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Michigan State student rediscovers love of rowing and finds love too

Sophie Shaker and her boyfriend William Hammerslag at the Mid-America Collegiate Rowing Association (MACRA) Championship.
Sophie Shaker
Sophie Shaker and her boyfriend William Hammerslag at the Mid-America Collegiate Rowing Association (MACRA) Championship.

Sophie Shaker, a sophomore from Chicago, was a successful high school rower who had to stop after a serious car crash. She found her way back to the water, thanks to MSU’s co-ed club team.

Michigan State junior Sophie Shaker has found a way back to the sport she has loved for years following a career-ending injury. Shaker has rowed since her freshman year of high school.

She attended New Trier High School in suburban Chicago, which has a nationally known competitive rowing team.

“I didn’t really have a sport going into high school to focus on,” Shaker said. “But my friends and I, kind of on a whim, tried out for the rowing team.”

Shaker rowed as a lightweight novice, or “first year rowers,” her freshman year and continued to lightweight varsity until her senior year of high school. The term “lightweight” means she must weigh no more than 130 lbs. She reached Scholastic Nationals and medaled every year she competed.

Shaker was on track to attend a Division 1 college for rowing entering her senior year, getting offers from Michigan State, Gonzaga, Ohio State and Rutgers.

This track was quickly rerouted in the fall of her senior year.

Shaker and two friends were headed home after a September night at the beach. Shaker was behind the wheel when her friend yelled out “Car” and they were struck by a drunk driver.

(Left to Right) Ryan Bis, Atticus Chong, William Hammerslag and Sophie Shaker at the Hooch Regatta in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Sophia Shaker
(Left to Right) William Hammerslag, Alex Walker, Ethan Wright, Pahul Kahlon and Sophie Shaker at the Head of the Charles Regatta in Boston after placing 11th.

“I didn’t see the car at first because the crash was a T-bone style crash,” Shaker said. “The car came from my left and that’s when my friend screamed, ‘Car’, and I slammed on my brakes. If it wasn’t for my friend, the car would have crashed into my driver’s side door, and who knows what would have been the result of that. The other car flipped over my hood, so my first thought was to go check on the other car.”

Shaker’s car was totaled. Luckily, her friends sustained no injuries, but she experienced intense whiplash, resulting in repetitive and permanent damage to the muscles in her back.

Shaker keeps the details of her injuries vague, due to the fact that she never received an official diagnosis and is still in a lawsuit against the drunk driver. She attended physical therapy for eight months following the crash, testing out many different methods such as dry needling and electrical stimulation.

But, with irreparable back injuries, rowing at a competitive level was no longer an option for Shaker.

“Following the accident, I didn’t drive for probably four months, just because I didn’t want to,” Shaker said. “I’ve definitely become a big advocate against drunk driving, which is pretty prevalent in our college society.”

Shaker still decided to attend MSU in Fall 2021, but did not plan to return to rowing.

“My freshman year, I didn’t really have any friends and I wasn’t really getting out of my dorm at all,” Shaker said. “So I wanted to find a way to make friends.”

A year after her injury, Shaker decided she was going to make friends by joining the MSU Crew Club. The team is co-ed, consisting of 16 female rowers and 40 to 45 male rowers. Two years ago, the team didn’t have any women rowing, but has since grown the program.

“I think our team has a great culture around the sport, especially because of our rowing program,” Shaker said. “We have worked to focus on inclusivity in the sport.”

She joined the team as a coxswain, a role that is drastically different from her previous position as a rower.

The coxswain sits at the back of the boat, facing the rowers, and doesn’t help the propulsion of the boat. Rather, they act as the coach of their boat, telling the rowers what drills to perform, changes to make and keeping the rowers focused. A coxswain is also in charge of steering.

“A good coxswain is someone that can work safely and effectively to the finish line while keeping their rowers engaged and aware of what’s going on,” Shaker said.

Shaker has been able to lead her boat of four to eight male rowers to success with her background of being a rower and knowing the ins and outs of the sport.

“I definitely think, compared to my colleagues that have just joined, I’m able to call out technique way more effectively, especially on the varsity side of things, just because it’s harder to see fine details,” Shaker said.

She has had to learn how to steer the boat as well as how to motivate her rowers.

“On the motivating side, I would say motivating me is different than motivating women, so I’ve had to work through that difference.” Shaker said. “They prefer different ways of motivation. Men are very motivated by numbers and distance and women like more motivational words and phrases and calls that amp them up more.”

Her boyfriend, Will Hammerslag, is among one of the men in her boat.

(Left to Right) Ryan Bis, Atticus Chong, William Hammerslag and Sophie Shaker at the Hooch Regatta in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Sophie Shaker
(Left to Right) Ryan Bis, Atticus Chong, William Hammerslag and Sophie Shaker at the Hooch Regatta in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

“He was my stroke seat, so he sits right in front of me when we’re rowing,” Shaker said.

The couple started dating last year, after two-and-a-half years of Shaker being Hammerslag’s coxswain.

Hammerslag has seen Shaker grow as a coxswain and praises her for her improvement in technique and becoming more confident out on the water.

“She’s definitely gotten a lot more confident and a lot more willing to call us on our shit, essentially,” Hammerslag said. “Most of all, just from a technical aspect, she got a let better at steering, a lot better at making calls, a lot better at feeling out what the boat’s doing wrong and how to help us.”

The couple balances the dynamic of being boyfriend and girlfriend and also teammates well.

“We haven’t really run into any difficulties as far as being on the team, just because we both respect the dynamic of the team and the culture that goes along with it,” Shaker said. “He listens to me, for the most part.”

Hammerslag echoes this respect, saying that when he’s on the water, Shaker’s his coxswain. Shaker as his coxswain is loud and gets after her rowers, different from his calm and polite girlfriend.

“She’s mean when she needs to be,” Hammerslag said. “Especially last year, we had this one fourth, it was the same four of us and then Sophie for the whole year, and by the spring, she was pretty hard on us, but it helped us get a lot better. She’s got a lot of enthusiasm. She screams at us when she’s on the water, but that’s what encourages us the most.”

The couple shares the same favorite memory of placing high at Head of the Charles regatta in Boston during Fall 2022 in their boat of four.

“We sent two boats, and I was in the varsity four,” Shaker said. “We got 11th out of 53 boats, I believe, which is the best our program has done in a good minute.”

Shaker is grateful that she chose to return to rowing following her injuries. She loves the friends that MSU Crew has brought her and enjoys her new role as a coxswain

“I wish more than anything to get back into a boat and race as a rower, it’s different as a coxswain,” Shaker said. “But I love being a coxswain because I like having control of steering and knowing what’s going on.”

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