My name is Sophia Denison-Johnston and I’ve been rowing for the past dozen years. As a young adult post-college, navigating my sport and pursuing a rowing career without the support network that college provided has been an incredible growth experience— It’s been rewarding, devastating, and anything but easy.
A few days ago USRowing made an announcement about changing the structure of high performance rowing to better support athletes. To be honest, it had me a little emotional. After one of the most fun and exciting racing experiences of my life at 2021 Olympic Trials, I haven’t touched a boat for about 5 or 6 months— the longest time I’ve gone without rowing since I started.
I intend to come back to the sport, but after 3 years straight out of college trying to go the high performance route, I was straight up burned out. This post isn’t a sob story— merely my experience, a window to the life of a post-collegiate athlete, and my story of how I am trying to adapt and find balance as an adult athlete. Every person’s story is different, but here is mine. To be clear, I’ve had a great time rowing since college… I just can’t imagine trying to do the next three years before 2024 trials the same way I did the last three...
The first challenge of post collegiate rowing is that of finding the right coach and training environment. As of right now the scarcity of coaching and high performance rowing on the West Coast (where I am from and prefer to live) is severe, and while the East Coast has grown on me, I have never truly felt comfortable or at home there. Additionally, while sweep rowing is incredibly well funded on the collegiate level and there are tons of amazing coaches out there who really know what they’re doing, the expertise when it comes to sculling is much less developed here in the US.
Sponsorships in rowing aren’t really “a thing” like they are in some other individual sports, so whenever I met someone new and they asked if I was a pro, I uncomfortably had to answer, “uuuhhh no”, despite knowing that every decision I made was with the goal of moving my boat faster. Like many other athletes and rowers I know, I struggled to find a way to perform at my best and simply survive. I moved every 3-6 months, either for racing or training. I had to work in order to afford living, and the time I spent working took away from my ability to recover and perform in training. My first year out of college I worked 7 days a week and trained over 30hrs/week. Unsurprisingly, I ended up nowhere near my peak fitness. Part of this was the urgency of an Olympic year, and the urgency that us lightweights felt when we thought we only had one more shot. Part of it was not really taking the time to set up a more efficient career. But a lot of it is that being a rower requires a huge time commitment and a lot of flexibility and travel time. Straight out of college, it is really hard to find a job that lets you do all of that and actually make enough money to afford club memberships and equipment, let along enough to live off of. I could never afford my own boat, since all of my savings were spent traveling for 3 months each summer for trials events and not working at all. My healthcare was a joke and each injury or health problem I dealt with was addressed slowly and ineffectively, if at all, by the doctors under my health insurance. I was missing months due to a shoulder that refused to stay in its socket, and without access to a PT for various reasons, Seattle-based and rowing-specific PT Karen Calara graciously walked my teammate through relocating my shoulder via FaceTime on numerous occasions. It became utterly clear that if I wanted to really treat myself like an athlete, I’d need to be willing to go into debt over it, or just keep trying my best while spreading myself thin, which was getting me nowhere fast.
I want to take a moment to acknowledge that there are couple of clubs that do make the life of a rower much more manageable— Craftsbury being the most obvious, because athletes live at the training center, and have a work trade system that allows them to not need other jobs. The structure is awesome, but not every single rower can go to Craftsbury, and Vermont isn’t for everyone. OKC also provides resources like housing for their athletes, so again, there are options, they just weren’t the right fit for me. There are organizations like OneWorld Rowing who are trying to help athletes like me connect to the resources they need. Okay back to the story…
When COVID hit, I was unable to go to work and started to receive unemployment. For the first time, I was able to just row and not worry about a 6hr shift in between training sessions or where my next meal would come from. I saw PR’s for the first time in 3 years. As Olympic trials neared, I sucked it up and asked my friends and family for financial support so that I could afford the help of specialists that I knew would be crucial to my success. I was lucky to get an overwhelming show of love and support, and for the first time, I was able to truly recover and take care of myself like an elite athlete. While for the average active person a dietitian and bodyworker may seem like a luxury, for me it was essential. It was the most healthcare I had received since college and certainly the highest quality in my short lifetime. It kept me injury free and I was able to easily make weight, feel at the top of my game, and perform at my best at Olympic Trials. That race was the first time I truly felt like my top performance was available to me when the opportunity presented itself, and it stemmed from being able to actually treat my body the way an elite athlete should, without cutting corners due to lack of resources or time.
Throughout the last four or five years of racing as a lightweight outside of my college season, I’ve heard a lot of “this is just how it has been and always will be” with regards to our system of training and selecting athletes, or lack there of. I refuse to believe that this is the only way to be a successful rower. In fact, I am confident that if we reject this way of either glorified hustle and suffering or blessed with other people’s money, we can instead carve a path that is better for us as people both on and off the water. We have the potential to be so much more successful than what is possible when we are all just fending for ourselves, and even more, we can be HAPPIER while doing it. I have seen so many athletes, myself included, give their life to this sport— it shows up in wrecking metabolisms, injuries, mental health issues like disordered eating, depression, and anxiety. As Sophie Heywood said on one of our long cross-country days, “that’s not what loving something looks like”. That phrase stuck with me.
So where does that leave me now? I’m taking care of “off-the-water-DJ”, because I love this sport, but I’ve been neglecting her for far too long for the sake of a dream. My Olympic dream is not lost, but it is now accompanied by a dream of doing it without hurting myself and sacrificing who I am beyond rowing. I understand that nobody is going to give me everything I need to achieve those things— I have to build it for myself. For me that meant taking time off to attend and complete massage school, allowing me to find a job with people I can learn from, where I can set my own hours and make a decent income, and where I feel fulfilled with or without rowing. I’ve decided to do all the things that were off-limits during training and make time for FUN. I am making time for the people in my life who had my back when I felt like I was treading water.
Rather than train and compete for the 2021-22 season I’ve also decided to row to Hawaii with 3 of the toughest and most genuine women I know with Lat35. The row is about 2,500nm and the world record, set this past year by the Oceansheroes is 35 days. This row is about teamwork, its about finding our limits, and its about doing something for ourselves, going after what lights a fire in us. It’s also about working outside of the typical rowing sphere to find support, sponsorship opportunities, partners, strength coaches, and other specialists that make an athlete great.
I look forward to seeing what the landscape of High Performance Rowing looks like when I’m ready to come back. According to the claims in the announcement, the change of structure aims to provide athletes with more of the essential tools I described above. My hope is that future athletes won’t have to choose between debt and becoming their best. Until then, you can find me in the mountains, at the beach, in the air, or on the ocean.