SALISBURY, Conn. — When Norah Smith, a 17-year-old from Sheffield, sits out on the water, she’s usually seated facing a long line of muscular young men. Your job as the helmsman of the collegiate crew at the Berkshire School is to coordinate their movements and keep this elegant boat on course.
On Thursday evening, a different strength is shown with a different crew. Some of the members of this team have been rowing for years; others can count on one hand the number of times they’ve pulled an oar.
They are all cancer survivors.
Women Enduring Cancer Row began in 2002 as a collaboration with the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute to advance the physical and mental well-being of cancer survivors. Two years later, a western Massachusetts chapter was formed, meeting weekly at Twin Lakes in Salisbury, Connecticut, less than a mile south of the Massachusetts line.
Group nickname: “We Can Row”.
Consistency is essential for a competitive crew team, but coordination is just as, if not more, important to keep the boat stable. Smith’s competitive varsity crew experience at The Berkshire School comes in handy as she teaches women from diverse backgrounds how to move as a unit.
We Can Row recognizes this lack of consistency and follows a principle known as “One Common Thread”.
“All kinds of women from all kinds of backgrounds and ages. They come together with a common thread…cancer. What holds them together is the power they all have to rise above it and row strong,” wrote Jane Lloyd, one of the programmers.
With We Can Row, Smith enjoys new aspects of the sport, focusing less on speed and more on the camaraderie the group is known for.
“It’s great! I have eight new grandmothers,” she said, laughing.
Donna Di Martino has been there from the start, addicted to the magic of Salisbury’s Twin Lakes and the Sisterhood of the Oar.
“When Norah first came out on the lake with us, there was a heron. It turns out her grandmother named her after beloved herons. I told her, “Well, it looks like your grandma is here with us!” said DiMartino.
Once on the water, each team member must have a laser-like focus on the crew member in front of you.
Not far from the shell, on another boat, trainer Anne Kelley explains its importance. “The boats are very sensitive. A trainer once said to me, “You turn your head, that’s 10 or 15 pounds [off balance].'”
When the sun goes down, it’s time to put the bowl back in the shed. Smith shouts orders.
“Up and up. Get ready!”
And at the same time the rowers raise the shell over their heads and march to the shed.
Sicily Hajek, one of the group’s veterans, is sitting out this part because she only had surgery a few months ago. She said her knees don’t hurt when she’s in the “rowing groove.” Once out of the water, it’s a different story. “But I’m not letting that stop me from getting a good workout.”
After practice, the group asks Smith how her college applications are going. Smith discusses her plans to continue competitive rowing in college.
“You crack the Olympics, the eight grandmothers who are still here will go with you,” said Di Martino.
The team is no stranger to winning medals of their own. Members have competed in events associated with the World Indoor Rowing Championships.
“There was no competition in our age group,” said Valerie Becker. But that didn’t dampen the excitement. One rower, she said, “walked up and down the streets of Boston telling everyone she had a medal.”
It’s about celebrating every single win. “We know that life is short. Grab the best of it,” Di Martino said.