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katie spotz sunset
Ocean Rowing: Crazy or Crazy Cool?

       On March 14th Katie Spotz staggered onto land in Georgetown Guyana looking happy, tired, and rather stylish in her black JL capris.  She had just finished a 70 day row across the Atlantic Ocean.  At 22, she's the youngest person to do so.  Spotz spent a few days cleaning her boat and touring Guyana before heading to New York City for a publicity tour.  People were, quite understandably, fascinated by her adventure.
       Katie made the media rounds: CBS Early Show, CBS Evening News, Anderson Cooper 360World News with Diane Sawyer, Rosie Radio (who knew Rosie O'Donnell had a radio show?), Discovery Channel's The Daily PlanetThe New York Times... Each interview took a similar path: briefly note that Ms. Spotz raised $75,000 for Blue Planet, a charity that makes clean drinking water available to needy communities, then ask what it's like to row alone across the ocean: Were you scared?  Were you lonely?  What did you eat?  Was it physically difficult?  Mentally?  Wasn't it dangerous?  Sharks?  Pirates?  And finally, my favorite: Why?  As in, "Are you crazy?  Why would you want to spend so much time and energy preparing for an adventure that might kill you, and then actually do it?"
      Katie cheerfully repeated an honest non-answer for each impressed host.  She retold the story (included below) of how she got the idea.  As it turns out, the idea itself is as close as she seems to be able to get to articulating her motivation- "it just seemed like a good idea," she said.  My favorite iteration of this occurred with Neil Conan on NPR's Talk of the Nation before Spotz left on her trip.  He catches her off guard by pushing past her standard answer to the "why question."  It seems that this early in her interactions with the media (again, this interview occurs pre-row) Spotz hasn't quite refined her answers.  Listeners get to struggle with "the why" of rowing across an ocean at the same time she does.  The following exerpt also highlights Spotz's earnest attempt to champion her cause for clean drinking water.  Hosts' eagerness for adventure details overshadows the charity element of Spotz's row in later interviews.   

            CONAN: Why do you do it?
            Ms. SPOTZ: Well, I've been doing challenges for a few years now,
            and I'm really passionate about linking up with charities.  This row
            is called Row for Water, and my goal is to help a thousand people
            gain access to safe drinking water for life.
            CONAN: Mm-hmm.
            Ms. SPOTZ: So, yeah, a billion people don't even have access to 
            this most basic human need.  So I'm really passionate about being
            able to challenge myself and then raise awareness and funds for a
            good cause. 
            CONAN: But you could run 100 miles to do that.  You could gather
            the world's largest ball of string or do something else.  Why have 
            you decided to do this particular challenge?
            Ms. SPOTZ: Well, I found out about ocean rowing really randomly. 
            I was on a bus in Australia just chatting with the person next to
            me and they mentioned that their friend rowed across the Atlantic
            two times.  She did it once with her 50-year-old mother.  So, ever
            since I learned about it, it's just been stuck in my head since-
            yeah, it's just been a dream of mine, so...
      Though enthused and passionate about raising money for Blue Planet, Spotz reveals her row is about more than clean water.  The idea that she could accomplish such a unique challenge (after all the mother of the friend of the dude on the bus did it!) captured her imagination.  She wanted to make it happen for herself.  
      Raising the money for the trip and the charity was a two year long process more complicated than the actual rowing.  Oh, and the rowing was a dangerous undertaking- people die trying to row across oceans.  A disaster could have resulted in an expensive rescue effort that would have undermined the overall social contribution Spotz eventually made, not to mention terrify her family and friends.  And yes, as Neil Conan suggests, she could have gathered a ball of string to raise money, but how cool are balls of string?* 
      Other skeptics from her native North-East Ohio went farther.  Someone on a Plain Dealer message board suggested that what Spotz really needed to do was stay home and look for a husband.  Another said, "there are over 100 billion things to do with one's time that are more beneficial to mankind than this exercise in abject silliness."  The first message was deleted and "Stan the Man," the author of the second, promptly received the message board smack-down he deserved for his own (negative) contribution to mankind.  Though most people supported Spotz, not everybody could connect rowing across the Atlantic with helping people.
      But Katie Spotz did something special.  Her solo row contributes more to others than the $75,000 she raised for Blue Planet.  Spotz wanted to row across the ocean for whatever reason- it was cool, she "thought it was a good idea," whatever.  Most importantly, she had an ambitious goal, figured out how to achieve it, and then did.  I like living in a world decorated by people like Katie- people with unique levels of creativity, initiative, and commitment.  They give me hope that I can realize my own aspirations, both the simple and the crazy.  They also reminds me that to get where I want to go, I have to be willing to row across oceans. 
       I think I join many Americans in my fascination with people who do and get what they want- especially when what they want is something extraordinary or seems a little nuts.  Stories like Katie Spotz's get stuck in my head.  I don't know why.  They're just crazy cool.
*If string's your thing, by all means, please follow your dreams!

Lou Kinder - March 31, 2010