Susan Francia won her second straight gold medal with the U.S. Rowing team over the summer in London.
But before her sophomore year at Penn, the two-time champ had never even picked up an oar.
Though Francia has reached the highest level of accomplishment in the sport of rowing, her story of discovering it in college isn’t a unique one.
“Our sport is great for walk-ons because many athletes haven’t had the opportunity to participate in rowing before,” lightweight crew coach Nick Baker said. “Rowing is just not a very popular sport yet across the country due to economic reasons, as well as location. You have to be near water that’s really calm in order to row. So there are a lot of areas in the nation that don’t offer rowing.”
The process for actually walking onto the team differs for each of Penn’s three squads. For the women’s team, the process begins with a four-week program.
“The four-week class was a great transition,” freshman Ali Tradonsky said. “It taught you everything you needed to know and broke it down and made it easy to understand.”
Women’s coach Mike Lane said this year yielded the largest turnout of new rowers, or novices, that he has seen in his 10 years at Penn. Seventy-nine women signed up and 40 proceeded to begin the class. At the end of the four weeks, 25 were invited to join the team.
In typical years, the team takes 10 to 15 walk-ons. But with this season’s large number, they currently make up a third of the women’s team.
Lane attributes the increasing interest to Francia, who walked on in her sophomore year at Penn.
For the men’s and women’s teams alike, coaches are just looking for athletic ability. Francia, at 6-foot-2, had the perfect frame for rowing.
“Walk-ons that are good athletes can catch on very quickly,” Baker said. “We’re trying to recruit some of the very best high school athletes in the country, so it’s a hard task to get up to their ability.”
Despite how impossible it might seem, the novices learn quickly and usually catch up to the rest of the experienced rowers near January. But in crew, like in any other sport, individuals with raw athleticism tend to excel — there are walk-ons who are better than some of the recruits.
Freshman Marissa Thompson came from a high school career of basketball and field hockey but has already surpassed some of the recruits on the team. She discovered crew during NSO and never expected to join a varsity team, but she has already fallen in love with the sport.
“It is easy to see yourself improving,” Thompson said. “I saw the numbers on the erg (rowing machine) that the recruits were getting, and it just motivated me more to get to where they are.”
The men’s lightweight team ended up taking 10 walk-ons this year after 40 began a two-week tryout period. All freshmen and novice upperclassmen lightweights are on a team of their own. When they rise to a second year, a drop is typically seen because varsity squad commitments and expectations are higher. Some of the weaker rowers, often walk-ons, then decide that the sport isn’t for them.
Junior Amy Beauchamp, a coxswain for the lightweight men, is the only walk-on left from her year. Only after two hallmates pushed her to attend the walk-on interest meeting did she learn anything about the sport. By October of her freshman year, she was hooked.
“If you stick with it, you reap the benefits of it,” Beauchamp said. “Once you break into it, it’s amazing — the most rewarding thing that I’ve ever found.”
Coaches and athletes alike acknowledge that after the novices learn rowing technique, very little distinction is made between the two groups.
“The unique thing about our sport is that anyone can show up and do this,” Lane said. “As long as they have the passion and the work ethic, we are going to take anyone.
“We’re really the only sport at this level, the Division I level, where you could show up not knowing how to hold an oar and end up making it to the Olympics.”