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Rowing for Hope: One Goal, Two Men, 3,000 Miles in a Boat

  • Dec 16, 2021
  • Cathy Gasiorowicz
  • 6-min Read

“Even if a goal seems impossible, even if you can’t imagine reaching it, even if you don’t see a path, you just tell yourself, ‘Just take it step by step and don’t give up,’” said Mat Steinlin, Lifespark’s Director of Information Security, a guy who’s learned a thing or two about setting seemingly impossible goals.

Bucket listed  

A few years ago, Mat and his colleague Ben Odom, Senior Staff Engineer at Lifespark, started comparing bucket lists. At some point, Mat decided to test the waters (so to speak) with a recent addition to his list: to enter the Talisker Whiskey Atlantic Challenge, a 3,000-mile journey from the Canary Islands to Antigua in a two-person boat with no sail, no engine, no stops, and no cash prize.

Ben’s first thought was, “That’s crazy!” but just to be sure, he watched a few YouTube videos of the race. “The problem was that I kept watching those videos and over time, I went from thinking, ‘That’s crazy!’ to ‘That’s craaaaaazy’ to ‘Whoa, I get it.”

What caught his attention was the race’s 10-year history of the-tortoise-and-the-hare stories. “Grandmas and grandpas making it, a 19-year-old girl rowing solo, all sorts of teams, and at the other end of the spectrum, Olympic-level athletes who show up as hired guns to propel a team forward and end up washing out in the first few weeks,” Ben said. “This race is more about your preparation, your knowledge, and your mental fortitude than it is about your physicality.” So, in June 2019, Ben and Mat teamed up to pursue this once-in-a-lifetime challenge.

No experience? No problem.

Neither of them had ever been in a rowboat, but for these guys, lack of experience was barely a hiccup. They each contacted their local rowing clubs to sign up for “Intro to Rowing” classes—Mat at the Jacksonville Rowing Club in Florida and Ben at the Austin Rowing Club in Texas. When the instructors asked about their prior experience (“None”) and their goals (“Row across the ocean in the Talisker Whiskey Atlantic Challenge”), there was a collective eyeroll. However, it wasn’t long before both clubs realized that these neophytes were serious.

From colleagues to crew members

That level of seriousness is one of the reasons Mat and Ben knew they’d make a good team. “Mat and I have different personalities, but we share common values, like integrity, appreciation for hard work, and 100% commitment to whatever we take on,” Ben said. “Our work involves handling IT incidents, and we’re the guys who dive in and tackle the problem.”

People have asked them what will happen if they disagree or don’t get along during the 40–50-day trip. “In our professional lives, Mat and I play traditionally adversarial roles, often representing parties with opposing interests,” Ben said. “But we’ve always been able to get along and rise above our differences.”

For Mat, the crucial ingredient was trust. “Ben and I had worked together for several years, first at a previous company and now at Lifespark, so I knew we could get through conflicts and come to a compromise,” he said. “But since training together, I have a whole new appreciation for Ben and trust him completely, which is what you need when you take on something as big as this.” 

Early on, they agreed that Mat would be the captain. “Even with a team of only two, there has to be a chain of command,” Ben said. “We’ll have disagreements, we’ll be tired, we’ll have bad moods, but we’ll respect each other and make the best decisions we can—with Mat having the final say.”

The first time out on the water together, they sank the boat—just five feet from the dock—but they kept at it until they could stay afloat. “That’s when I knew this was going to work,” Mat said. “I couldn’t wish for a better partner than Ben.”

Rowing for a cause

Ben admitted that if he’d known then what he knows now—about the financials, the time commitment, the sacrifices their families have had to make—he’s not sure he would have signed on. “But once Mat and I commit to something, it’s very hard for us to back off,” he said.

That commitment isn’t just to themselves, but also to all the people and organizations who have supported them throughout their 850-day journey, and to their charitable partner, Make-A-Wish® Central and Northern Florida, a non-profit that grants wishes to children with critical health conditions.

“We both wanted to support a charity that focuses on children, and MAW was excited to work with us,” Mat said. “Once we forged the partnership, our campaign became Row4Hope.”

Although neither Ben nor Mat had any prior affiliation with the organization, they soon discovered that several of their friends’ children had gone through the program, and it literally changed their lives. “Their wish experiences helped them get through treatment and gave them hope,” Ben said. “It’s like what we do at Lifespark—spark lasting joy in people’s lives.”

Since partnering with MAW, Mat and Ben have met children with life-threatening medical conditions and have been inspired by their strength and the spark in their eyes. “We had the pleasure of doing a Wish Reveal for a boy named Colton who has a heart condition,” Mat said. “Seeing Colton get his wish to go kayaking with his brand-new fishing gear put everything in perspective—it was very humbling.”

Goals matter

Throughout these past two-and-a-half years, Mat and Ben have had to set dozens of smaller goals in order to reach their main one of rowing across the ocean: training (in the gym, on video, on flat water, and in the ocean), fundraising, organizing, forming a 501c3, developing their website and social media presence, learning about everything from weather to sleep to nutrition, and so much more. However, well before they took on this challenge, both men understood the power of goals.

“When my grandparents retired, they stopped feeling needed and lost their sense of purpose,” Mat said. “I could see the mental decay set in.” That’s why he believes it’s so important to have goals. “No matter how many failures, stumbles, and challenges you have, don’t give up!”

Row4Hope has shown Mat and Ben that anything is possible at any age. “We may not be eligible for Medicare yet, but this challenge feels inspired by Lifespark’s vision to see everyone age magnificently,” Ben said.

Track their adventures

The Talisker Whiskey Atlantic Challenge begins on Dec.10, 2021, and lasts 40–50 days. You can follow their adventures on Facebook and Instagram. To support their charitable fundraising efforts for Make-A-Wish, visit Team Row4Hope or Row4Hope.com.

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