Zen and the Art of Single-Scull Rowing: Neal S. Young, MD

Senior investigator at the National Institutes of Health and chief of the Hematology Branch of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute

When did you become interested in rowing?

I grew up in New York City and, because I was much younger than my classmates, I didn’t have the opportunity to become good at sports. In college, we were required to take some type of physical education activity, so I tried rowing. It felt easy and I liked it right away.

After graduation, I didn’t row because there wasn’t much time to spare in medical school or during residency; later, of course, there were distractions as I was getting my career and family started.

About 20 years ago, I attended a medical meeting in Australia and, purely by chance, had dinner with a lovely physician and his wife, whose daughters rowed for the Australian national team. I was unexpectedly invited to row a double at dawn the next day from the Sydney Boat Club. A case of jet lag and stories of sharks got me up in plenty of time for an exhausting outing, but I returned home with a renewed interest in rowing. That chance conversation changed my life, because rowing became quite important after that.

You have rowed on the world’s six inhabited continents – had that been your goal from the outset?

It was not a goal at the outset, though in retrospect it was lucky to check Australia off my “continents to row” list at the start! It came about as I was travelling to meetings around the world and realized there would usually be some downtime in which I could row. Often it was easier to find a boat club than a rowing machine for exercise.

When I know I am travelling to a potentially interesting venue, I try to find the contact for a local club online, or the local conference organizer has a colleague who rows. This strategy proved successful, and it became a fun adventure to arrange an outing when I would travel.

What has been your most rewarding rowing experience?

I won at U.S. Rowing Masters Nationals a few years ago. That was an unexpected prize; I had been rowing harder for a number of years and participating in local races, but this Masters is a major event in post-university rowing. Hundreds of men and women come from all over the country for several days of racing; there are huge video screens projecting the race, medals and trophies, interviews of winners… it feels like the Olympics!

It was a very hot day with very strong competition. I ended up in a borrowed boat for that race, and I made mistakes on the course that should not only have knocked me out of first place but also out of the shell, but I won — probably by surprising the other rowers. I was as thrilled to haul a rather large trophy through the Orlando airport.

It sounds like there is a lot of camaraderie among the rowing community.

There is, which I think is often the case in smaller, less popular sports.

Recently, I was in Austin, Texas, for a meeting. Surprisingly, Texas has many rowing clubs. I “joined” a rowing club in Austin and, since everybody there was leaving the next day to go to a big race, they just handed me a key to the clubhouse. I strolled down to the Colorado River the next morning, opened the clubhouse doors to find hundreds of thousands of dollars-worth of boats. I was trusted to take care of a nice racing shell, not crash it, wash it, and get it back in a rack. That sort of accommodation is not such an unusual experience.

What have been the most memorable places to row?

Worldwide, there are some experiences that do stand out – for good and bad reasons. St. Petersburg was memorable for being miserable: awful weather, an unattractive course in the midst of an industrial site, and distracted staff since Putin was arriving the next day to oversee the President’s Regatta. The boat club was extremely courteous for allowing me, but there is not a tradition of amateur rowing in Russia, so I felt like I was intruding in a highly competitive environment.

Africa was spectacularly wonderful. Johannes Swart, son of hematologist Andre Swart, drove me out to the Pretoria University summer clubhouse; I was alone for several hours of a beautiful morning on a calm lake with many exotic (non-threatening) birds and animals. In Thailand, ASH member Surapol Issarigrisil helped me arrange a single shell to row the massive Chao Phraya river, and I detoured into a klong, or small canal, past riverside homes, restaurants, and temples. I felt that maybe no one had taken a racing scull ever on that route before! Finally, thanks to friends and hematologists all over the world: Rodrigo Calado and Phil Scheinberg awoke very early to accompany me to the Olympic venue in Rio (South America was the last continent on my list); Keiya Ozawa and Shinji Nakao provided rowing in Tokyo and Kanazawa; Velu Nair arranged a military row in Pune, India; and Carlo Dufour in Genova, Italy, and many other European colleagues helped me find host clubs there.

When do you find the time to row?

Most of the rowing I do is from the Potomac Boat Club in Washington, and I am typically on the water at 4:30 or 5:00 a.m. Being up that early is an interesting experience – even a bit scary. The Potomac is a very big river, and it can look even bigger when you’re alone on the water on a snowy winter morning. Also, I like the experience of the city without traffic. All in all, it’s a different life.

My friends know that I am not a night person.

Does anyone else in your family row?

My youngest, Giorgio, was the only one of my three sons who inherited the desire to row, or allowed me to impose it on him. He is a natural sculler, and, for a while, the most-famous rower in the family: In 2011, he was the Virginia Scholastic Rowing Association State Champion, on one of the happiest days of my life. Giorgio also became involved as a coach in “adaptive rowing” in Washington, DC. Adaptive rowing is for people with disabilities, usually loss of use of their lower extremities.

Giorgio and I still row together when he’s home from school. We tend to keep our distance on the river, though, since we can be critical of each other’s technique!

What kind of skills do you use in your hematology career that you also use in rowing? Is there any overlap?

The hope is that they don’t overlap! I think it’s okay to compartmentalize and not have everything somehow bear on career. For instance, I play a musical instrument, and I used to credit my painless bone marrow biopsies to my skilled fingers, but there are plenty of excellent, non-musical surgeons!

I’ve loved being in the water since I was a child. There’s a famous line from The Wind in the Willows: “There is absolutely nothing half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats,” and the “messing around” part is important because it needn’t be directed toward anything, including getting in shape or winning a competition. There is also the wonder of being in nature in all seasons and in many water and weather conditions, both all over the word and 10 minutes from home.

A very important aspect of rowing is that my mind isn’t occupied by work. There’s a Zen quality in such a highly repetitive sport that demands your presence in what you are feeling and doing in the moment. If I am really rowing, I am just thinking about making the next stroke better, even perfect; if I am preoccupied by work, I am not really rowing.

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