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Michigan State rowers build their own community

Emily Kellogg

Spartan varsity rowers come from all sports, sharing one desire - to keep competing at the highest level.

Some athletes work their entire athletic careers to make it to the Division 1 level, but there are other athletes that make it to this level without ever having completed in the sport. One sport that has this unique opportunity is rowing, also known as crew.

The specific reasons for choosing to compete in a completely different sport in college are different for each athlete but the desire to try something new is something they all share.

Emily Kellogg

“I've always loved sports and I really wanted to do a sport in college, but I also really love Michigan State,” said Jayden Schmaltz, a freshman on the team. “I wasn't actually good enough at any of my other sports to come and do them in college so I wanted to try something new and reached out to the rowing team.”

Kim Chavers, MSU rowing’s head coach, said the athletes who compete in rowing can come from a variety of sports. The previous sports represented on the team include basketball, volleyball, track and field, cross country, gymnastics, softball, swimming and more. Chavers also said the athletes that had previously competed in endurance sports had been very successful in rowing.

Emily Kellogg

Logan Hibbard, a freshman from California who ran track and field and cross country in high school, said the burnout from high jump was a factor that drove her to rowing.

“Mentally I just didn't want to do high jump anymore, it was really a mental sport so I was like, let's try something new,” Hibbard said. “I really liked cross country and they said if you like cross country you’ll like rowing and so that's why I did it.”

Emily Kellogg

For some athletes like Emily Carless, who was a gymnast at Western Michigan before being medically disqualified her junior year, rowing has been another shot at being a college athlete.

Emily Kellogg

“I had a career ending injury my junior year and so after many other injuries, I had to DQ medically,” said Carless. “I didn't want my college athletic career to be over and the Lord opened doors that I did not expect to be opened and then I just ended up here on the team.”

Emily Kellogg

Rowing is a sport that does not have as many athletes as many others in the United States. For example, there are only 92,000 registered rowers in the U.S. compared to the 24.3 million basketball players, with 892,000 in high school alone. Knowing that statistic it is not surprising to learn that some athletes only find out about rowing when they start looking for colleges, or even once they are already enrolled at their institution.

“I think the first time I heard about [rowing] was when we were touring the University of Texas with my dad and my cousin when some crew girls came by,” said Hibbard.

Carless, a fifth year on the team, had a different experience when it came to hearing about the sport as rowing had been a family affair for years before she became a student at Michigan State.

“My older sister [Sarah Carless] rowed at State, my younger sister [Maggie Carless] was going to be an incoming freshman that fall on the rowing team and my dad was on the [club] rowing team at Michigan State so it kind of was just a very easy transition,” said Carless.” It became a family thing very fast.”

Schmaltz competed in an array of sports in high school including basketball, volleyball, track and field and cross country. Even having experience trying multiple sports competing in a new sport in college can be a challenge that can come with some fear and nervousness.

“It was a little scary at first just because I had no idea what I was getting myself into,” said Schmaltz, “it was intimidating coming to the first couple of practices, because all the upperclassmen had experience in what they were doing and I'm just like, learning a whole new sport.”

The demanding nature of the sport was also a concern for some out-of-sport athletes. Hibbard said she pushed herself to feel prepared, working out up to three times a day to make sure she was ready.

“I came in and was like, ‘college athletics isn't anything new to me’ and so I thought I was gonna pick up a lot faster,” said Carless. “The biggest fear was just adjusting to it and rewiring my brain to being like, ‘No, this isn't only on me, it's an entire boat’ and so there were a couple fears, but I was able to slowly work through them.”

Emily Kellogg

The learning curve became the most intimidating factor for Carless, who initially didn’t have any reservations about the sport.

The transition into any new sport can be difficult but it can be even more of a challenge in college, especially at the division one level. Schmaltz said the transition went very quickly which added to the intensity.

“We went from not knowing how to row and just not doing any rowing competitions or practices to full 20 hour weeks of practice,” Schmaltz said. “Just going from zero to 100 real quick.”

Another factor that made the transition harder was the parts of the sport that can only be learned on the water. Hibbard said the technique that is used on the water looks simple but there are so many new things to take in so it can be unexpectedly difficult.

Emily Kellogg

Moving from a more individual sport into rowing, which is very much a team sport, was an interesting part of the transition for some.

“Last season was definitely an interesting season learning how to compete for rowing because gymnastics is a team sport, but it's also very individualized when you're competing, whereas with rowing there's not a second of individual work,” said Carless”

Learning a new sport is hard on its own and adding in working towards a college degree can make the process even more overwhelming.

“Adding school on top of [a new sport] was just really challenging,” Schmaltz said. “Moving to a new area, living on your own for the first time, not knowing many people and navigating this new environment made the transition to a new sport a little harder.”

Even though rowing is a new sport for these athletes, they were able to find similarities between it and the sports they had done before.

“I was a big runner in high school and rowing is so similar to that just for me because it’s a very big cardio sport,” said Schmaltz. “We do long pieces and short pieces, which correlates to long runs and short runs and sprints, and it's almost the exact same, just a different form of cardio.”

Being physically ready for a sport is necessary to compete in college but being mentally tough is arguably even more important. Rowing, as an endurance sport with few competitions which makes the training periods feel very long.

“Rowing and gymnastics are very mentally tough sports, but in two very different ways,” said Carless. “Rowing is one of those sports where during erg season, when the waters are frozen in Michigan, and we're on the rowing machines every single day for three hours, like that's a different type of mental toughness I've had to overcome.”

While the transition has not been easy, the support from the experienced athletes and the bond the team shares has made it easier.

“[The experienced athletes] are all super loving and accepting, it's nice to have those people that have done it before,” said Hibbar., “It's amazing to have 80 girls who just all want the same thing and I don't think that it would be nearly as much fun without them.”

Schmaltz said that one of the most integral parts of transitioning into a new sport was having a strong support system to back her up.

“The biggest thing that made this sport easier was just bonding with the girls on the team and becoming friends with them,” said Schmaltz. “Just knowing that we have the support network and using that support network to the max.”

Carless, who has been on the team for two years now, has gotten to see both sides of the dynamic between out-of-sport athletes and the experienced group.

“Last year, it was really awesome, everyone was super welcoming and patient and would totally help guide you, it helped us pick it up a lot faster,” Carless said. “Coming back this year, seeing the rookies transition and stuff was kind of cool because I was like ‘oh, I literally went through this last year.’ There is this nervousness, but it's cool, because you know everybody has your back and has your best interests in mind.”

Emily Kellogg

Knowing what they know now about the sport, each of the athletes said they have no regrets about trying a new sport in college and if they could go back to when they made the decision they would do it all over again.

“Yes, a thousand times yes,” said Carless. “I would not trade the experiences, the people I've met through rowing, through Michigan State Athletics, through being able to be involved and volunteer for things that I have, a million times yes, I would redo it.”

Schmaltz echoed the sentiment and said it has made her more of a problem solver.

“It is such a cool experience that not everybody gets to have and it shaped me into a stronger person who's more resilient when times get tough,” said Schmaltz.

Hibbard shared their view as well and said she would do it again.

“I just love everything about it honestly, it's just so different and so much fun,” said Hibbard. “I love that I get the chance to do this, it's just the coolest thing ever.”

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