Sisters in sweat: Tuf As Nails prepares for racing season

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Rowing is like golfing.

Well, it’s like golfing if you had eight identical golfers lined up in a row, using identical club and swings to hit the ball the exact same distance. And then do that exact same thing 200 times in a row.

That is one of rowing veteran Dianne Roberts’ many analogies for the sport that has become a huge part of her life for 17 years now.

“It is the quintessential team sport,” Roberts said. Her fellow teammates, seated around a picnic table at the Northwest Maritime Center, heartily agreed.

Seventeen years into their competitive rowing career, the all-female local rowing team, Tuf As Nails is prepping for another racing season. While they train with daily walks and early-morning sculling drills, one of the most important traits of their team is its ability to move together.

With a group of 16 women with strong personalities, ranging from 31 to 75 years old, it might seem impossible to be in sync. But even though the rambunctious group talks over each other when telling stories of all their past races and adventures, their bond—or sisterhood—helps them be in sync on the water.

“You’re not just joining a rowing team, you’re joining a family,” said Nikki Russell, a newer member of the team.

When they first started, Tuf As Nails was just a group of women who went running together, said Zoe Ann Dudley, another veteran. After trying a learn-to-row program, they decided to form their own team.

They had begun to learn the basics in the the Husky Challenger, a 300-pound eight-seat Pocock shell, when one of their trainers mentioned a race down in San Diego.

“Well, he was being kind of sarcastic,” Roberts said. “Like, ‘You guys are getting good enough to race down in San Diego Crew Classic.’ And we said, ‘We could?’ And we did.”

It is that “can do” attitude that prompted the group of freshly made rowers to head down to San Diego with the Husky Challenger, which desperately needed a few repairs (“That’s when we renamed it the ‘Husky Colander,’” Roberts said. “Gorilla glue was our friend,” added Dudley.) for their very first race.

“It was the first time a wooden shell had been in that race since 1979,” Roberts said. “They put us up on the jumbotron as we were coming in dead last, and the announcer said, ‘Here comes history, ladies and gentlemen.’”

They may have come in last at that race, but they have since upped their game. Not only are they an extremely competitive crew of what they describe as Type A personalities, but they actively work on communication.

“One trainer took us under her wing for a bit but I remember she said ‘You’re never going to last,” Dudley said. “There’s too many of you, there is too much politics involved, too many personalities.”

But that prediction never came true.

How do they do it? Lay it all out on the table, Dudley says.

“There is honesty and a huge sense of trust in this group,” she said. “We don’t walk away from an issue until it is resolved.”

Now they are prepping for the upcoming race, Seventy48, a two-day, 70-mile race from Tacoma to Port Townsend.

For a long distance race, there is a bit more to it than having good communication. Navigation skills are key, said team member Ann Wiltshire, as is good bladder control, joked team member Jana Filli.

In a short race, it takes every bit of muscle and energy the rowers have to propel themselves as fast as possible, Roberts said. In a long race, it takes just the same amount of effort, but for a whole 48 hours.

Still, besides the sweat and soreness, there is an undeniable beauty to rowing that brings each team member out to training in the mornings.

“Every day we get out on the water and someone will inevitably say, ‘We are so lucky,’” Russell said. “There’s a meditation in it. When you’re out there, everything melts away.”

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