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AGAINST THE CURRENT

SARA CLARIN

My journey began almost 6 years ago, when I set foot on Notre Dame's campus in South Bend, Indiana to start my freshman year of college. My family and friends from my public high school in Kalispell, Montana were ecstatic for me. Notre Dame had a good engineering program, strong traditions, and checked the right boxes for student life. But the feeling that lurked in the back of my mind that day, and began to grow steadily as the year went on, was disappointment.

Up until that point, my dream had been to play sports at the collegiate level. 

Unfortunately, my skill level and competitive exposure paled in comparison to what was required from athletes in conferences like the ACC and PAC-12. Countless morning lifts with the high school football team, long nights driving over icy mountain passes to basketball games, and medals from the state youth soccer association had culminated in…nothing. The road that was athletics had ended for me — and as an 18 years old — this was a tough pill to swallow. 

 

I got a glimpse of rowing a few months later, when I met one of the rowing coaches at the fall activities fair. Having been enamored with what I'd seen of the sport on TV during the Olympics, I took a flier and attended the interest meeting. Later, I discussed the idea of trying out for the team with mentors and friends.

"College athletes just aren't engineers...you can't do both."

 

"I don't think you realize the caliber of people you're going up against." "These girls have been rowing since they were little, and you've never been in a (racing) boat." With these remarks, and the knowledge that less than 2% of high school athletes go on to NCAA D1 programs, I allowed reality to hit me, and I didn't try out for the team.

 

After a long year of studying and silently regretting my decision not to try rowing, I threw caution to the wind and tried out my sophomore year. I felt like making the time commitment to the team was risking my entire education; I had serious doubts I could pass my engineering classes with so many training sessions every week. Yet the parts of freshman year that I spent trying new things, from playing club rugby to running a half marathon to competing in intramural sports, had proven to me that hobbies could not fill the competitive void in my life. I wanted something more.

 

Colleges with harsh winters have something that rowers call "erg season." Every day, while ice flows down the river, rowers are in the erg room, pulling on machines for countless hours. In my first six months on the team, I took my first strokes on the water, ran 2 miles to the boathouse and back every day, and subsequently participated in my first erg season. The other walk-ons and I placed at the bottom of the team in every workout, cementing our positions at the bottom of the team hierarchy. Despite the discouragement, I quickly fell in love with the sport and my newfound community. After several months, I saw my erg scores creep closer and closer to the underclassmen recruits on the team.

It was gratifying to push my body to, and sometimes past, the point of failure. 

In mid-march 2020, the team traveled to Oak Ridge, Tennessee for spring break training camp and our first regular season regatta. I was a spare for one of the girls in the 3v8+, meaning if her injury worsened, then I would race my first 2000 meter race ever. Unfortunately, neither her nor I saw the water that weekend, as the NCAA Covid shut-down had reached us first. 

The next five and half months were a bit of a blur. Amid the pandemic, my parents bought a Concept2 erg, and I went back to Montana and trained for another sort of erg season – but this one was alone (aside from a teammate that I often FaceTimed during workouts). The team had nearly 60 women, meaning I would need to move into the top two-thirds of the roster if I wanted to see any competition time, and earn a scholarship. Besides being several inches shorter than most of my teammates, I also lacked racing experience, and my only opportunity to gain any had been taken from me that year. With this in mind, I rowed and rowed and rowed. 

 

Junior fall came with a host of challenges put forth by Covid restrictions.

The mental challenge of erging alone was replaced by the challenge of erging in a mask. On the water, one splash from an oar could mean a soaked mask, and a feeling of suffocation.

Locker room access was cut off, there was no dining hall for athletes, and weight room time was limited. Rather than travel somewhere warm for winter training camp that year, we were confined to socially distanced cardio machines, outdoors in the frigid January weather. My engineering classes were relentless.

 

To top it all off, I received news of an overuse injury to my forearm that would sideline me for 5 months.

 

When the Oak Ridge regatta came around the second time, I stayed home for the injury. I was simultaneously frustrated by the slow progress of the injury, and fearful that I would never heal, never get to race, and be forced into medical retirement. This fear lived in my brain that year – and the voices of those who'd dissuaded me from trying out for the team echoed in my head. 

 

Despite these odds, I returned to the water mid-season and seat-raced into the 2v8+, the second ranked boat. My first race ever – in my entire career – was in Austin, Texas at the Longhorn Invitational, a major regatta racing seven boats across.

Through nearly two full years of grueling training, at age 21, I finally got a taste of what I had been training for.

The dead silence, the palpable tension at the start line. The coxswains' screams reverberating over the water. The surge of power through the boat in the last 500 meters. The experience was electrifying. 

 

The rest of my career took off as I began to settle into the sport. My senior year at Notre Dame, I rowed in the stroke seat of the first varsity 8+ boat, the top boat, a lifetime achievement. I performed well enough on a 2000-meter erg test to gain a place on the wall of fame as the 16th fastest in Notre Dame history – falling just four seconds short of the U23 Olympic Development Selection Camp cutoff.

I was named 2nd Team All-ACC that year. As a walk-on, it had taken a long time to dispel my imposter syndrome and prove to myself that I truly belonged in an elite sport, but that year was a breakthrough year for me.

With two years of eligibility remaining after graduation, I entered the transfer portal and was recruited by top 20 teams across the nation, including USC. In the spring of 2023, I had the surreal experience of racing in the NCAA National Rowing Tournament, alongside women who have earned international honors in the sport. As I begin my final season at USC, I reflect on some of the many lessons rowing has taught me: 

  • When doing a water sport in the midwest in the springtime, dress warm. Hypothermia is no joke.

  • If you surround yourself with excellent people, and make a habit of practicing excellence, there will inevitably be a day at which you too will perform excellently.

  • Don't let others tell you what is a "realistic" goal. They don't understand what you're willing to risk– or the effort you're willing to put forth– to get there.

  • You're never "too old" to start something new.

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