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Drawn to the Rhythm: A Passionate Life Reclaimed

Drawn to the Rhythm: A Passionate Life Reclaimed

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by Sara Hall

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The inspiring story of one woman's journey of healing and transformation.
Sara Hall's life seemed perfect: a wealthy husband, a big house in an affluent suburb, three healthy children. But the surface of Hall's life hid a marriage filled with sorrow and pain. One day, at age forty-two, Hall sees a lone figure rowing in the harbor, and that image becomes her


The inspiring story of one woman's journey of healing and transformation.
Sara Hall's life seemed perfect: a wealthy husband, a big house in an affluent suburb, three healthy children. But the surface of Hall's life hid a marriage filled with sorrow and pain. One day, at age forty-two, Hall sees a lone figure rowing in the harbor, and that image becomes her holy grail.
In this richly layered memoir, the author tells how her determination to master rowing a single shell gave her the courage to free herself from the dark forces of abuse in her childhood and the failure of her marriage. In lyrical prose, Hall describes the rigors of rowing, the elation of winning, the joy of total engagement in passionate enterprise, and the triumph of breaking free. Ultimately, she declares sovereignty over her life and wins a world championship gold medal. Drawn to the Rhythm is a brave and soulful book, written for all women who seek to find their strength and voice.

Editorial Reviews

“A deep book filled with insight and encouragement.”
Publishers Weekly
"There is no greater terror or joy than to take the whole sum of who you are and express it in four minutes," writes Hall of racing a single-shell boat. In spring of 1995 Hall, a Long Island housewife with three children, experienced an epiphany when she observed a single shell moving on the water through the window of her car. This elegant and moving memoir recounts how she simultaneously fell in love with rowing and began moving away from a suffocating marriage wherein she was relentlessly belittled. Initially rowing before dawn in order to meet her husband's demands that she be available when he and their children awoke, Hall's love and talent for the sport caused her submissive attitude to wane. Offering lyrical descriptions of rowing, Hall details how she competed in and won master events (she is the 1998 World Masters Champion in the women's single shell). As she gained the approbation of fellow rowers, and her children (although not her husband) expressed pride in her ability, she discovered parts of herself previously hidden beneath the facade of dutiful wife. A move to Boston, because of her husband's job, led her to part-time work with a racing shell company and close contact with a rowing community. When Hall told her husband she was divorcing him, he launched a legal and emotional campaign of intimidation to dissuade her; she eventually moved out. Hall now shares child custody with her former husband and continues to find joy and freedom in competitive rowing. B&w photos. National radio/TV interviews. (Feb.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The 1998 World Masters champion in the women's single shell tells how rowing changed her life and her family.

Product Details

Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
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5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.80(d)

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Chapter One


That morning in June 1996 when I pushed my tiny borrowed racing shell away from the launch dock for the thousand-meter journey down to the start line, I thought I might faint. The voice shouting encouragement from shore as I took my first strokes downstream was not my mother calling from the knot of swim team moms, a memory from thirty years before, but the reedy voice of my own eleven-year-old daughter, Janie, dressed in pale yellow overalls and a white T-shirt, pigtails flying behind her as she ran through the spectators along the bank of the Hudson in downtown Albany. "Go, Mommy, go get 'em!" The wind blew her little voice to me in gusts. Go, Mommy. I was about to race for the first time in thirty years, the first time since 1966, when I had pulled on my red rubber swim cap, adjusted my black Speedo, and crouched on the block for the start of the fifty-meter butterfly, my face expectant and upturned, a thirteen-year-old girl eager for the gun and the plunge into adolescence. Now, after the currents of adulthood, marriage, and motherhood had carried me thousands of miles from that starting block on the pool's edge, I was finally ready to put myself on the line once again, this time in a racing shell—a woman of almost forty-three with three days of lessons, a year of solitary practice, and a borrowed boat. It was the most frightening thing I'd ever done. Ever.

    Rowing away from the dock that early morning in June, I felt unreal, disembodied. Like eleven years before when they had wheeled me into the operating room to give birth to my first child, Janie, byCaesarian, and I thought, You have no choice, this is going to happen whether you're brave or not, and the obstetrician had said, "You're going to feel a little pinch," which meant, "Now I'm going to stick a long needle into your spine and it's going to hurt like hell" You've chosen this, I told myself, so summon courage, take a deep breath. Race this race.

