I will forever associate Olympic rowing with profound romantic rejection.
In August 2004, when I was 25, I had been dating a woman on and off for six months. I liked her a lot—she was smart, artistic, independent. Well, more than independent; she was completely elusive. Yet I operate like most humans: When something is just out of my reach, I want it more.
Not only was she still getting over a long-term ex-boyfriend but she was also pining away for another man who was out of the country. She had briefly dated him before his departure, though she feared he was through with her.
And this was no mere man.
“He’s brilliant and the sweetest person in the world and an Olympic athlete,” she said.
He was a rower for the Serbia and Montenegro team in that summer’s games in Athens, and though any Olympian rival would have probably intimidated me in some respects, had he been, say, a shot-putter, I might not have cared as much. But rowers are perfectly disciplined and conditioned athletes, and often unusually smart as well, I anxiously explained to a friend.
“OK, ‘brilliant’—I mean, you’re smart, too,” my friend told me. “And ‘sweet’—you can be sweet!”
“And ‘Olympic athlete,’” she concluded. “Uh...not your thing.”
Nevertheless, I remained optimistic I could win this woman over—or maybe it was just denial. One Saturday night, I went to her apartment in Brooklyn. After a few hours of listening to music over drinks, she told me that she was planning to watch the opening trial crew heat at 2 A.M. Did I want to stay or go home?
I should have anticipated the pain that lay ahead of me. I should have recognized that, very soon, she would cuckold me with late-night sports television, and that it would exceed the pain of being apart from her as she did so. But, again, an unhealthy side of me—the part that savors something only when it’s a hard-fought achievement—won out.
We went to bed, and a few hours later her alarm clock rang. She went into the living room, leaving me alone in her extremely hot bedroom. (Courtesy of the mid-August weather, no air-conditioning, and her flannel sheets.)
I tried to sleep, but it was no use. While writhing in flannel, I had to listen to the sounds of the television in the other room, and to her exuberant reaction. It made a satisfying, if painful, mathematical equation: I longed for her, 15 feet away, as she longed for the Olympian, 5,000 miles away. When, at last, I heard a loud wail of disappointment through the closed door, I felt a surge of Schadenfreude—and vindication.
As she explained upon her return, the Olympian’s crew had finished fourth, lagging behind the third-place team by just two seconds. Only the first three teams advanced automatically to the next round, though the fourth-place teams in the various heats were granted the chance to compete against one another later for the privilege in a race called “repechage.” Still, it was a major disappointment—two lousy seconds in a six-minute race separating them from victory. I tried to conceal my delight at his failure. His team ultimately finished in seventh place, another petty victory for me.
The woman and I had a talk about our quasi-relationship soon after. “Don’t you think the main reason you like me is just because I’m emotionally unavailable?” she asked. I protested, listing all the qualities I liked about her. A few weeks later, though, I wised up and let things between us peter out.
In the winter, I ran into her at a party. She was single; things evidently hadn’t worked out with the Olympian. I found I had lost all interest in her. The time apart had much to do with it, but she’d also astutely defined the source of my original desire.
It was a revelation I would take with me there-after, and if I ever momentarily forgot it, I would think back on that summer. When the rower failed to win his race, it was really I who had lost. I was the stopgap solution, the backup option—the repechage. She liked me enough to casually date me, but not enough to overcome her love for the Olympian. I’d finished two seconds behind him, just out of my reach.
About the Author