The story begins early one morning in spring on Boston’s Charles River. We had launched several racing shells from the Harvard Boathouse for a series of what are called “seat races,” and I had been switched from one boat to another between races. My boat hadn’t won every race. Had I won enough races to win a seat on the crew? Or would I be cut? I didn’t know. Only the Harvard coach knew, and what made not knowing especially excruciating is that I rowed for Yale. But that year the Harvard coach was also the Olympic coach and that morning was the final selection for the US Olympic team.
By the time we returned to the Harvard dock I was cold, wet, beat, and had pretty much convinced myself that my Olympic dream was over. A few minutes later I walked barefoot out of the locker room with a towel around my waist, and saw the Harvard coach between me and the shower room. I couldn’t read his expression because I had left my glasses in the locker room. “You made the squad,” he said, but his words barely registered. I just kept walking into the shower room and found an unoccupied spot. I was now in a complete fog, but didn’t need to see anything. There was only one handle to turn and the water came out hard and hot, and the wall-mounted shower head was of a height to make the only important decision on a cold morning: keep your hair dry or risk a cold. That morning, I went all in. Fully immersed in that steaming shower it hit me that I was on the Olympic team. It wasn’t some kumbaya moment. Not at all. At that moment, I owned the place.
Unless you count what can be done with a sink and shameless desperation, I had never before taken a shower in an airport.
That’s an example of a world-class shower. It’s not a luxury shower (although a world-class shower can be luxurious). Instead, a world-class shower conveys a timeless experience of aliveness and raw power. You have arrived! That Harvard shower room was old when I got there forty years ago, and it hasn’t been upgraded by the titans of Wall Street and founders of Facebook who’ve rowed there since. Even as Harvard’s endowment has surpassed $40 billion, the same simple showers dump enormous quantities of hot water on men who have given everything they have. Win or lose, love the place or hate it, it’s a lived experience that can’t be beat.
A Shower at Dawn
A dawn shower in the Cathay Pacific Business Class lounge in the Hong Kong Airport comes pretty close—and that, too, is a story. If you’re an Olympic oarsman you travel baggage class and don’t complain about leg room or middle seats because your entire section is filled with men who average six-feet-four-inches tall and can’t afford to lose sleep either. Any seat on any plane that arrives on time is fine, and people who complain or upgrade are weak or frivolous or both. That Spartan travel ethic is remarkably liberating (and required if you become a journalist instead of a Wall Street titan). But when recently offered a great trip to a wellness festival in China, my 60-year-old legs declared they would go business class or not at all.
What a difference!
It started at check-in at SFO: The attendant stepped in front of the ticket counter to take my passport and within a minute I was checked in, and five minutes later was through priority security and into the private lounge. I poured a glass of Domaine Carneros and sat down among fellow travelers mostly dressed in comfortable sweats for an all-night flight. Half way through another glass of Champagne, and the flight was called.
What came next proved nothing like a red-eye: A well-prepared dinner calmly presented; a movie on a large private screen in my cubicle; and a seat that easily transformed into a bed so long and comfortable that I slept through the breakfast service and had to be awakened just in time to be fed just before the wheels touched down at 6:00 am local time in Hong King. Then came a short walk to the next lounge to await my connecting flight to Shanghai. That’s where the shower came in.
Unless you count what can be done with a sink and shameless desperation, I had never before taken a shower in an airport. This one in the Hong Kong lounge was marble and glass with all the amenities. Just like a fine spa! Nevertheless, I cursed under my breath when the attendant pointed to the overhead rain shower. Why not mount the thing on the wall? Why take away the decision to go “all in” or not? There was also a wall-mounted hand-held unit, but a world-class shower experience doesn’t involve holding your own hose.
Grudgingly, I gave in to the design and went all in under the powerful, hot shower—and only then did I realize that some clever designer had actually made the only important decision for me: to take time and water, and lots of both. All in! And sure enough, by the time I had dried my hair and put on fresh clothes, my internal clocks felt completely aligned. This was just the beginning of an adventure, but I had arrived!
Editor at Large Stephen Kiesling was a founding editor of both Spirituality & Health and American Health magazines. He was the youngest member of the 1980 US Olympic Rowing Team and the oldest competitor at the 2008 Olympic Rowing Trials. A Scholar of the House in Philosophy at Yale, Stephen is the author of several books, including The Shell Game, Walking the Plank, and The Nike Cross Training System. He has written for The New Yorker, Sports Illustrated, and Outside, has been featured in The New York Times and The Boston Globe, and has appeared on numerous television and radio shows, including Today and All Things Considered..