Layers of Serbia 2015 & Bojan’s Hometown

My monitor says that I’m right on track to do just over 20K in 30 minutes if I keep at this pace. Watching the high school kids coming off the water, warming up to row, and washing down boats, I have to remind myself where I am. A few quick glances around the room and I can’t believe that some of these bodies, both dudes and gals, are actually in high school – they looked like college rowers already. FUCK, my split has jumped up (gotten slower) as my attention left what I was doing. In a room full of weights, boxes, medicine balls, and the rowing machine stable, I was on the stationary bike known as a watt bike. Almost a 6 month knee injury and I found myself in the Eastern European rowing shrine that I’d heard about all of these years, and I was simply trying to stay fit and sane during recovery. These are the exact same model watt bikes that the Northeastern Huskies use at the Henderson Boathouse back in Boston and I feel ashamed that I’m impressed in a way that makes me think, “Not bad Serbia! Way to keep up!” FUCK, I’m off pace again, stay focused.

You see, land training in rowing is usually pretty intense and requires athletes to stay mentally on or they’ll physically fall off their pace and intended goal. Ask any rower who’s ever won a big race or put up a PR that is respectable and they’ll talk about tunnel vision, losing vision, or even blacking out. My 30 min push on the spin bike wouldn’t get me to that point, but I was stuck on the layers I saw played directly out in front of my face. My brain’s A.D.D. was flaring up and I was finally taking in that I was in Bojan’s hometown. My mind began taking this moment in for all that it was worth and for the magnitude in each piece, in each layer. Visually I could see five layers directly in front of my face that told the full story.

Directly in front of my face was the monitor that told the exact speed, output, and time. This monitor was seriously close to the kind that Bojan and I glared at all of those years at Northeastern Rowing in the basement of the Cabot Athletic Center on Huntington Ave. The rowing machine monitor, or “erg” monitor, keeps time, pace, watts, calories, and strokes per minute in a black and white digital numbers, that draws the right kind of racers further in love with the sport, all while cursing the machine for being invented. At NU, Bojan and I were teammates and friends. On a roaster with dudes from around the world, Bojan kept mostly to the Croatians, Canadians, and his fellow countrymen. The Eastern Europeans would speak their own language frequently and had an understanding that most couldn’t grasp. They’d sit at the same table in the dining hall, they’d share the same van to and from the boathouse, and they’d spend holidays together (as the rest of us Americans would dash home to see our families). Bojan was a guy who’d proven to care about hard work in the American kind of way. As many of his Eastern Euro dudes hated the land work, he embraced it as a part of the sport and wanted to do whatever it was that the team was assigned in the correct manner (even though land training really isn’t as big of a piece of the rowing puzzle back in Serbia than it is in the US). Bojan could row any boat, from any seat, with any crew, and that crew would go faster as a result of having him. Let that sink in. Imagine, Bojan sits in your boat and it goes faster. He makes you and your collective result better by joining your lineup. Each winter the Charles River would freeze over. This would begin our land training season that was just as intense, if not way more intense, than our fall and spring seasons. Our erg room on campus was dark, dirty, and hidden. The pipes for ventilation as well as hot water, would hang 6 feet above the ground, leaving most of the team ducking as they walked from one point of the room to the other. We had a rowing tank where we could practice timing and the actual stroke arch, but the real reason we were in that room, that uncelebrated dungeon, was to train on the erg. Lined up like the perfect rows of corn and soybeans between Belgrade and Novi Sad, 20 some ergs waited for us like getaway vehicles of torture. On these ergs you’re only a foot off the ground and the ceiling height and the low hanging pipes no longer mattered. Once tied into an erg, all that matters is the start, the finish, and your level of output displayed like a stroke-by-stroke report card for your classmates to see as you pass or fail each second of your rowing life. You and your monitor, stroke by stroke, competing with or against your own mental capactiy. The winter in Cabot, with Bojan, the rest of the Serbians, the Canadians, an Israeli, and my Wisconsin ass, was something that we worked through as a group, eyes glued to the monitor. As I take in the steady number of the watt bike here in the Danubus Rowing Club (Est 1885) I can’t take my mind off the shared times each dark winter in Boston. That monitor was dim and intimidating. Now, in our early 30’s, both married, Bojan with a baby girl on the way, the monitor was not only more clear, but easier. The first layer in front of my face was the monitor on our trip to Bojan’s hometown in June 2015. It was simple. It was the training at the most simple form.

Without moving my head at all, just taking focus up an inch and 10 feet out in front of my flywheel, was my next visual layer. High school rowers spinning their legs out as a very social warmup before they got out on the water. Most of them had headphones in, and all of them at least looked like legit high school rowers. We had started the jokes about the boathouse before we’d even come within 100m from the front door. You see, Bojan did grow up in shambles. His boathouse had barely enough equipment to get half the team on the water at one time, it had a roof, the locker rooms, and some showers that worked half the time. In the last 13 years that he’s been in the United States, the program was lucky to have a huge update and a brand new building. The beaten down boathouse that I’d heard stories of was tiny and cold and mean/sad looking. Here we are on our first day in Serbia walking into one of the nicest looking club boathouses I’ve ever seen – Bojan laughs and says, “Dude, I swear, this isn’t MY boathouse, I swear, we had nothing… we had shambles, I swear.” I gave him shit, called him papered, and didn’t doubt a single one of his stories. As you glance around the grounds you can see a cafe, spray painted walls, a good deal of litter in the bushes, and trailers of all sizes and shapes. My eyes jump back to the monitor and I’m happy to see that my splits are right there where I’d left them, on track. I watch the teens and wonder if any of them will win a big enough race or post a fast enough time to grab an opportunity like Bojan’s, one that would take them away, to the states, to a better place, and forever change his life. I can’t tell if they’re having fun with this rowing thing or if it is just something they do. I wonder what Bojan was like when he was here earning his spot on the team, earning his place on the recruit list for multiple D1 schools in the US, and eventually earning his new life in Boston. I have noticed a theme of seriousness in everyone that I’ve met in Serbia and Serbians I knew back home in Boston. I know that my family is upbeat and a little odd, but Serbians seem to be no-nonsense all the time. As his tale will tell you, Bojan got a full ride to Northeastern University and went to meet the team on day 1 of the 2002 spring training trip to Gainesville, GA. I know that those days must have been intense for him. I know that when we met I desperately wanted him in my lineup before shaking his hand. FUCK, lost a beat! You can never get distracted from your monitor when training or you’ll struggle to hit any goal, even if it is simply getting back in shape as you come off an injury.