    I'd first picked up an oar almost exactly a year before. In the winter after that first summer of floundering and thrashing, flipping the boat again and again like every other novice, I discovered that I was more deeply in love with rowing than anything but the sight of my newborns face, and that something long hidden and long waiting in myself was urging—no, demanding—that I race the single shell. It was as if I were suddenly locked onto a course newly discovered but eternally fated for me, like a Greek hero setting out on the journey that will ultimately transform and define him even though he might rather stay home pressing olives. What was I thinking of, I wondered in the months leading to Albany, I who had convinced myself that the small contentments of getting my library books in on time and keeping my roses free of Japanese beetles were reward enough in a life that had become far tighter and smaller than I could bear to recognize?

    With my three lessons, a year of reading all the books on rowing my reference librarian could get me from the New York State interlibrary loan system, and a season of earnestly hacking at the water of my home harbor, my skill and balance were still marginal: for me, a good workout was one in which I didn't capsize or run broadside into a moored fishing boat. Yet I was planning to race a twenty-seven-foot, ten-inch-wide boat up a swollen river littered with half-submerged logs and old tires, threading my way past safety buoys marking a course between a pair of massive railroad pylons. Where was the ancient robed chorus telling me: "Go back! Go back before it's too late"?

    As I rowed to the start and began to feel the ticking of minutes and seconds accelerating toward the moment in which I would sit in that fragile boat on the line, I told myself that the task was to stay upright and cross the finish. That's it. Beating someone was, if not the last thing on my mind, at least far down on the list. Higher was fear of the infamous physical pain of racing a shell and a nagging conviction that if I'd never been brave enough to stand up for myself at home, how could I have what it took to go the distance on a race course.

    And there were other very real worries: muscle failure at fifteen hundred meters from maintaining a death hold on the oar handles; broken bones and boat damage from rowing full-steam into a monumentally unyielding stone bridge abutment; or, finally, "catching a crab," the term for feathering an oar too soon, flipping the boat, and catapulting the rower into icy waters.

    When I look back, I remember with an ache how ardent, earnest, and frighteningly incompetent I was in Albany.

    The day before the race, Janie and I drove down to the boathouse on Lloyd Harbor, Long Island, and loaded S4, the sturdy fiberglass, club-owned boat which was my daily companion, on top of our faded blue station wagon. We strapped down the old-fashioned macon oars with blue bungee cords, and taped a red bandana as tail flag on S4's tapered stern. When the moment came an hour later to kiss the baby and eight-year-old goodbye, I felt like a woman in the first stages of labor, wanting to cry, No, this is too frightening, there's too much risk, I want everything to stay as it is. But Janie, who was excited about her new responsibilities as my support crew, had a firm grip.

    "Okay, Mommy," she said as we stood next to the car in the driveway of our suburban house on Long Island. "I've got enough Diet Coke and Janet Jackson tapes for about three hours. And I've got my retainer and my overnight bag." I looked at her overnight bag. It was pink and had a picture of ballet slippers on the front. "You have all your stuff, Mom? Your racing shirt, the tape for your knees?" I did. So I gave the baby-sitter the emergency numbers one last time, then we were off: past the library, past the elementary school, past the mouth of our safe little harbor.

    Just past the New Hyde Park exit on the Long Island Expressway, when we had been underway about twenty minutes, I burst into tears. It seemed I had waited for this moment since standing on the starting block on the edge of the pool Adolescence and adulthood had been a confusion of sorrow and self-doubt, yet here I was, finally, my red tail flag flying, my bow jauntily plowing through the humid June afternoon. Janie opened a can of Cherry Coke, handed it to me, and put on a tape. We opened the windows and sang at the top of our lungs. Silly things—old Beatles, Janet Jackson. We sang and sang, laughed and laughed, lost our way past the George Washington Bridge and decided to cut from the Palisades Parkway to the New York Thruway on a two-lane road.

    Suddenly we found ourselves in a quiet, luminously verdant forest in the New Jersey countryside. The two-lane road we chose led us winding up steep hillsides and down into misted green vales, a mythic landscape suspended between city and highway. Janie and I fell silent with the mystery of it, S4 still tracing its course over our heads. It was like a dream, as if we had been blessed by the Good Witch of the East and were following a yellow brick road to some long-sought home of the heart, a path sometimes placid, sometimes frightening, sometimes ethereally beautiful.

