Thursday, May 5, 2016

For Sherri

The rowing and paddling world lost an amazing friend last week. Sherri Cassuto will be remembered for her fire, her humility, and her love.

Christian Knight found out in 2008 what it was like to race against Sherri in the Deception Pass Dash. It's a familiar story to tons of fellow racers who've watched that bright green pfd and luminescent Eddyline Raven pull away over a long hour-plus of chasing her.

Christian wrote up this report in Paddler magazine following his three-minute beatdown by Sherri. Thanks, Christian, for sharing it here. 
I should be worried about a number of things right now. About Deception Island, the barnacle-covered mound of rocks that seems to have pissed off the sea. I should definitely be worried about the standing waves and sucking eddylines of Deception Pass, the notorious strait that acts more like a massive river when the tide is coming in. The return trip should worry me, and so should the 25 racers in front of me—the ones who I would have to catch in the next four miles if I am going to win all categories of the Deception Pass Dash. The 100 racers behind me should be worrisome as well. They are, after all, paddling as hard as they ever have to catch and pass me.

But I’m not too worried about those guys.

Right now, I’m more concerned about a woman with tight, graying curls on her head, an iPod in her ears and black pogies on her hands.

That woman is paddling too—at a brisk pace. Her strokes are rhythmic, and unrelenting. Judging by the relaxed expression on her face, she could paddle like this as long as the other baby-boomer ladies can knit a sweater.

This woman, who as I’ll later discover is 18-years older than me, is passing me with roughly the same effort required to flip a turn signal.

As she passes I scrutinize her, searching for an explanation. She’s wearing a Kokatat Orbit Touring PFD, the same low-cut, unobtrusive vest I am wearing. That makes sense, I think. Her kayak is an Eddyline Raven, a craft its owners stopped producing more than a decade ago and which they designed for maneuverability, not necessarily speed. That doesn’t make sense, I think.

And she’s wearing pogies. That doesn’t make any sense at all.

Approximately one hour later, with salt coating my tongue and scratching my nose, I discover that I took second in the sea kayak division—three minutes behind a 51- year-old woman.

That woman is Sherri Cassuto. And over the following week, I have become somewhat obsessed to figuring out how she did it.

The first explanation I get is this: “She’s a former Olympian.”

Twenty years earlier, the New Yorker was one of four crew team members to finish ninth in the world at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul. That ninth place finish is arguably the pinnacle of her athletic career. Arguably, because she certainly had other pinnacles: Her second place finish at the 1985 rowing world championships in Belgium or achieving finals at the 1987 world championships in Denmark or her Canadian Nationals silver medal in marathon canoe racing.

Of course, that was all about two decades ago. And 20 years is a long time. Ask Shawn Kemp just how long 20 years is to an athletic body. Within three years of his retirement from the NBA, the former Seattle SuperSonic power forward had ballooned to 340 pounds.

Or Lance Armstrong. While discussing his own retirement from the Tour de France, Lance Armstrong told Outside magazine in 2006 that he refused to suffer the same fate as three-time Tour winner Greg LeMond.

“Ex-athletes get soft and they're not as fit as they were, but I've got to be fit,” Armstrong told Outside’s editor Hal Espen. “Forever. I mean, I get a little beer gut in the winter. You know, I'm not going to turn into a Greg LeMond. Forty extra LBs.”

I guess what I’m saying is this: Past athletic achievement might be a good measure of potential. But it doesn’t do very well at gauging current ability. Our bodies, I’d argue, have short memories. And like any other kind of memory, it worsens with age.

So yes, I’ll concede that Cassuto, was an extraordinary athlete. I’ll even concede that in her prime, she was much more extraordinary than I was in mine. But here’s the difference: her prime was 20 years ago. Mine is, well, now. I ride my bike 60 miles a week, race flatwater two times a week and paddle whitewater on the weekends. I’m certainly no Olympian, or even local legend, but I’m in pretty good shape and in this year alone, I’ve competed in a dozen races—from extreme creek races to downriver and sea kayak races. And there’s one more thing—I’m just going to say it—she’s a girl.

“She’s a stud,” is how Bob Ernst, the head coach of the University of Washington’s rowing team explains her three-minute victory over me. He coached her and the rest of the national rowing team back in the 80s, when Cassuto was training seriously. “She’s a tough competitor. She’s a very tough person. She seems to enjoy the work. She’s skilled and patient. It doesn’t matter whether she knew you or not, she would have just looked at you as another person to pound on.”

Okay, so she’s an exceptional girl. Truly tough. Truly competitive. Truly gifted.

But she’s still a generation older than me.

Back in 1987, Cassuto was training for the Seoul Olympics, and, as she recalls it, she called her coach out on something—she wouldn’t say what. And he responded by kicking her off the team. (Ernst has no memory of this).

