It's 7:30 on this early summer morning, chilly, overcast and windy. Four women power their boat through the choppy waters of Emigrant Lake, training for the Klamath Rural Henley. "All four! Sit ready to row! ROW!" calls the coxswain. Four women move in unison, squaring their oars, placing them carefully into the water and pulling together with the full strength of backs, legs, arms, hearts and minds.
One of the rowers is 53-year-old Michelle Pauly, Jackson County deputy district attorney, who by day frequents the courtroom dressed in heels and hose. Outside of these hours, more often than not you'll find her on the lake in Lycra shorts and a ball cap to restrain her flyaway hair. The same focused energy and competitive edge that win convictions in the courtroom now serve her well on the lake.
For the last several years, the Ashland Rowing Club (ARC) has participated in Portland's Row for the Cure Regatta, one of many held all over the world to benefit the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. Today, Row for the Cure is a multi-sport regatta that includes canoe/kayak, dragon boat, and American Indian canoes participating in regattas on both U.S. coasts. While none of the ARC boats won their 2006 race, the club took home the fundraising trophy with more than $12,000 raised to support breast cancer awareness and treatment.
"People were so generous, because everybody knows somebody who's had breast cancer," says Michelle Pauly, who rowed with the club. She reports that nearly all of those funds come back to the Rogue Valley to help low-income women with the cost of mammograms and other breast-cancer related expenses.
For more information on Row for the Cure 2007 and the Ashland Rowing Club, visit www.ashlandrowingclub.org or phone (541) 488-9308.
Michelle lost her dad in January 2006 and found herself in a deep depression. "The death of a loved one is such an incredibly stressful event and I'd never gone through that," she remembers. "I couldn't sleep; I wasn't eating very healthily; I was losing weight."
Southern Oregon fitness trainer and world-class rower Andy Baxter helped get Michelle into shape and out of the dumps. "Anything from Parkinson's, diabetes and dementia, exercise has a positive effect on all of these," Baxter advises. "You can also talk about depression and energy. Exercise does a lot to even things out — it improves your quality of life, sleep, and sex life."
"It's clicked with me because it (rowing) is both a physical and an intellectual challenge," says Michelle. She'd started rowing for fun with the Ashland Rowing Club after reading an article in the February 2004 issue of Joy magazine. "If you're a recreational rower you might start out not in shape and not an athlete and then it changes," admits Michelle. "I think it was an escape, diving into the physical activity; not to focus so much on the grieving."
For Michelle, rowing became a consuming passion to build strength and power, to improve her technique and learn to row effectively and efficiently as part of a team. "What's really been interesting, frustrating — we're all adults, very accomplished people, yet we struggle with this sport even though we throw lots of time and effort in it," Michelle says. "It's quite a good challenge to row, to try and figure out how to get better."
The intense, physical demand of competitive rowing has been a lifesaver for more than a few women, including Tammy Achurra of Ashland. Tammy has rowed for four years, but after surgery and radiation for thyroid cancer last year, qualifying to row competitively has meant recovery. "I have more courage than brains," Tammy says, panting as she pauses her interval training. "I'm determined and I'm going to do it."
Baxter watches as Tammy rows and says, "We take it past the physical. What will get her through it is here (his hand to his heart), and here (pointing to his head), not her legs."
Even so, physical prowess and the power that comes with being an accomplished athlete is a source of pride for many women who row. "I have all these muscles I certainly never had before. It's pretty amazing," laughs Michelle. "It's been fun to become physically strong and push the limits to see how strong I can be." She's a size 8 now — small, lean and tough.
It would be easy to want the medals and accolades of competitive rowing. Somehow though, for Michelle, Tammy and dozens of other women, rowing isn't as much about the finish line; it's more about the journey - to become a better athlete and a stronger person; about enjoying the row.
Back on the water, the cox settles low into the bow and calls out. "Power 20 in two; one, TWO!" The scull surges forward as four women move as one with shoulders back and heads up, eyes straight ahead. Arms lift and reach, oars dip, and legs and back pull. The women are focused and intent, aware of the water, the wind, their boat and their bodies.