Assistant rowing coach embarks on trans-Pacific journey

Most of us have grand ambitions. Few of us actually strive to achieve them.

Megan Biging, an assistant coach on the women’s rowing team, is not simply talking the talk when it comes to lavish dreams — she’s walking the walk. Biging and her partner, Vicki Otmani, will attempt to become the first North American pair to complete the Great Pacific Race, a 2,400-mile journey from Monterey, California, to Honolulu, Hawaii, that will take anywhere from 30-80 days.

To question their dedication would be an insult. The pair will make no money off the race, with all funds going toward covering the cost of equipment and all excess proceeds being donated to Ocean Conservancy, a charity that fights against ocean contamination.

“I don’t get anything personally out of this except for the excitement and happiness and experience and pride, and hopefully the ability to inspire other people,” Biging said.

Sitting in her office in Heritage Hall, Biging is surprisingly calm for a person about to embark on an arduous and potentially dangerous journey across an entire body of water, spending months on end in the open sea.

“I feel like rowers in general are so mentally tough and strong that we’re able to push ourselves beyond limits that other people might not be able to,” Biging said.

Though neither she nor her partner have rowed across an ocean, Biging has a variety of experience in the sport. She began rowing in her junior year of high school at a local club in Marina del Rey and was recruited by USC to row collegiately. She spent all four years on rowing team, serving as a team captain before rowing competitively in Philadelphia for a couple of years. But a slew of injuries cut her career short, and she returned to coach at USC, where she is in her fifth year as an assistant.

“The biggest thing I like about coaching is being able to bring out the best in people that maybe they don’t see or they don’t believe in themselves, so trying to work with them to bring out the best they could possibly be,” Biging said.

The same can be said about her ambitious goal. Biging got on board with Otmani for the race just about a year ago, and as the months turn into weeks, and the weeks into days — she leaves on May 15 to prepare for the race, which begins on June 4 — the nerves are kicking it.

“The mental [aspect] didn’t scare me initially,” Biging said. “As I’m getting closer, the gravity of being in the middle of the ocean for two months is starting to get to me, but I feel I’ll be able to mentally handle it.”

It will be challenging mentally, emotionally and physically, testing the limits of “survival mode.” The rules stipulate that the competitors have no assistance: no engines, no sails, no safety boat. Part of the description on the race’s website reads, “This extreme adventure is not for the faint hearted and the size of the challenge should not be underestimated.”

All of the pair’s food will come in the form of pre-packed, dehydrated meals, nuts and fruit.

“Nothing too tasty,” Biging said.

The pair will depend on a desalinator — which cleans out salt and waste from ocean water that can be turned into fresh water — for drinking water.

To add to the challenges, competitors will be in solitude for a majority of the trip.

“We’ll all start at the same time, but just the way things work you drift apart so quickly that within the first day or so we won’t see anyone for the rest of the time,” Biging said.

Sleep will be a challenge, since any time not spent rowing is time lost. The pair, whose goal is to finish in close to 60 days with an average speed of 40 miles per hour, plans to alternate the rowing responsibilities — two hours on, two hours off.

Biging, who typically gets eight hours of sleep a night, admits it will be a challenge to alter her body clock both to the tune of the open sea and when she arrives in Hawaii.

“It’ll be just as difficult re-assimilating into normal life as we know it because I’ll have gotten into this meditative, calm, simple, survival mode,” Biging said.

They will have access to a satellite phone that they can use to call for help along with a GPS system. Additionally, they will be able to update Twitter and their blog.

Nevertheless, the experience appears daunting. Though, it helps that their boat, the Sedna, was previously owned by Roz Savage, a renowned English rower who has crossed the Atlantic and Indian Oceans along with the Pacific.

“It has a good history behind it,” Biging said.

Storms are inevitable in the open sea, but Biging is confident in the Sedna’s protection.

“I’m not as worried about [a storm],” Biging said. “I’m worried about the progress that we won’t get when we’re in a storm because it will be throwing us around. The way the boat’s built, we can hole ourselves up in the cabin and just bob around until it’s over.”

Reaching Hawaii at the conclusion of the journey will be a symbolic one for Biging, who will no longer be coaching at USC. Her next step after the race is up in the air.

“I really 100 percent don’t know,” Biging said about her plans for the future. “I won’t have a job. It will be a restarting moment of my life. This whole journey has turned into a, ‘Find yourself and get it together kind of trip.’ So I don’t know. We’ll see.”

Biging agrees with the assessment that this will be a cornerstone moment in her life. But amid all that is at stake — the preparation, the mental, physical and emotional toll, the uncertainty that awaits on the other side — the hard work will pay off.

“No amount of pain or agony or challenge is more significant than the glory at the end of all this,” Biging said. “It all becomes worth it.”


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