Amazing Women Masters Rower:
Ellen Kandell

Rowing is the Silver Lining in my Breast Cancer Cloud

Growing up before Title IX there was little opportunity for girls to participate in sports, let alone excel and compete. The most athletic girls were chosen as team captains and then in front of the entire gym class, all clad in one-piece cotton snap up gym suits, they selected their teams, often based on qualities like popularity and size. Being small I was usually one of the last selected. It was the track unit in gym that made me realize I could be good at a sport and I accomplished the unit goal of one mile around the track on the first day. Running sustained me for many years until my joints started talking back to me.

Living in Philadelphia turned me onto the idea of rowing. I tried it briefly but had little training and quickly capsized the boat. It wasn’t until I had the distinction of being a breast cancer survivor and was invited to a learn to row weekend for survivors on the Anacostia River in Washington, DC, that I began my journey as an athlete. First, I had to learn the language—port, starboard, ratio, catch, release, finish, and the components of the stroke. Next, I had to adjust my inner clock to waking at 4:30 a.m. Then, I had to toughen my mind to endure rowing when the cool or wet weather and the choppy water threw challenges at me. Could I do this? Was I strong enough?

Less than one year after the learn to row weekend I joined the Potomac Boat Club Women’s Masters Team. My first team sport…at age 54!! I love being part of the team, learning to row in unison, matching my body movements to the woman in front of me. I love the rhythm, the discipline, the sunrise. I love the hard work outs and seeing my erg scores and times improve and my fitness soar. I love the excitement of the regattas, especially beating a boat with younger women. I wonder what it would have been like if I had had the opportunity to compete on a team as a youngster, but I’m thankful that cancer gave me the chance to be part of team of dedicated women athletes.

Over the year that team got more and more competitive and it began to feel like high school gym class which was no fun. One coach gave me some sage advice, “Ellen”, he said,“you need more time on the water and you need to learn how to scull”. So I took sculling lessons from Cindy Cole, who runs Washington Rowing School and became confident and competent rowing a single. I love Zen like feeling when you get into the rhythm of the stroke and the sound of the oarlocks as you square up. But I also continue to enjoy being part of the sweep teams for WeCanRowDC and Washington Rowing School.

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