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Robert Morris

Thomas Jefferson grad Gress excels for RMU rowing program

| Friday, May 25, 2018, 11:12 p.m.
Thomas Jefferson grad Rachel Gress (far right, standing) is a member of the Robert Morris rowing team.
Thomas Jefferson grad Rachel Gress (far right, standing) is a member of the Robert Morris rowing team.
Thomas Jefferson grad Rachel Gress (second from right) is a member of the Robert Morris rowing team.
Thomas Jefferson grad Rachel Gress (second from right) is a member of the Robert Morris rowing team.

It began innocently with an introductory letter in the mail, and has blossomed into a budding collegiate athletic career.

In the water.

Thomas Jefferson graduate Rachel Gress recently completed her freshman season as a member of the women's rowing program at Robert Morris.

Now, Gress plans to continue with the sport through her college career.

“I first received a letter in the mail talking about the (RMU) rowing program, so that's the first thing that sparked interest,” Gress said. “I then talked to my parents about possibly joining, and my dad mentioned that one of his co-worker's daughters was on the rowing team a long time ago. I thought it would be something cool to do, and since I had done so much in high school, I thought I should at least try something that would allow me to stay active.

“I think I have learned so much and have improved tremendously. I did not really know anything about rowing and was quite surprised to learn that it is more of a leg sport than an arm one. My whole boat, which was made up of first-year walk-ons, commented in the last week of our season of how far we have come. When we first started, we were terrified to row with more than four people at a time; there are eight in a boat. Now, we row all eight and can do it (mostly) on the square, rowing with the blade perpendicular instead of parallel to the water.

“Even being able to describe all of these terms and understanding the jargon of rowing really shows how far I have come; at the beginning, I had no idea what any of these words meant. I have also become a lot stronger and now understand how to be productive and move a boat. I know there is still a lot left to learn and I can always become stronger and faster, which is why I'm so excited for next season.”

Gress, who graduated from TJ ranked third in her class with a 4.226 GPA, competed as a member of RMU's novice rowing team this season. The RMU women practice and row on the Ohio River; if flooding occurs or if the flow is too fast, they go to Raccoon Creek State Park.

RMU races are conducted out of the Three Rivers Rowing Association boat house. Gress manned what is called the boat's stroke seat for the Colonials.

“My freshman season went better than expected,” Gress said. “It ended on Mothers' Day (at) the MAAC championship in New Jersey. The stroke seat is the person everybody is facing and the person that sets up the stroke rating, how many strokes we take in a minute. I'm in the back of the boat, but since everybody is facing backwards it is the front to us.

“A lot of credit has to go to the coaches because they have provided me with so much support and have pushed me to be better, stronger and faster every day. They have a great vision for the team, and I just hope that I, along with my teammates, can work hard to make that happen.”

Gress, 19, is majoring in biology with plans to work in the forensic science field after graduation.

“Rachel was a standout in her first year as a rower,” said Carol Schoenecker, RMU's novice team coach. “She walked on with a fire and determination to excel not only as an athlete, but as a leader and teammate, as well. Rachel was fearless from her first day on the water — a trait that quickly spread to her fellow novices. As the year progressed, it was clear she was a clear choice for stroke seat (the leader of the boat).

“I fully expect Rachel to continue to excel and work her way into the top boat. I think she's made the decision to be great, which means nothing can stop her now. On top of that, she's already established herself as a trusted leader on the team. Her teammates voted her ‘Novice of the Year,' and she's frequently elected to be the voice of her class.”

In high school, Gress played tennis and competed in track and field for four years. She threw the discus and javelin, and ran in the 3,200 and 800 events, along with the 3,200 relay. She was a member of the History Club, Stem Club, French Honor Society, National Honor Society, and she participated in Envirothon, a regional high school nature competition.

“I have also been doing karate since I was in second grade at Rising Sun Martial Arts,” Gress said. “I earned my black belt right before I started ninth grade, and earned my first-degree black belt right before 12th grade. I taught 3- to 6-year-olds every week all through high school.”

The Robert Morris rowing season began in October at the Head of the Ohio in Pittsburgh. The Colonials also competed in Fairfax Station, Va., Shelton, Conn., Philadelphia, Buffalo, N.Y., and Pennsauken, N.J.

“I think I will remember my very first race, which was in March,” Gress said. “We had races in the fall that, for a number of reasons, I could not race in. During fall season, the races are longer, and then for the spring season, the races are sprints.

“All of the walk-ons had a three-week training period where we learned to row before we went to practices with the rest of the team. But I will remember that first race because it was all of our's first sprint race, and we were very nervous. We ended up winning by quite a bit, and we knew at that point that all of our hard work during winter training and the week of training in South Carolina over spring break was worth it. We really trusted each other there, and knew we wanted to keep on succeeding.

“I will also remember all of the early morning practices because even though sometimes it is not fun to have to wake up so early, you get to start your day with so much positivity and with a great group of strong women. I am excited for the (future) because I think we are really starting a shift at Robert Morris, and we have the potential to go really fast.”

RMU athletes are novices for just one year. In collegiate rowing, an athlete's first year as an eligible participant is their ‘novice' year.

“This means you can put a first-year recruited athlete with rowing experience in a novice event, along with walk-on novice athletes,” Schoenecker said. “Next year, all second-year athletes will have to compete as varsity.

“Rachel and her fellow walk-ons excelled in novice events this year, which led them to compete in a varsity event at the conference championships.

“And just a plug for novice rowing in general: Rowing is one of the few sports where the general student population has a chance to literally walk on to a Division I program. RMU acknowledges that there is limited access to rowing clubs in a great number of areas around this country, so we encourage those who have always wanted the chance to try our unique sport to push themselves out of their comfort zones and commit to something new. Plenty of current Olympic rowers didn't start the sport until they were in college.”

Ray Fisher is a freelance writer.

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