If there’s one thing Michelle Lee knows, it’s that we’re capable of so much more than we imagine. In April 2017, the Sydneysider became a world record holder – the fastest woman to row one million metres, on a Concept 2 rowing machine. She shaved nearly 11 hours off a record previously held by a German Olympic rower. This February, Michelle set another record, becoming the first Australian woman to row solo across an ocean, in the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge. But what’s most impressive is that before launching her boat in July 2017, she’d never put an oar in water.

Michelle loves a challenge. She’s done triathlons. She’s walked Kokoda. She’s trekked through the Himalayas. So when she read Roz Savage’s book “Rowing the Atlantic”, it was pretty inevitable that she’d get set on rowing it herself. The fact that she wasn’t a rower was completely irrelevant – where there’s a will, there’s a way. “It wasn’t until I decided to row across the Atlantic that I thought, ‘Oh, I’ve really gotta learn how to row!’” she laughs. And learn she did. For two years, she endured a gruelling 13-session-a-day training regime. She ran, cycled, cross-trained, and lifted, while also managing her massage therapy business. But it was all worth it. She started the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge on December 12 2018 and on February 18 2019, became the 16th female to ever row an ocean solo.

At sea, Michelle quickly found herself at one with nature, and herself. “When you remove all of life’s distractions, like social media and your phone, you’re just left with the raw ‘you’ and you get to explore the things that really matter, like your friendships. It’s a good way to reassess and re-evaluate what’s important to you”, she says. She saw pilot fish, sea birds, and whales, and witnessed stunning sunrises and sunsets. She also overcame some of her fears. To avoid adding weeks to her journey, she dived under the boat four times to clean pipis off the hull, and learnt that your imagination runs wild when there’s 5km of pitch-black water beneath you. Michelle felt triumphant after her first dive, knowing she’d pushed through the fear.

Michelle experienced plenty of highs but the trip wasn’t without its issues. In many ways, getting to the start line was more difficult than the race itself, Michelle explains. In addition to the intense physical preparation, she had to get a boat, further her learning, and qualify for the race. After 46 days at sea, her mental health began to deteriorate. She used every strategy under the sun to stay calm. This wasn’t just a physical challenge, it was a survival challenge: “I thought, ‘I’m doing something bigger than running around my neighbourhood naked!’”. The realisation that she was doing something only a handful of individuals have ever done helped immensely. In fact, more people have been to space than have rowed an ocean solo. By the end of the trip, Michelle was mentally and physically spent. She’d lost 14kg and 50% of her strength, and her hands were covered in holes after working the oars for 14 hours each day.

Michelle’s hands have since recovered and she’s returned to work, part time, as a massage therapist. But life is not the same. She’s now a public speaker, inspiring women to commit to their goals, and has discovered that “when you’re following your heart and you’re in alignment with your core values, doors just open.” She’s also teaching others that the earth keeps spinning, even when we make mistakes. “The sun rises and sets every day – it’s a certainty. I love that fact because it gives me a chance to get it right. There’s always another chance tomorrow to get it right.”

Michelle is keen to row another ocean, mostly to correct mistakes made during the Atlantic Challenge, but not before she’s had a decent break. For now, she’s tackling a different challenge: becoming a whiz at the ukulele.

Michelle’s journey was made possible by her sponsors: The Quays Marina, Road Tech Marine, Adoni Media, and Hyundai Castle Hill. Find out more about Michelle here

Words by Amy O’Toole

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