Chariots and Horses – Review

Review: Chariots and Horses: Life Lessons from an Olympic Rower by Jason Dorland

In Chariots and Horses, former Olympian turned rowing coach Jason Dorland tells the story of how he transformed his shattered dream of winning an Olympic gold medal, and the motivational technique of hatred of one’s competitors, into a journey of self-discovery and the creation of a coaching philosophy that successfully challenged the “industry standard” metaphor of sport as a battlefield. It is a deeply personal account of high-performance athletic competition and the long journey to putting that experience in perspective.

Full disclosure: I shared a house with the author and two other rowers in the year that precedes the start of this story. I was a freshman member of the University of Victoria junior varsity crew, carrying the unwarranted label of being an up-and-coming new recruit to this Canadian rowing powerhouse (when the truth was that my first year of collegiate rowing would prove to be the end of a slightly above average rowing career). Dorland was then a truly rising star of the country’s rowing elite, joining the cadre of my rowing heros, who I knew by reputation and second-hand connection through some of his highschool crewmates. In some ways, you learn more about a person sharing a house with them than you do sharing a boat. But in that year preceding the depths of this story – the national teams’ devastating loss in the 1988 Seoul Olympics – my memory of this athlete centres on his focus and determination to row for his country, while none of the demons that underscored the intense competitiveness he describes in this book were frankly much in evidence in the off-water settings in which we interacted.

Chariots and Horses ultimately centres on Dorland’s year-long process of coaching his highschool crew to the national championships. Rowing is a sport unlike most others: whereas most sports rely on individual achievement in the context of team victories, rowing calls for the continual sublimation of ego in support of making the boat go faster. The heros of this story – the members of that highschool crew, both those in the final boat and those who contributed along the way – dealt with a series of challenges that would have finished most crews. This story also centres on the role that the legendary Neil Campbell played in defining what Dorland has achieved, and fellow Olympian Robyn Meagher in helping him forge a new narrative. The character of Campbell is an especially powerful ghost that shadows this story. The interaction between Dorland and Campbell in the closing chapter is a particularly poignent moment of forgiveness and appreciation.

The irony of this story is that the culmination rests on his crews’ win (and here, I apologize for giving away the ending to this story). But this is what transforms it from a “winning isn’t everything”, sour grapes story into an inspirational coaching manifesto. That it is possible to dispense with the prevailing war culture in rowing and still go fast – really fast, in fact. The aftermath of that win is particularly instructive, from the crew’s emotional post-race paddle of introspection to the interaction between the winning coach and a less-than-pleased member of one of the other crews (an athlete born and bred in the prevailing culture). While the central message of this book is that a focus on winning can be ultimately detrimental to one’s performance, it is precisely because of their winning the big race that this message is so powerful: that self-awareness and achievement are not mutually incompatible, and it’s not a requirement that nice guys finish last.

I too grew up in that war-culture approach to rowing that the author describes. Various coaches and crew-mates used similar motivating approaches. I can clearly remember one impassioned plea by a coach to imagine that an East German competitor saw defeating me as “his only way off the rutabaga farm”, and that I needed to respond in kind in order to send him back there. Unfortunately, that strategy backfired with me. Rather than hatred, I felt sympathy for him instead and, well, if in order to balance his life of hardship with my life of privilege meant that he would have to win, then, so be it. (The fact that the East Germans were astonishingly faster than us is beside the point). We used to have a saying in the St. Catharines rowing community: “you don’t win a silver, you lose a gold”. But despite numerous gold medals from the Canadian national championships captured during one glorious summer in Montreal, my most prized medal remains a silver from the national highschool championships that are the scene of the book’s final chapters.

This book has immediately earned a place on my “coach’s bookshelf” along with an odd-ball assortment of favourites (e.g., Moneyball, by Michael Lewis – with its crucial early chapters that tell the story of the transformation of Billy Beane’s perspective on the sport; Bill Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe and the unearthing of the challenging relationship between fathers and sons as played out on the ball field; or Dave Bidini’s Baseballissimo as it revels in the love of the game and the tension of family culture). After a six-year immersion in the culture of rowing, and a long absence, I have returned to my first love – baseball – and I enthusiastically read anything that can help me in my goal to be a better coach. This book has reaffirmed what I’ve always believed about competition – that being motivated by thoughts of crushing your opponent will only serve to diminish any victory – but it has done so in a more articulate, compelling and emotionally-grounded way than I’ve experienced before. For the same reasons, I’m disappointed by stories like Kostya Kennedy’s 56: Joe DiMaggio and the Last Magic Number in Sports, where we learn that the greatest hitter in baseball was motivated by something akin to hatred of his opponents. Or Buzz Bissinger’s Three Nights in August where we learn that Tony Larussa treats every at-bat as a mini war. Two of my favourite moments in baseball centre on instances that typify the friendly rivalry that lies at the root of the game: the post-game handshake, and the chat that takes place between the first-baseman and the batter that successfully reaches first. These are the instances that define the game for me, and that I try to instill in my players. Chariots and Horses will serve well in that regard.

My guess is that the titans of the rowing “industry” will look skeptically upon the central argument of this book. Clearly, the Olympic movement in Canada is led by those with a gold fixation, revealed in jingoistic slogans like “Own the Podium”. But my hope is that some of the athletes that aspire to reach the heights of Olympic glory will be inspired by this story to look within themselves to find the motivation to reach their highest potential. My only disappointment with this book is that, by being focussed on the esoteric sport of rowing, it won’t receive the wide readership it deserves. This is a book that should be read by coaches and competitors regardless of their sport – in fact, it will be valuable for anyone who has to confront the challenge of setting goals, staying motivated and inspiring anyone to reach their highest potential. It’s slightly frustrating that what isn’t revealed is exactly how to motivate others in the absence of trying to beat the competition. But perhaps that’s the point: don’t look to someone else to tell you how to reach your potential. Look within to learn that.

Chariots and Horse cover

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