful and omnipresent dream, encompassed in a poem by my friend Alexi Pappas, herself a 2016 Olympic runner for Greece: “[Row] like a bravey/Sleep like a baby/Dream like crazy/Replace can’t with maybe, lady.”
I started rowing by chance, but I became a rower by choice. My first time in a boat, I did not take a single stroke. Instead I sat in the boat with my pair partner while the other six rowers rowed. The connection with the water and with nature was swift and powerful—incidentally, both assets of a fast crew. Nature is humbling. Sitting aboard a two-foot-wide shell in a body of water, a rower is nothing. The wind will blow, currents will swirl, rain will rain. Only after I was able to maintain an inner Zen regardless of conditions and circumstance—after thousands of strokes spent fighting, losing, succumbing, and finally relaxing—did I deem myself a rower.
I recognize then and now that I was living a dream life of training and sleeping, and eating as much as I could stomach. I would eat a big sandwich only to feel slightly less starving. My go-to second dinner became a batch of brownies from scratch or a giant stack of pancakes. It was a calorie-input game. I had eaten so much, it seemed there was no food left to eat. Nothing was appetizing, but “nothing” did not give me energy.
I had to love the game, because training is not glamorous. It can be a slog. On those days, I took my mind far away so as not to think about the relative absurdity of exercising for the fifth hour that day. During low intensity sessions, I schemed about building a rowing community in Traverse City, a void in the local athletic landscape that was inexplicable to my teammates familiar with the water-loving Northern Michigan culture.
Needless to say, I am very excited that several nascent clubs in the region are riding the wave of increasing interest, among them Traverse Area Community Rowing (TACR) on Boardman Lake and Lake Leelanau Rowing Club (LLRC) on Lake Leelanau. I have been fortunate to work with TACR, meeting lifelong rowers in the area who have donated their time to promote rowing and community involvement in an accessible environment. Their hard work has already benefitted the region via indoor rowing clinics and popular learn-to-row classes for all ages at Hull Park this summer.
Rowing requires a spiritual mindfulness and focus like I’ve never experienced in any other sport. The elusive perfect stroke combines precise neurological, physical, and mental coordination. It is a mixture of aggression and calm, not to mention a killer workout. Rowing is honest and reminds me that I am not special. But for all the pain and challenge of competitive rowing, there is no other feeling like a glimpse of fleeting perfection.
My doubles partner and I sat at the start line of Olympic Trials, itching to unleash our preparation and let the drama of the race unfold. In front of us, an NBC cameraman held a huge camera; on our starboard side sat the favorites and eventual winners, the 2016 Olympians. The other two boats in the final contained my friends and former teammates. Out of the corner of my eye stood my dad on rollerblades, wielding a video camera and the encouragement of my family, friends, and hometown. We raced. We lost, badly.
I used to row up to 40 kilometers a day, and now I row zero. I lifted to loud music in a room full of frighteningly fit, strong, 6-foot-tall women with magazine tear-outs of a victorious Ronda Rousey—mixed martial artist—on the mirror. There is no possible way to replicate that atmosphere.
It wrenches my stomach to think of the handful of phenomenal athletes who are fast enough to compete at the Olympics but did not make the team. In my most dire phone calls home, my parents offered the simple reminder: “If it were easy, everyone would do it.” I am immensely grateful for my experience and for the tremendous support from Traverse City. As the Olympic Creed declares: “[the] most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered, but to have fought well.”
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