• Caroline Olsen

Pulling Through the Burn

It was a hot and humid day in August when I decided to try out for the rowing team. That afternoon, I walked around the Activities Fair on Duke’s East Campus frantically signing up for club teams. I had to remind myself, again and again, that it was okay to just be a student. But there was something about it that made me uneasy.

"Without a team behind me, I felt disoriented navigating this new space."

Sports have been central to my life since I first picked up a Fisher-Price basketball. Playing is what has always brought me home. It’s when I feel at my most creative, connected, and authentic. Without a team behind me, I felt disoriented navigating this new space. I was standing at the club squash table – probably trying to remember what squash was – when out of nowhere, I felt a series of sharp bites at my ankles. I looked down, and my feet were covered in red ants. Before I could really process things, I had chucked my sandals and taken off sprinting on the hot pavement, far, far away from club sports. I landed in front of the varsity rowing table. For so long, I had chased the dream of being a collegiate athlete, and there I stood, in front of my heroes, scratching my feet and sweating profusely. While I highly doubt the ants were invested in my extracurriculars, it didn’t feel entirely coincidental. I wasn’t finished being an athlete.


I had never done an endurance sport before rowing. In high school, I played basketball, water polo, soccer, and lacrosse. In my first week of tryouts, I sat on an erg (a rowing machine), pulled as hard as I could, and nearly fell from my seat. My time would flash on the monitor, and I looked into it like a mirror. It was one of the first times as an athlete that I’d been confronted by my weaknesses so objectively and directly. On the water, I struggled as well. The rowing motion should be innately unifying, but when you’re a novice, it can feel completely isolating. Often, I felt like the one person out of sync. Every stroke separated me further from the rest of the boat. I convinced myself that I was the reason my teammates said the boat was unset or didn’t feel as fast as it did the day before. Though I tried not to overthink it, part of me felt that I didn’t belong. I was the freshman of the freshmen.

"Blisters show that you pull hard for your teammates, even when it hurts. Calluses show that you’ve been doing that for a while."

After a few weeks of rowing, my hands were almost unrecognizable. Gripping a rubber handle for hours a day left them split, callused, bloodied, and raw. But I took pride in my hands, as strange as it sounds. To me, blisters were a sign of a good teammate. There was an unspoken resilience to having them. Blisters show that you pull hard for your teammates, even when it hurts. Calluses show that you’ve been doing that for a while. Though showers would sting, and my fingers throbbed holding a pen, I never wanted my teammates to question my commitment or grit.


During that first semester at Duke – as I was getting settled – I got a call from my dad in northern California. He told me that our whole county was on fire. The news flashed with drone footage from the night as the fire jumped the freeway and set familiar neighborhoods ablaze. From across the country, I watched my high school and other cherished places burn to the ground while my family gathered what they could and evacuated our home. Chimneys stood like tombstones and cars melted into sidewalks. The following morning, I remember riding the bus to practice and looking at the fire map. I zoomed into the fire’s perimeter until the map’s details were indiscernible. Home, as I knew it, was one gust away from being lost forever. I kept hoping someone on the team might know, so I wouldn’t have to explain. That morning on the water, I held in my anxieties and pulled. I was hurting, deeply.

Caroline's High School 10/9/17

Caroline's High School 10/9/17 (Photocredit: ThePressDemocrat)


In rowing, I’ve noticed there are two types of pain. I’ll call them ‘alone pain’ and ‘boat pain.’ In a 2000-meter race, you experience both.


Off the starting line, it’s a sprint. Within the first minute of racing, every major muscle in your body is burning. A Yale rower described it as feeling something like a vacuum cleaner hose stuck down your throat while having sulfuric acid splashed on your legs. It’s nearly impossible to pinpoint your discomfort, but you wouldn’t want to. Somewhere between the 1000- and 1200-meter mark, your mind begins to separate you from the boat. You remember that no one’s helping you up and down the slide. No one’s pulling the oar for you. You’re isolated with your thoughts, left trying to breathe through your own anxieties. This is all on you and you’re getting tired. You notice the dryness in your mouth and the blister forming at the edge of your palm. The entire weight of the boat bends your oar.


That’s alone pain.


But all you can do is what the girl in front of you is doing. Why? Because for a million reasons, it’s not easy for her either. Up and down the slide, back the blade in and pull. It’s not just your choice – it’s her choice, it’s their choice, it’s our choice. You feel the strength of each stroke and the resilience of each person behind it. Alone pain, together.


That’s boat pain.


And when you finally cross that line, you feel an overwhelming sense of pride and connection through every ache, burn, and sting. You realize that even during your darkest moments, you were never as isolated as you believed yourself to be.

"There’s a lot we can pull through when we’re pulling together."

I spent most of my freshmen year worried about pulling my own weight. I didn’t want my inexperience to hold back the team. Through my teammates, I’ve come to understand and value the sport differently. We all bring some sort of alone pain to the boat, and with that, comes strength. Recognizing it in myself has helped me recognize it in others. I trust that I’m at my strongest when I’m pulling for somebody else – whether that’s family back home or the girl right in front of me. There’s a lot we can pull through when we’re pulling together.


Walking on to the rowing team was not a spontaneous decision. It has been intentional through and through. Every morning, I wake up before sunrise and I own my decision. Then I make it again the next day. This year, I have the honor of serving my team as one of four captains. It is an immense responsibility, particularly during the pandemic. I am deeply and relentlessly committed to becoming stronger for my teammates, past and present. They’ve shown me love long before I knew what it meant to really pull for something. To pull for the ones I love has been and will always be the greatest privilege.


- Caroline Olsen



(Photo Credits: DukeAthletics and Caroline Olsen)

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