Befriended: Pip Harry on Rowing, Friendships, and Passion

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We’re back with another BEFRIENDED chit-chat with one of my favorite Australian authors, Pip Harry. She’s responsible for writing two books I’ve loved/devoured/wanted to kiss and hug, Head of the River and I’ll Tell You Mine.

When I finished HotR this summer, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. The scenes were so incredibly vivid and it was so apparent that Pip was writing from first-hand rowing experience. (Note: I think Pip is pretty bad ass for having gone through such rigorous training and lived to talk about it!) One thing I also loved seeing was Leni, a very introverted, focused girl, open up to new friendships and realizing the competition was about more than winning. I really wanted to talk to Pip about her experiences and how those transformed Head of the River.

Thank you so much to Pip for being so candid and open, and for writing such an impeccable story I can’t wait to share with my friends.

♥

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Head of the River by Pip Harry
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Summary (from Goodreads): It’s the most elite school sporting event in the country. Nine rowers, 2000 gruelling metres and one chance for glory in the ultimate team sport. Sit forward … ROW. 

Tall, gifted and the offspring of Olympians, superstar siblings Leni and Cristian Popescu are set to row Harley Grammar to victory in the Head of the River. 
With six months until the big race, the twins can’t lose. Or can they? 

When Cristian is seduced by the easy route of performance-enhancing drugs, and Leni is suffocated with self-doubt, their bright futures start to fade. Juggling family, high expectations, study, break-ups, new relationships and wild parties, the pressure starts to build. 

As the final moments tick down to the big race, who’ll make it to the start line? And who’ll plummet from grace?

Before you began training for the Head of the River competition, how would you describe your personality?

Before I started rowing and training for the Head of the River I was a heavily chlorinated swimmer. My attitude to training and competing was entirely selfish – how fast could I go? How much could I take off my time? I had friends in my squads, but nothing like the buddies I would make in the boat.

Pip-Harry-as-a-Teenage-RowerHow were you changed by the women you rowed with and what Big Life Lessons did you take away from your experience?

The girls and women I rowed with and coached were all so different (shapes, sizes, personalities!) but we all had to learn how to blend those differences into one cohesive, powerful machine. I learnt that a bad day on the water for them was a bad day for me. It sounds corny as hell, but rowing made me appreciate working as a team and the true bonding nature of team sports. I was inspired by the coaches who believed in me and led by example and were so wise and generous with their time. I was changed by my crewmates who showed strength, desire and determination. I was changed by the competition, which was cruel and unforgiving, but also joyous and exhilarating.

I learnt so many life lessons in the boat – how to work as a smaller cog in a bigger wheel, which has helped me enormously in life and work. I learnt to quietly endure pain and suffering in the boat (think rain, cold, blister, endless drills) which has given me more grit and determination (particularly in my writing career) I learnt that even the best team can lose on the day. You need good preparation but also a sprinkle of luck and fair winds. If you want to be a contender, you’ve got to roll with the losses, get up and have another crack.

Were you more like Leni, who had a lot to learn relationally, or were you more like Cris, who lacked passion for the sport and did it to please his parents?

As a rower I was equal parts Leni and Cris. Which is why the book was so fun to write! Like Leni I was a high achiever. I rowed in a state crew at nationals, getting there on hard work, obsession and all the A type personality traits that Leni has. At times this made me incredible hard to be around. I used to get frustrated at anyone who couldn’t keep up, I preferred to row like a bull at a gate all the time (no easy strokes) and I was very strict and tough on myself. I struggled to hold down romantic relationships in my late teens and early 20s because I put myself and my training first and I was completely inflexible. On the other hand, I also had a Cris streak (who doesn’t right?) I struggled to keep my weight down because I love, love sweets and junk foods. I’m also sometimes very seduced by sleep ins and can easily be talked into skipping training. I’m quite lazy at times and at high school, my teachers despaired at the lack of effort I made with subjects that didn’t interest me or I found difficult.

Pip-Harry-Teenage-RowerHow long has it been since you were a Head of the River competitor, and what are your relationships like today with the women you rowed with?

The last crew I coached through to the Head of the River was in 1998. They were a quad scull of funny and talented 14-15 year old schoolgirls who rowed the A final and came second by a fingernail. Heartbreaking! They dissolved after that race, and I did too. We had to pick ourselves up and realise we were 2nd fasted in the entire state, and that was pretty bloody fantastic! Also, who really cared in the end? We had just had four months of laughs, fun and learning. And they had gone from virtual strangers to close friends. That’s what it’s all about. The last time I was in the boat myself was around 2005 in a veteran’s crew (aged over 27 years) I had my biggest success and won five gold medals at the Australian Masters Games. I loved rowing with those older women, because they were more settled in themselves, understood it wasn’t life or death (it was just a race) and they had better wine, food and accommodation during away regattas!

