The picnic lunch by the river at the State Rowing Championships was a welcomed distraction, particularly for Ruth and Jane, who had three hours to kill before they were to compete for the Junior Women’s Coxless Pairs title. Small talk and the various finals for the Senior events were interspersed with enthusiastic optimism tempered by cautious realism.
“You can only do your best,” Dean Thomas soberly told his daughter Jane. “Remember you only started rowing this year and now you are in the finals for a state title.”
“Thanks,” Jane said with a sarcastic snort. “That’s my Dad always the pessimist. We can win you know!”
“That’s right Mr Thomas,” Ruth chipped in. “We are as good as the others, it just depends on our start.”
Race time got nearer and the small talk faded. Declaring a need to prepare themselves for the big race, Ruth and Jane walked slowly back to the rowing shed on their own. The girls stripped off their tracksuits as soothing words of encouragement from Steve, their coach for the critical last few months, washed over them
Peter and Marty, the two young men who had come to Ruth and Jane’s rescue following that fateful afternoon at Lushers, held the racing shell steady against the edge of the ramp. As the girls got in, no one said a word, an eerie silence that only added to the already tense atmosphere.
Breaking the spell, Peter and Marty quietly wished their friends luck before pushing the coxless pair out into the river.
Ruth and Jane slowly stroked their way to the starting line. For Ruth, an experienced rower with a couple of state titles already to her name, nothing felt right. She tried to hide her mounting nervousness from her less experienced companion, but Jane could sense something was wrong. The girls manoeuvred their shell to the fourth position of the starting line.
“Come on, relax, relax!” Ruth whispered to herself.
Letting go of her oars, Jane gave her partner’s shoulders a quick rub, “We’ll be right,” she said confidently as the starter raised his white flag and called “All crews ready”.
The four boats in the Junior Women’s final were steady in the line. On the shore, the families and friends of the competitors waited silently, expectantly, for the starter’s gun.
The silence shattered, and in spite of the hours of practise Ruth started with a quick series of three-quarter power-strokes that threw Jane off balance. At the 50 metre mark, they were last and still to find a comfortable rhythm.
On the ramp in front of the rowing shed, Peter and Marty groaned as Coach Steve continued to watch the unfolding race expressionless.
“Christ, terrible!” Marty exclaimed as the girls struggled.
“They’re done for, eh Steve,” Peter agreed looking to the coach.
“Never give up boys,” Steve said quietly without so-much as a glance away from the action in the centre of the river. Further down the river bank, Dean and Madge Thomas along with Abraham Goldsmith and Sky Crystal watched in subdued silence as those around them cheered wildly for the rival boats.
Ruth settled. By the two hundred metre buoy, she was providing a steady 32 full strokes per minute, a rating that allowed Jane to regain her confidence and rhythm. The girls were now working well as a pair and as they approached the three hundred metre mark they overtook the third boat in the race.
“At least we’re not going to come last,” Jane thought to herself. “Faster?” she suggested in a barked voice between half breaths to her companion in the stroke seat.
Ruth smiled to herself, gave a slight nod and pulled hard on her oars as she started to increase the rating. On the rowing shed ramp, Steve allowed himself a half smile as the sleek racing shell began to glide more gracefully through the water.
“They’ve lifted the rating,” Marty said excitedly. “They’re starting to look good.”
“It’s too early, they’ll never keep it,” Peter replied despondently. “Jane hasn’t got the experience.”
“Don’t be so sure,” Steve said. “She’s a tough one.”
The gap between the first and third pair in the race shrank with each stroke. The spectators, who were now all on their feet at the edge of the river, cheered wildly as Ruth and Jane pulled level with the second boat. The growing excitement exacerbated Dean Thomas’s propensity to over-react so much that he looked in danger of loosing both his voice and trousers. Madge, abandoning her usual role of moderating the energetic excess of her husband, cheered the girls on with equal intensity as did Ruth’s father Abraham. The remaining member of the cheer squad, Sky Crystal, overwhelmed with the emotion of the competition, reverted to the behaviour of her school years. Her cosmic tranquillity deserted in favour of a full-throated rendition of the old Lushers School war cry, complete with hand movements.
With less than a hundred metres to go, Ruth and Jane were in second place, but still more than half a boat length behind the leaders. It looked like an impossible task.
“That’s it. Second,” Peter declared.
“Yeah, could’ve been first,” Marty reluctantly agreed.
“It’s not over yet boys, have a look,” Steve offered as Ruth pushed the rating even higher, hoping her less experienced partner would be able to keep up.
“Shit!” Peter exclaimed, attracting a censoring glance from the coach. “Sorry Steve, but it must be over forty, this is fantastic!”
“Hang in there Jane!” Marty screamed. “You can do it. Come on!”
As Ruth and Jane began to gain on the leading boat, Steve’s cool calm dissolved and he joined the boys in shouting encouragement while wishing, praying, for a miracle.
In the final episode, “A Chilly End”, Merlin rages and brings some justice with its last gasp.