Off the Clock: Susan Lawrence Rows Her Boat

Posted: August 25, 2009 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: August 25, 2009 at 8:26 am

By Art Taylor

Susan Lawrence, third from top, rows competitively in her free time. Image courtesy of Susan Lawrence

Susan Lawrence, third from top, rows competitively in her free time. Image courtesy of Sport Graphics

When assistant professor of English Susan Lawrence moved from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh to Mason three years ago, the first thing she did — even before she began unpacking — was join the Occoquan Boat Club. Lawrence, who rowed competitively while in graduate school at Carnegie Mellon, would come to the Occoquan for races at least twice a year.

“It’s beautiful water,” says Lawrence. “All my rowing friends envied me for moving here.”

Lawrence lived in D.C. after her undergraduate years and learned to row on the Potomac River. She had been interested in sailing, but when the people with whom she sailed sold their boat, she turned to rowing.

“I learned to row very badly,” she says. “I just tootled up and down the Potomac for a few years.”

But it seems her tootling paid off. By the time she reached Pittsburgh, she was good enough to compete against younger students to earn her seat in Carnegie Mellon’s women’s varsity four. Beyond school, she joined Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Rowing Association masters team.

These days, Lawrence rows in shells ranging from a single to an eight. Through the Occoquan Boat Club, she sculls (rowing with two oars) solo and in doubles and quads. On the masters women’s team at the Prince William Rowing Club, she sweeps (one oar) in crews of four and eight, competing at such well-known races as the Head of the Charles and USRowing Masters Nationals.

“Rowing in the single can be serene and contemplative, but it takes a fair amount of concentration,” says Lawrence, who sometimes takes a shell out alone on summer mornings.

“Singles are very narrow, very tippy. So it’s not a morning workout where you can think through the day ahead. You’re concentrating on some aspect of form on every stroke. But mornings on the reservoir are gorgeous — you see herons, eagles, deer — so when you get back to the dock, it does feel meditative.”

Rowing sweeps requires the same concentration on form.

“You’re always trying to find that speed that comes from working as hard as you can with everyone moving as one so you achieve a level of grace that feels like flight,” says Lawrence.

The Prince William Rowing Club trains three times a week during the heat of the season, with 1,000-meter sprint races in the summer and 5K “head” races in the fall.

Racing has introduced Lawrence to a new side of herself — a mean kind of competitiveness, where she says you want to call out something to fluster the crew next to you.

“I remember at Carnegie Mellon when we realized we had a fast four, Duquesne wanted to scrimmage us, and I got really angry, I mean furious that they even thought they could keep up with us. Where did this person come from? That’s someone I don’t make known outside the race course.”

But if rowing has brought out her competitive nature, the coaching she’s received has given her perspective on her own teaching.

“A good coach will look for multiple ways to help you understand a change you need to make,” she says.

“They might try one approach and if it doesn’t work, they’ll look for another way, another language to explain the motion, to help you feel it from the inside out. A good coach enables you to think critically about your stroke, how it moves the boat through the water.

“As a teacher, if I’m trying to get students to try something new in their writing, I try to be attuned to whether the language I’m using helps them understand, or whether I need to come at it with a different language, from a different direction.”

As for Lawrence’s own writing, well, that’s one place where her professional life and her personal life simply haven’t meshed.

“I’ve occasionally tried to write about rowing with absolutely no success,” she says. “In fact, I’ve never read any creative account of rowing that comes close to getting at the experience. It seems to have an elusive poetics!”

This article originally appeared in a slightly different form in the English Department newsletter Not Just Letters.

Write to gazette at