Creighton 2K Rowing Challenge

Megan and Valerie February 27, 2008

My daughter Megan was determined to make February 27, 2008 extraordinary.  From a hair and make-up style overhaul and mani/pedi’s at Elizabeth Arden The Red Door Salon, she plotted to rejuvenate one very tired mom.   Make-up magic was also on the birthday agenda and in a secret email Megan told my cousin:

My mom really wants to get some new make-up – a makeup facial by Bobbi Brown, Trish McEvoy or Chanel.  She is too old to be using cheap Sephora lines. 

She considered every aspect of what would make my day happy. Knowing that I’m private even in public situations she wrote:

It will be fun to go out but your life and family will be in grave danger if anyone sings to her in public or gives her a huge sombrero to wear.

The evening of my 51st birthday was scheduled to crescendo at Olive and Ivy, a trendy restaurant in Scottsdale, Arizona;  ridiculous hats and serenading waiters were not invited.

I canceled our flight on February 25.  Megan died of adrenal cancer twenty-six days later.

Eight years have passed since that horrific time.  Both my nutrition and life coach, Matt Jackson (The Boss) and my best friend Kim have encouraged me to write a new story.  With red bikini on the goal list for my 60th birthday, the Creighton University 2K Rowing Challenge seemed to be a great alternative to white birthday cake with carb loaded icing.  I justNewStory started rowing a month ago and The Boss told me that I’m good at it.  The methodical repetition relaxes my mind and the exercise will surely help tone up the bat wings under my arms. I arrived at the Ryan Athletic Center jazzed about my decision, 31 pounds lighter than six months ago, thinking I was all that in my ever-so-cute coordinating activewear.

I checked in with giddy enthusiasm.  Ahoy Mateys!  How cool was that freakin’ leaderboard? – little boats for each lane to show me where my vessel was every stroke of the race. The Ready, Set, Row sounded off at 7:45 a.m. for the 50 to 59-year-olds and like a splash of cold water, reality jolted my system.

What the heck was I thinking?  I’m rowing hard, and the eleven other boats are instantly way ahead of me.  The Boss told me to start out steady.  Throw him and that idea overboard!  I’m going to quickly catch up and then I’ll steady my pace…

The lead only widened.  When I hit the halfway 1,000 meter mark, one of the men crossed into winning wonderland.  The crowd cheered, with the other boats close behind.  At several points my defective little tug boat was not even on the screen.  My mind was the only thing that was racing:

I’m at 1500 meters out in the water all alone by myself like the lost little sailor. This has now become an episode of everyone watching the biggest loser….

With all other competitors at the finish line, the entire crowd shifted as they chanted my name.  Most of the Creighton row team stood immediately behind me and counted off the last 500 meter by meter up until the very last stroke. Finishing in just under 12 minutes, I heard a symphony of “Go Valerie!” echo in the air along with the roar of enthusiastic applause.

With wobbly legs, I piled into my car and headed home for a morning nap.  If the truth be told, I was teary-eyed.  I knew I wouldn’t be bringing home the gold, but I didn’t anticipate bringing up the rear.

My son Ryan, who lives across the pond in London, England, phoned with his birthday greetings.  He also congratulated me on Trek Up the Tower on February 20 and made mention of my five a.m. rise and shine for the rowing competition;  He said, “in the course of 8 days, Mum, you’ve done 2 things way outside of your comfort zone.”   I want him to be proud of me, and I was choked up at his assessment.  Nevertheless, I informed him that his non-athletic mom was the lost sailor at sea.  “For real, Ryan…your mum was the only boat for the last 500 meters!”

He boldly responded:

We row here in London.  It is a sport that does not favor the short.  I hate to tell you, Mom, but you are short.  You also need to change your perspective.  What was the one thing you got today that no one else received, including the winner?  You were the only person in the arena that everyone was cheering for at the same time.  A few celebrate the winner, but then even first place moves to cheer for the second place;  they all know how hard rowing is.  As each person finishes they move to the next, and the last rower has the entire crowd cheering just for them.   That’s what you got today, Mom.

The revelation flooded in.  I lost my daughter 8 years ago, but I found my way forward because the crowd continually cheers me on.

Sweet Jesus…the best birthday, ever.

Key Notes:

  • Life comes back.  I missed the 2008 make-over, but last year Kim paid to have my make-up redone by world famous Gaspar Cruz.  And guess who he worked side by side with for many years? – Bobbi Brown, the very make-up line Megan thought was best for her old mom.  You can find his extraordinary cosmetic line at
  • It’s hard to write a new story without the loved one that was previously threaded through every chapter.  If your friend wants to try something new, just go with it.  Thank you Diane Mattern (who took 2nd place in my division) for being there with me.
  • My BFF Kim never would have signed up for Trek Up the Tower.  She did because I told her I wanted to try it.  She stayed behind me every step of the 840 stairs.  Honestly, I felt like exiting on the fifth floor, but the “You got this!” caboose was right behind me.
  • In a poignant blog entitled “How Grief Cleaved Me in Two” Julie Harris states,  “Her family, her friends, her church and her dogs all kept her from tumbling into that endless abyss from which there is no return.”  All those, and more, have been part of my cheering squad….Pugsley the Boston Terrier included.
  • The text message from Matt Jackson 90 minutes before Monday’s workout was, “Get ready to row 2000 meters again today and BEAT your previous time.  I did…by almost a minute.
  • I’m signing up for rowing class at Dynamic Fitness.  The 2017 Row Challenge will be right around my 60th Birthday.

    The Boss – Matt Jackson – Owner of M.E.A.T.

On A Lighter Note:

  • I am short.  5’4″.  Megan used to call me an Oompa Loompa from Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.  The average female Olympic rower is between 5’11” and 6’1″.
  • The average weight for a female rower is 80 kg (176 lbs.).  I would like to publicly announce that I’m way below that!
  • Ryan finished our conversation by asking “Did you get the shirt?  It’s all about the t-shirt!”  I got the 2K Rowing t-shirt!




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  1. You truly are a shining diamond! You have made my heart smile more than once and I am in your corner, every step of the way. I believe we all are. 🙂

  2. Howdy from Lane 6! We were in the same heat, and as a fellow short kid (5′ 1″), I get the whole “short girls can’t row” thing. I am just too stubborn to believe it! I have participated in this challenge twice and each time, I left the Ryan Center excited to come back the next year! This is an amazing event, made even more special by stories like yours. Thanks for sharing…see ya next year!

    1. Chris! Howdy from Lane 4! I smiled big when I read your note. I will be back next year, and refuse to give up! I’m starting rowing at Dynamic Fitness in April. Want to meet me at the free open house next Saturday?

  3. Good read, from a person who, in spite of everything, has managed to keep both oars in the water.

  4. Val, I’m so proud of your accomplishments (and Happy Birthday – don’t know how I missed that!. You are an inspiration!

    Kathy Lawrence

  5. You amaze me by all that you have done to get healthy both emotionally and physically!! I love you and I am proud of you!!

    1. Thank you so much…it has not been easy, but I feel really wonderful, emotionally and physically! Well except for today when I had to do 2,000 meters again 🙂

  6. I am so happy and proud of you! You have inspired me to rise early tomorrow and climb on the Concept 2 rower and get serious! Congratulations on your many recent accomplishments, Val. You certainly have stretched your comfort zone and had many friends cheering you along the way. Keep up the fabulous work! ❤️ Linda

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Article by: Valerie Bourdain

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