It came from a man who had been rowing in a gig boat near my quad on the Wannsee. I’d never talked to this person before in my life; he had no idea I’m an American who doesn’t understand much German. After our row I was standing on the dock, holding the quad with my foot in a rigger so it wouldn’t float away, waiting while the other women I’d just rowed with put away our oars.
This tall, greying man came over and tapped me on the shoulder to get my attention. Turns out that when we passed his boat on the water, he’d watched our women’s quad with interest, the boat I’d been stroking. He said something that included the words boat, stroke, you, your finish, the others followed, ahhh, so beautiful, and he got a dreamy look on his face as he imitated my stroke. He showed me as clearly as a coach’s video footage how I have a slight linger at the finish before the recovery.
And in that moment a pang of recognition passed through me; I saw why the women I row with keep urging me, “Schnelle Hände, Jill—quick hands at the finish!,” because they like a snappy finish at the very place I linger. Yet here was someone grateful for what I did, and I watched as he held his head slightly back, his eyes half closed, and he had a gentle smile on his face as he showed me my stroke.
Amazed that anyone should notice such a thing and would take the time to go out of his way and say something to me, I said Danke, danke schön, and maybe danke again; I decided not to admit that I didn’t quite catch that, resisted the urge to ask him to repeat it, maybe in English so I could fully savor it, because most older Germans prefer not to be put on the spot in English, in my experience. So instead I drank in the look on his face and the way he expressed his admiration for the sight of us rowing by, smiled and accepted it as the gift that it was, an unsolicited compliment from a rower who’s been around the lake a few times, and I did what anyone would do; I glowed with appreciation.
And he walked on to tend to his boat, and my quad mates joined me to carry our boat up the hill, and we set our boat down in slings and hosed it off. And as the others rubbed the hull dry with towels, Carole, our bow who normally strokes, who should have been in the ’72, ’76, and ’80 Olympics but whose dreams were thwarted three times by scratched boats, bad luck, and boycotts, took me aside and in her accented English chided me, “Jill, you did a nice job, but you are still not moving your hands away fast enough at the finish. I don’t know why, but you have a little pause, and you need to move your hands away faster.”
There it was again; the refrain of my Berlin rowing stint: Schnelle Hände, Jill! And though this negated what the old man had just said, though this was in effect a request to undo the very thing I’d done to make the old man wax poetic, I did the only thing I could do; I smiled and said, “Danke, Carole! I will try, next time, I will try.”