“You’d think they’d want to select people with a little moxey,” Cassuto says. “I’ve always been incredibly independent-minded. I’m Italian-Jewish from New York. I’m nice. But I’m blunt. I asked him (her coach) a very reasonable question: ‘How come you didn’t do what you said you’d do.’”

Maybe, I think, that’s my answer. What divides good athletes from good competitors is not just about how much blood the heart can pump, it’s about what is in that blood. Piss and vinegar. The racer who won’t take crap from anybody has an unscripted advantage over the racer who will.

I wouldn’t describe myself as defiant, rather the opposite. I look at myself as the typical middle-child: compromising and appeasing, a bit indecisive and almost always positive that, again, I’m getting screwed. That’s okay, though, I’ll just grin and bear it.

I’m guessing, however, if you asked my 10th grade English teacher, my 11th grade principal, and my 12th grade physics teacher—all who, at one time or another, suspended me—they might have a different assessment of my personality.

So perhaps I do have a little defiance in me as well. But no where near as much as a 51-year-old woman who, 35 years ago, figured out a way to graduate from high school two years early and enroll in college when others her age—16—were just earning their driver’s licenses.

During my conversation with Cassuto, however, I discovered a few other contributors to her victory. Both could fall under a single label: Love.

Before Cassuto could even walk, she’d crawl into the Atlantic, with her mother running after her to save her from the waves crashing onto the south Long Island shore.

When she was old enough, she started swimming distances and body surfing. She took up crew when she moved to Seattle in the mid-80s and kayaking soon after. She trained on the Sammamish Slough for marathon canoe races, which culminated in her second place finish at Canadian nationals in Kamloops. She remembers her crew teammates saying stuff like they could compete in track and field as easily as they could in sculling. But for Cassuto, it was always about the water.

In 2005, she moved to an apartment within reach of a piece of Lake Washington’s shore that was five miles from her ROLFing therapy office in Fremont. And from that point on, she’s been kayak-commuting every day. Five miles there, five miles back. And on the way to work, she always waves hi to that University of Washington crew coach.

“Anything I can do in, on, around or beneath the water, I do everything I can possibly do to be on water,” she says. “To be like that and then to paddle, oh my god, in the middle of winter, it’s raining and it’s dark. The middle of winter is the best time. Last night the moon— ahhhh. ahhhh—the moon was out. The water had little bit of wind on it.”

That love is what has helped her to understand the racecourse in a way my whitewater brain can’t fully grasp.

To win the Deception Pass Dash, you have to paddle six miles of saltwater faster than 126 other people who want to paddle it faster than you. But it’s not just a six-mile paddling race against 126 other kayakers. It’s a race out of a small, protected bay, and around a rocky island, where the waves are crashing into the barnacle-covered rocks. You have to turn the corner and head for Deception Pass, the notorious strait that, when the tide is coming in, acts more like a massive river, with its whirlpool eddylines and crashing standing waves. You have to sprint from this point, around Strawberry Island, then through Canoe Pass, a strait with a 300-foot vertical cliff wall that hangs over your right shoulder like a guilty conscience, and where many of the 32 competitors who dropped out of the race, gazed into the breaking waves, the towering walls and threw up their hands in surrender to signal the rescue boats.

I know enough about reading water from my whitewater background to know that some water is moving fast, some water is moving slow and some water is swirling. And more importantly, I knew that it wouldn’t always be obvious when the water was doing what. Throughout the race, however, I couldn’t figure out where to go. My best strategy was to find someone who looked like they knew what they were doing—such as Leon Somme—and try to emulate his line. The problem I encountered was when two people who looked like they knew what they were doing, did opposite things. That tended to drag me from one side of the pass to the other side, looking for some fast water, which may or may not have ever existed. The only stretch where I felt like I had finally settled into a rhythm was the 200 yards to the finish line. After 80 minutes of paddling, I finally achieved something resembling my twice-weekly workouts.

Cassuto, however, had settled into a rhythm within 20 minutes of the start, about the time she passed me. And from the beginning, she was calculating everything—the seven-knot water speed, the wind, the ebb, eddies, her bow angle, and her rudder. Everything.

“I was thinking the whole time about where the water was going and where I’d need to go to get there,” she says. “The current changed while we were still heading east. So I was looking for the eddyline to come off Pass Island. I knew where it was going to drag my boat.”

When I first saw Cassuto cruising past me with her pogies, her tight, graying curls, and comfortable pace, the image was so surreal, I briefly hypothesized that she wasn’t racing at all—that she was just out for a paddle. I figured her kayak must have been much faster than my carbon Looksha IV. No way, I figured, could that lady could beat me in a distance race if we each competed in two equally fast kayaks.

But she did. By three minutes.

And for me that indicates something more important than winning: That gender and age are really no match for willpower, passion and technique.

Fair winds to you, Sherri. We miss you.