I’m still in contact with some of the women I rowed with when I was a teenager and they are in the acknowledgments page of the book. Yesterday I got an email from Lucy, who I rowed with when I was 16-18 years old. She invited me to her 40th birthday celebrations and said her husband would pay for my interstate flight as part of his present to her – that might tell you how much we value each other’s friendship all these years later! Another rowing friend, Ingrid, sat with me in a café here in Sydney and gave me ideas for certain racing scenes in Head of the River. Another friend, Kate, was my running and training buddy and even though we are now busy mums, we still meet up every few years to talk about those crazy days on the river. Others I’ve lost touch with, but they hold a marker in my heart. I will never forget anyone I rowed with.

♥

Thank you so very much to Pip for sharing her experiences with us and the awesome teenage photographs of herself!
Friends, please, please pick up a copy of Head of the River.

Need more convincing? Read my review of Head of the River!

Magan: Head of the River by Pip Harry

Book-Cover-for-Head-of-the-River-by-Pip-HarryHead of the River by Pip Harry (twitter | website)
Previously Reviewed: I’ll Tell You Mine
Publication Date: June 25, 2014
Publisher: University of Queensland Press 
Pages: 304
Target Audience: Young Adult
Keywords: rowing, boy-girl twins, Olympian parents, competition, performance-enhancing drugs
Format Read: ARC from Publisher (Thank you!)

Summary: Head of the River follows Leni and Cris, twins, as they prepare, with their rowing teams, for the Head of the River championship between their 11th and 12th years of high school, but face life-changing struggles throughout the months leading up to the competition.

Wow. Wow. Wow. Just… wow. (And um, where to begin?)

The opening pages of Head of the River detail an assembly days after the Head of the River rowing competition has ended. With few specifics, there’s the implication that something grim has occurred. The mood is sour, and the focus has atypically shifted away from the championship and everyone’s spirits are squashed. We’re introduced to the two main characters, Leni and Cris, who are twins and both on the rowing teams. Their stories are told through alternating chapters. Flawlessly, Pip Harry tells both of their stories — the pressure they both face and the ways they deal with it — and rhythmically weaves them together.

Leni is very focused and driven, but so-much-so that her attitude comes across as untouchable and distant. She aspires to be like her Olympian rower parents (her mom took home the gold, her father the silver) and trains around the clock to achieve her goals. She’s studious and determined; if rowing doesn’t work out for her, she wants to have a solid secondary plan. As Leni moves into a leadership role on her rowing team, she has to learn to let go and become less of a control freak. In order to be a great leader, she must be more relatable, so despite how badly she wants to yell at Rachel when she seems disinterested and whiney during practice, Leni has to stop looking down on others.

Cris, on the other hand, is very likable and friendly, but his kryptonite is over-indulging in food (and skipping workouts). He’d rather eat an additional slice of cake than keep fit for his sport. (This is where he and Leni are so drastically different.) When Cris loses his seat to a newer, less-trained rower and is booted down to second team, he is jolted. He’s told he has to lose weight, as he tips the scales at over 250 lbs., and prove himself again. His best friend, Peter, is also moved down to second team, and sadly, the two boys devise a less-than-healthy plan to help them quickly snap into shape and redeem themselves.

Leni’s journey is very relational — she’s a very distant character that’s so focused she can’t take in the moment and make lasting friendships. She struggles with finding herself in a relationship with Peter she’s not sure she really wants to be in. She is attracted to the new guy, Sam, but he easily manipulates her. Audrey is her former best friend that she really misses, but since being swept away by Peter, they’ve grown distant and have a secret friendship outside of school. Rachel sits behind her in the boat, but annoys the hell out of her; if they don’t get in sync, it will surely mess up their rhythm on the water. There are so many layers to Leni. It seems like she’s a girl who has it all figured out and is really going to excel, but she felt so genuine. Her storyline with Sam and Peter really struck a chord with me because I remember finding myself in the same exact situation as her and wondering how I got there.

Cris’ struggle is more of a mental one. He feels coaxed into the supplement/steroids regiment by Peter and completely incapable of backing out. He’s conflicted over whether or not rowing is really what he wants to do or if he’s doing it just to please his parents. (Sidebar: the parents are really fantastic, appropriately supportive and visual throughout the story. And I loved how they, too, had struggles of their own — the father battles with the English language as he’s Romanian and it really puts a damper on what jobs are available to him, though he’s more qualified than most in the positions he desires.)

Throughout the tail end of Leni and Cris’ 11th year of school and beginning of their 12th, they train for the Head of the River competition. We see them morph and change and be challenged. With each row they take, the intensity is turned up a notch. By the time the competition arrives, and especially when we find out what the big event is that was alluded to at the beginning of the book, your heart is pounding for the results and cheering both the teams on… but, you also tread lightly because you just know something has gone terribly wrong.

Pip Harry drew on her own experiences as a rower and it really showed because every aspect was so well laid out. I went into Head of the River not knowing a thing about rowing, but through the training, the races, the camaraderie, I felt like I, too, had been training alongside each team. I could absolutely relate to Leni’s personal pressure — the desire to do well. The drive. But also the confusion over guys — that hit teenage Magan hard. Cris’ body insecurities (which, yay for exploring this from a male POV) and fluctuating between wanting to be fit and having a screw-it attitude really resonated with me, too.

It’s no doubt that I had a book hangover when I turned the final pages of Head of the River. Pip Harry has undeniably written one of my favorite stories thus far of 2014.

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