    Then suddenly there was the thruway—the toll booths, the crowded rest stops with their Cinnabon shops and McDonald's. We stopped to come to terms with all that Cherry Coke. When we got back on the highway, we decided Janie's job was to watch for tour buses and tractor trailers bearing down from behind. With grilles high enough to hit the nearly invisible stern of our tiny boat, a careless bus could end our trip before I ever got a chance to throw up at the start line. Janie was to yell, "Move it, Mommy!" if a truck threatened S4, and I was to switch lanes, carefully of course, to get the boat out of harm's way. My young crew tenderly and cheerfully cared for both sculler and boat mile after mile up the Hudson. I think she welcomed the temporary reversal in roles. Then we got lost in Albany.

    By the time we saw the day's last glow glinting off the buildings of Albany, it was almost eight o'clock. I missed the exit for the regatta venue, doubled back, and missed it again. Finally we saw a truck towing a trailerful of eight-man shells, and followed it. Sure enough, it led us off the freeway, wound around until it pulled up under an overpass. We had arrived.

    I'd never seen so many boats in one place. Trailers and vans from St. Paul's, Exeter, and community rowing programs from across the Northeast, and cars of every size with boat racks—some jury-rigged and homemade, some sleek aluminum—had all followed a well-worn path from regatta to regatta. There were scores of rowers of all ages, laughing and tossing wrenches to one another as they applied riggers to hulls, swearing at the rigger nuts that jumped out of their hands and found the nearest deep crack in the tarmac; everywhere were wrenches, seats, shoes, sweatshirts thrown carelessly over piles of duffels and mounds of equipment. Everyone knew someone. They greeted each other, comparing notes on the trip and talking about the last regatta.

    Well, I knew Jeff Schaeffer, my one friend from the rowing club at home, but he wasn't there, and I knew Mary, the regatta secretary, from my last-minute phone call asking for directions, but she wasn't there either. So I looked for someone in charge and found Scott, a coach in the local community rowing program. Scott knew the ropes. "Just put your boat over there," he said, "and make sure you leave plenty of time in the morning to make the meeting and get your bow number." Then he noticed that my bow had no clip for the plastic card that allows race officials to identify the boats on the course. "Looks like this boat has never been raced." If I'd known more, I would have said that at thirty-eight pounds, it was never meant to be. "Grab me in the morning and we can put your number on with duct tape."

    I saw the temporary launch docks, inflated black plastic squares linked into a grid, and thought I was going to be sick. Vaguely I heard Scott saying, "You'll launch from there, then cross the course when the officials tell you it's clear. After that, row way down by those willows, see down there? That's where the two thousand meters start. After they get you going, you have to keep an eye out for that railroad bridge where it gets a little tricky. The course turns there, and you need to line up for the turn, and for your new course. Can't see the finish from here, but you'll know you're there when you see the big orange buoys. You'll be fine" I wouldn't be fine. I would flip at the start or crash into the bridge or die of a heart attack. Scott waved goodbye and turned away. Then he turned back. "Don't worry, I'm going to be in one of the chase boats and I'll make sure you stay on course. Watch for me."

    Janie and I took S4 off the top of the car, tucked it in on its borrowed slings for the night, making sure the oars were securely stowed under the hull. It was almost eight-thirty, twelve hours before race time.

    We found a grocery store and bought sandwiches for dinner, then followed Mary's directions to the motel in downtown Albany. Night had fallen when we pulled into the empty lot. We parked under the green glow of fluorescent lights, startling ourselves with the echo of the car doors in the chill air. My little overnight bag felt insubstantial; I felt insubstantial. We checked in and found our room, ridiculously elated by our own key, our door, our bathroom, as if we had never been in a hotel before. We loved our little Camay soaps and Prell shampoos, far more thrilling than the French stuff at the Ritz-Carlton where I had been with my husband on business trips. This was our adventure, Janie's and mine. We watched TV and ate our sandwiches. At ten-thirty I switched off the light. Ten hours to go.

    I tossed that night between the stiff motel sheets dreaming of a race, my little girl sleeping fitfully next to me. I dreamed of pain and wild water, of powerful ocean swells rolling down the Hudson, of passing the dark stones of a bridge tower, span impossibly high and arching over my tiny craft. In my dream I was a grown woman, and I was a little girl. In my dream there was no turning back. I woke. If I could survive the waves and the pain—eight excruciating minutes—if I could pass through the bridge and cross the finish, some part of me knew I would never be the same.