Between the teenage rowers and the two men standing on the balcony were cotton-like snowflakes floating through the thick summer air. I didn’t know if they were coming from flowers, trees, or what, but it didn’t matter much. In this hot, occationally breezy boathouse, I was now fixed on these two Novi Sad rowing icons talking like old pros. The match-book sized fuzz balls slowly floated down randomly as Bojan and his coach spoke slowly and in a calm way that showed they were catching up. The same way I catch up with John Pojednic when dropping by the boathouse in Boston, the two seemed equally flow between jokes, talking shop and catching up on life. The coach was a tall, lean dude, who had coached Bojan back in the late 90’s. Between the monitor, the potential rowing stars on bikes in front of me, these two were my favorite layer directly in front of my gaze. Between the distance and the music, I was watching gestures and facial expressions only. Petar was weathered like most coaches. His time on the water, combined with sun, and his stress around winning could show in a few wrinkles in his face. Bojan casually spoke with respect and asked all the questions any proud alumni would. How are the guys? Who’s fast right now that you’ll be racing this year? When’s your next race? Any athletes you think will head to the states? Rowing was the language and the shared passion. Bojan, once the soldier looking to please, was now the local legend that was one of the athletes who this coach was most proud of. The fact that either of these men would have a moment to return an email, get on a call, or any kid of communication in their respectively busy lives, was highlighted as they caught up in person, standing in the sunshine of this beautiful boathouse. Between the dude that Bojan once was, seen pedaling the bikes a few feet in front of my eyes, and the people who both coach and athlete had become, was magic, and the piece outside of the workouts for NP that I’d hope to stumble into.

But directly over Bojan’s signature bald head was the most important layer in my line of sight. Not the busy boats loading and pushing off the dock for practice, not the powerful current of the Danube River, it was on the other bank on the crest of the ridge only 1km from my monitor, the teen hopefuls, the rowing legends deep in conversation, and nobody but me seemed to even notice it. The “news building” that Bojan had told me about was still standing on top of the hill, with the top half bombed out roughly 15 years prior to this very season. Until this moment, wars, attacks, and bombs are always far off and hard to truly grasp. Bus bombings I’d heard about from my Israeli teammate in college and the civil wars in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo that highlighted most of the 1990’s were hard to really understand beyond the facts. In many ways, the bombings on 9/11 (our second day of NU rowing practice) and the Boston Marathon Bombings in 2013 brought me a crystal clear look at the confusion, anger, and emotion around acts of violence at that level. Bojan, a serious, no-nonse dude is actually a funny fucker. He’s silly, stupid, and laughs at really dumb shit. Many would not see this side of him the first handful of times hanging with him and now I understand why. Serbians of Bojan’s generation watched bombs drop outside of their windows… and then, like the memories of his teenage years, the windows would shatter as the bombs got closer. Imagine, you wait by the phone in the middle of the night for hours waiting for your dad, a proud police officer, to call back after being instructed to “grab the guns, pack light, and wait for my next call.” Fuck yeah, Serbian’s don’t do silly very well, and this half building off in the distance was proof that information and communication were keys to controlling the people of Novi Sad. Jagged lines that reached toward the blue sky, this was a wound that had stayed untouched because of the lack of resources to fix it, tear it down, or anything in between. This building was a sore spot, an uninspiring tattoo, in what was otherwise a lush green set of rolling hills under a perfectly blue sky. The sun was out. The boats were out. The boathouse for the kayak racing team next door was just as busy. Life in Serbia was at full swing from the monitor on the high tech watt bike to the shambles of the past off in the distance. In between were rowing legends, heroes to come, and some funky magic dust floating in the air.

Earlier that morning we’d hosted a workout further upstream on the banks of the most urban part of Novi Sad. The November Project vibe was felt by folks who began by not speaking to one another, as strangers and eventually melted into the fun and fierce workout that brought them onto the same team. Bojan ran the show and did it in a way that reminded us both why we do this. Leadership can be hard and keeping up great work as a leader will wear on you. But when these moments come, these special times where you can inject silliness to a city that you hold close to your heart, for a generation that needs that dose of togetherness, well… it is perfectly clear that this is something we need to keep up and a real mark that we leave on this earth each week.

I know that Bojan will talk about Croatia and how the trip went in more general terms so I’ll leave you with this. Try and get to know Bojan. He’s an interesting dude, with tons of badass/interesting stories. Know that he is the driver of this movement who’ll never let off the gas pedal, never lose focus, and always see the layers of the full picture as they lay out in front of us. Join Bojan in making this week and next as amazing as the journey we’ve all been on since this thing began.

The Serbian/American/Canadian/Worldwide tribe is strong.

-BG

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