Athlete of Interest: Lilly Mei

Andrew Chuang and Chuang

Every day after school, junior Lilly Mei can be found with her heart racing, rhythmically pushing her oars stroke after stroke on the frigid blue-gray waters of the Oakland estuary.

Mei is a dedicated athlete in the sport of crew — an Olympic sport with an extensive collegiate history, that is often simply referred to as “rowing”. She has been actively involved with crew since eighth grade, and currently rows for the Oakland Strokes Varsity Women’s rowing team based in Oakland, Calif. Her main events include eight boat sweep rowing, in which eight rowers each use one oar, and quad sculling, in which four rowers use two oars each.

“I started by taking a two week learn-to-row camp over the summer [of eighth grade] and I really enjoyed it. This was in Minnesota with Twin Cities Youth Rowing Club,” she said. “I have never had that much success with other sports so rowing was a great thing.”

Four years later, after moving and joining the Oakland Strokes, Mei’s passion for rowing has never been stronger. This is reflected in her extensive time commitment — practices run six days a week, including four hour sessions on Saturdays. Despite this heavy practice schedule and the hours spent completing grueling workouts, Mei believes the commitment is worth it.

“I really love the challenge of the sport and the way you push yourself to your limit and go beyond your limits … and being able to set goals for myself and then work really hard to meet those goals is a really good feeling,” she said.

This goal-oriented mindset has enabled Mei to overcome a host of challenging roadblocks — both physical and mental — and to persist despite a perceived lack of peer recognition afforded to a highly competitive but less prominent sport.

“Last year, the entire season since September through the summer I had a disc bulge injury and an SI joint injury, and I pretty much sat out the entire year but I ended up going to practice everyday — just doing weights, cardio, biking and also swimming on my own time to keep my fitness up,” she said, adding that painful lower back injuries, shin splints and rib fractures are commonplace in crew.

She also indicated her calloused, blistered hands, stating that, “You get a lot of blisters on your hands … during sculling, I have to put my hands over each other since the oars cross and so I scratch my hand all the time … Each seat slides on tracks, so occasionally we get track bites where my leg will hit the track and start bleeding.”

Mental challenges include the pressure to improve in a competitive environment. “Erg” (short for ergometer, another name for a rowing machine), tests are used to train for and simulate real events and require great mental endurance.

“[With ergs] it’s a big thing to PR and do your personal best, and people always want to get a better time,” she said.

“You’re on a machine. Your muscles are on fire, your mind is so dark, you want to step off the machine. You want to walk away, to go lie down and cry, but you just keep going and trying to get that number in front of you lower and lower,” Mei stated, describing the tests.

“You know exactly how much time you have left. You know exactly the distance you have left, and you can see your stroke rate, you can see your speed right in front of you and you are trying to will your body to go harder and to go faster,” she continued. “There’s a separation between mind and body where your muscles are just so tired and they feel like cinder blocks, but your brain is urging you to go on. Or, vice versa — your body might have more energy but your brain is like, ‘No, this is so painful, and I’ll just stop.’ This is the same with racing as well.”

Despite this intense and taxing effort, Mei mentions that rowing is often under-appreciated or misunderstood among Dougherty students.

“A lot of people don’t know about rowing, especially at Dougherty because we don’t have a team … [They] don’t recognize how competitive rowing is … people sometimes underestimate how hard it is and how far rowers go to meet their goals and win the race,” she stated, adding that many often confuse the competitive sport of crew with recreational activities such as kayaking or canoeing.

In the future, Mei hopes to be recruited by a Division I college; in addition, she also hopes to qualify for national competitions by the end of her senior year. Mei recently earned a seat in the quad headed to youth nationals in Sarasota, FL.

“Even though rowing can be daunting, it really is worth it,” she said. “You will realize that, due to rowing, you can do so much more than you ever imagined.”