Thursday, October 25, 2012

I Could Have Been a Coxswain

I walked around the activities fair before my first year of college at UVA when someone called me over to his table display. “Hey dude, I'm on the club crew team. Are you a first-year?”


“Your small size would make you perfect for our team. You should come by the crew house to talk about it.”

“Thanks, but I can’t row.” Because cancer stole my left hip.

“That’s the thing, you don’t have to be able to row. We could really use you, and you’d be an important part of our team. I think you’d really enjoy it.”

“Sorry man, but no thanks.”

I continued walking, looking at other table displays, and pretending like I was going to participate in something. I visited the crew house a couple times in college just for their great parties.

Years later I visited UVA for a football game, and went out to Buddhist Biker Bar afterward where towering members of the crew team stood near. “They rushed me to be on their team during my first year,” I mentioned to my friend, Bandida. “No clue why—those giants could generate way more power than me.”

“They probably wanted you to be the coxswain—that’s the guy who sits in the front.”

I laughed at the name. “The what?”

“Have you seen The Skulls?”

“Yes, though I had a nonsexual man crush on Paul Walker, not Joshua Jackson.”

“…Well anyway, remember the guy who sat in the front facing the others and yelled at them to row faster? He was the coxswain. The coxswain doesn’t actually row.”

“No way, that could have been me?!” I shouted. “I would have been a perfect coxswain. Damn.” I sulked the rest of the night. I had walked away from crew ten years ago partly because I was painfully shy but mostly because I was afraid of having to mention my cancer and admit it made me incapable. That is one of my life’s few regrets.


My cancerous left ilium was removed on January 10, 2001, and the remaining bone and joint radiated, leaving them deformed and necrotic. I can never run or jump again.

Years after my surgery while at the gym with Zeke I accidentally performed a skip-like motion. My damaged left hip felt fine because the force of landing went through my right side. I smirked at Zeke. “What?” he said smiling.

I turned my attention back to the indoor track we were standing on and skipped away: elevated right, landed right, stepped left, repeated. My feet accelerated and stride grew as wind whooshed across my face. I completed a lap and burst into joyous laughter. After years of dreaming about running, I experienced that same adrenaline rush by tweaking the motion. I later labeled this movement “whipping”—part walk, part skip.

This past Saturday I spoke at a fundraiser celebrating an eight-year-old boy who is finishing up treatment for his second cancer. He currently uses a wheelchair with hopes that high-tech physical therapy will trigger lower leg abilities that will lead to him walking again. His parents teach him that there is nothing he cannot do.

I told the boy and audience Saturday, “After surgery I kept asking my surgeon, ‘When am I going to play tackle football again?’ Because I was unwilling to admit that I was less capable than anyone else, regardless of what was taken from me…But aha! I’m still no less capable than anyone else because of this thing I call ‘whipping.’” I demonstrated my favorite movement and received applause. Like me, the athletic boy can tweak activities so that he can participate. There is nothing he or I cannot do, so long as we open our minds.

Joshua Jackson has put on some lbs since The Skulls, but I’ll stay in top shape in case the opportunity to be a coxswain arises again.
Benjamin Rubenstein uses a rowing machine