    It was time.

    Mercifully the air was still, the water flat when we arrived at the river. No whitecaps this morning. I found Jeff tightening down the riggers of his blue Van Dusen single. He was wearing stretched-out Lycra rowing shorts and a Cambridge Boat Club racing jersey. "Watch out for this woman from New Hampshire," he said. "She's state champion and she's pretty good. I think she'll give you some trouble." Jeff was quite cheerful, clearly feeling that he was giving me encouraging and useful race information. Give me some trouble? I expected trouble from everyone and everything. The New Hampshire state champion was the least of my challenges.

    I checked out the situation. Everyone had an official racing outfit, a stretchy one-piece suit that looked aerodynamic and showed the rippling muscles of the wearer. Mine consisted of the shorts and T-shirt I used to wear to my daily aerobics class at the Presbyterian church in Locust Valley, plus a Sagamore Rowing Association jersey—sized men's extra large because that was all the club secretary had in the wadded-up plastic bag pulled from the recesses of his trunk. I had tucked the jersey into my shorts to keep the tail of it from becoming entangled in the little wheels under my rolling seat (a not uncommon occurrence that quickly brings the boat to a standstill), making for a bulk that was clearly not at all aerodynamic.

    And then there were the boats. The single shells I saw were exquisitely beautiful. S4 was plucky but outclassed. These were light and stiff, some as light as twenty-eight pounds, ten pounds lighter than S4. They tapered to almost nothing in bow and stern. All had lightweight track shoes bolted to the footboards to connect rower to hull, unlike S4, which had simple footpads with a velcro strap over the rowers toes to hold the feet in place. These boats were high-modulus carbon, the cutting edge of composite material, though a few were exquisitely wrought of mahogany, stiff and strong, yet with a hull thickness of only a sixteenth of an inch. Step carelessly into such a varnished masterpiece and your foot will crash through, sending a thing of great beauty to the bottom of the river.

     I heard the dockmaster calling my race for launching. "Masters Women to the dock, please." There was the fierce-looking woman from New Hampshire. She had blond, cropped hair and wore a seasoned game face. Lord, I thought, she's just picked up her boat, balanced it on her head, then picked up her oars at the same time. I couldn't even get my boat on my head, and I'd never seen this particular maneuver. Down to the dock she went, her fingers barely touching the boat overhead. The other women in my category, Masters Women, followed suit. In the afternoon I would do the novice race for scullers in their first competitive season, but Masters Women, women over twenty-six years old, were racing this morning. One month shy of forty-three, I was undeniably a Masters Woman, and I would race my race.

    So I slung S4 on one hip as usual and walked to the water, and Janie trailed behind me in her overalls, juggling my oars. I approached the edge of the dock, feeling with my toes for the edge as I had been taught, and set the boat in the water, locking the oars in the oarlocks and securing them. Backward. This was not quite as amateur a mistake as it seemed, though oars secured backward render a boat utterly unrowable. Since that morning I have heard of four or five Olympic- and World-class rowers who have done the same on the morning of the big race, corrected the mistake, then gone on to glory, so I was in good company. The trick is to discover it before pushing off from the dock and making a fool of yourself in front of a crowd. I rotated the oarlocks and snugged down their locking gates once more.


Excerpted from DRAWN TO THE RHYTHM by Sara Hall. Copyright © 2002 by Sara Hall. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Meet the Author

Sara Hall is the 1998 World Masters Champion in the women's single shell. She lives near Boston, Massachusetts, and continues to row competitively.

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Drawn to the Rhythm: A Passionate Life Reclaimed 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I bought this book several years ago, lost it in a flood then had to replace it. It's a compelling read about a woman who finds herself and fixes her life - the catalyst is her newly discovered passion for rowing. It's a little bit "Eat, Pray, Love" meets the story of a championship athlete. This book will especially resonate with anyone who has struggled or is struggling to survive a divorce or a bad relationship and live a full life.
Guest More than 1 year ago
well written and certainly worth reading!
Guest More than 1 year ago
For a model of courage and strength in the face of adversity, this book is a gift. It truly inspires self-trust and self-confidence. We see the author drawing upon her inner resources, depending on herself, and gathering strength, alone. Facing the greatest challenge of her life and succeeding beyond her greatest expectations, she became a champion and gained her freedom at the sam