Coming home from school one day at age 16, my mom threw me a set of car keys and said, “It’s a stick shift. You have to be at practice in the morning, so I guess you had better take her around the block a few times.” The next thing I know, it’s zero-dark-thirty and I am in third gear in a beater Volvo station wagon rumbling down I-5 heading to crew.

We were the Bad News Bears of high school rowing groups. Every one of us was so completely different from the other on the outside, but we pulled, and pulled together. Every morning we came together in the cold, stomping our feet to stay warm. I appreciated my rowing years for just that — it brought together so many, of different shapes and sizes and backgrounds and interests. But we had an affinity for the water, and a cadence. I miss that camaraderie.

I came to love sculling and eventually found my perfect partner for a powerhouse double. By junior year we were cleaning up at races, and at regionals it became obvious we had a chance at continuing our racing at a collegiate level. Then, at age 17, I woke up one morning and wasn’t able to walk.

The diagnosis was a disintegrated L4 and L5 vertebrae, along with a pinched nerve. Degenerative discs are not a stranger to my family, and this moment in my life made me realize that there is a relationship between trauma and physical manifestation of trauma. I had the option of surgery, but I said no and instead chose a lifelong path of good health, a strong core, and will.

Twenty-plus years later, the rowing community found me again, or vice versa. I took the opportunity to get in a double with my mother, an avid rower to this day; reunited with my high school rowing coach, Lee Kullina; and am building an incredible relationship with Maggie Christopher, a coach with the George Pocock Rowing Foundation.

Coach Maggie and the author on the crew boat.

Maggie has been rowing for over 20 years and is scheduling “experience rowing” sessions through the foundation at the Renton Rowing Center and other various locations. The foundation was formed in 1984, and its mission is that everyone deserves a team. Maggie called me one day after receiving my business card and asked if she could sign up for a private stand-up paddle lesson. We met near her boat, where she resides, and not only paddled, but talked about everything from the SEVENTY48 race to nonprofits and potential BIPOC programs and outreach. Once again, the water brings us together.

I asked Maggie if I could ride along with her in the launch to document a rowing class. We met at the Pocock boathouse at 6:30 a.m., where she began her morning briefing with the sculling class, the next step after the Learn to Row program. Again, I found myself in a boathouse with a group of people from all walks of life coming together to learn something new, taking a chance and challenging themselves. In my element? Yes. It was a pleasant morning, the sun was out and the water feathered … and there was quite a bit of traffic.

There were smiles for days, even when one student actually tipped his shell three times, and every time he clambered back in gingerly, took a few deep breaths and continued on. Now that’s perseverance and growth. We tended to this flock from underneath Seattle’s University Bridge to Gas Works Park and then scooted across the northern tip of Lake Union. We passed back by Pocock under the bridge and into Portage Bay all the way to the Montlake Cut. I love paddling through the cut and reading all the high school and university slogans and fighting words, all in good sport … maybe (wink wink).

After getting through that morning session, we debriefed with the class on the dock, shaking off the less than stellar moments and commenting on everyone’s progress. Then Maggie and I headed to Eastlake Coffee for our own debriefing about how access is key and how we can get rowing into more local communities.

Another gem I’ve found on Lake Union is College Club Seattle. Many people told me to head over there and ask about their stand-up paddle program, and I discovered that the club is a rowing facility that offers so much more. Founded in 1910 as a private men’s club in downtown Seattle, the current club is changing the dialogue. It abandoned the traditional private club model and moved onto two houseboats on the shores of Lake Union. The two houseboats are called the M/V Unity and the M/V Inspiration. Both vessels have three floors, and together they contain 14,745 square feet of space.

I had a very informative and inspiring meeting with Tom Kellett, head coach and boathouse manager. Sitting out on the sunny balcony above the boathouse dock, where kids swarmed about grabbing oars and kicking off shoes, we told each other our stories. I anticipate moments like these, when you open up with people and make connections and relate, or simply listen and learn. I admire what College Club is setting about to do; despite the exclusivity that could be perceived in its name, the club is creating community, offering a gathering space that is centered around healthy lifestyles and appreciating one of the best things the Pacific Northwest has to offer, her waters.

I share many of these same goals, as one of the things my nonprofit SEASTR aims to do is get youth engaged with their environment, to open up the possibilities of doing hard things and maybe having fun while they’re at it. People like Tom are not afraid of adaptivity. The essence of rowing is essential to us. Rowing icon George Popcok summed it up as: “Harmony. Balance. Rhythm.” And we can practice that mantra in all we do. College Club is a rowing club, yes, but it contains a variety of vessels. It is a training facility, but it has inviting spaces so you can slow down and connect with others. It is a club, but a willingness to try new things is the ticket in.

The morning commute at Pocock; rowers coming on and off the water.

I’m writing this on a sunny evening, looking out the window of my apartment in Boston Harbor in South Puget Sound. I yearn to be sailing with those on the horizon, paddling with the seals, rowing on the calm water, surfing with the pelicans, and I know that having the passion for something directly related to my environment allows me to have connectivity. Even alone, as a single, self-employed mom with no office mates and no partner, I am whole.

Rowing gave me a tool. Someone put a paddle in my hand, I dipped it into the water and I flew. Even when life has seemed too tough to imagine not flying away, I know I can touch the sea. I have the skills and the courage to get out on the coldest of days and keep myself warm, to appreciate the Pacific Northwest in her darkest months. Out on the water there is an awesome community, and I mean awesome in the true sense of the word.

When we push ourselves past our comfort zones, we discover things that we would not have otherwise known. And if we continue to do so, we are setting the best example for the next generation. Giving a young person the tools to deal with what may lay ahead is crucial. Giving them the opportunity is my dream, and that can all start on the water.

Erica Lichty is the founder of the non-profit, SEASTR, which was founded to optimize the human/environment connection, using water to engage women in their own process of healing and evolution, making a difference for themselves, their families, and their communities.