Engineering the Standard
April 9, 2008
by Jeff Smith
When speaking with Minnesota's Jennifer Barnes, one would never know she is arguably the best rower in the Golden Gophers' history without her bio in hand. She is the last to mention that not only is she the lone All-American in program history, but she has captured that honor twice in as many years. In fact, head coach Wendy Davis said she would be shocked if Barnes even had the certificates displayed in her room.
Truth be told, rowing was never anything more than a form of exercise for Barnes. Now, with eyes set on completing her senior season and a potential run at the 2012 Olympics, rowing for Barnes has become a form of life.
A self-described active kid form Columbus, Ind., Barnes grew up participating in every sport possible. She was a multi-letterwinner in basketball, soccer and softball in high school and even found time for the marching band. Long before Minnesota came into the picture for Barnes, she opted to stay in the state for school and attend Purdue. She chose to attend the school for its engineering program and the fact that both her parents were Purdue graduates, but she also had hopes of walking on to the Boilermaker basketball team.
It was during freshman orientation in West Lafayette that Barnes learned that Purdue would not have any open walk-on positions for the upcoming season, which prompted to her to look elsewhere. After all, a winner of 10 letters in high school had to stay active in college, right?
Barnes was approached by the Purdue club rowing team and encouraged to give it a try. When asked about her prior knowledge of the sport, Barnes replied, "In Columbus, there is no such thing as rowing."
But look...for a college freshman in a new environment, ready to take on a major of chemical engineering, who wouldn't want to stay active by waking up before dawn for practice?
It was a new stage for Barnes both personally and athletically. The stress she endured tackling a demanding major while paying her way to compete in a sport that did not reap the benefits a sponsored varsity sport did was overwhelming.
"I have stories about 'mandatory' practices," Barnes said. "We had to make due with whatever we had. Sometimes we only had six rowers in one of our eights and some of us had to double up on practices. A lot of times I had to miss practice because I had an exam."
Barnes was the average college student trying to make things meet. She paid for her school while her father paid for her rowing. But after competing at the club level, Barnes realized this was something that was a little more than just a way to stay active.
After being encouraged by her club coach, Barnes began posting her times and weight-training results on the Internet with hopes that a Division I program would find interest in her. One program that did was Cincinnati, however before she could transfer, she had to figure out if there was still going to be a program there when she arrived.
"I actually committed to going to Cincinnati and was going out to a camp in Philadelphia when I noticed I already received a bill in the mail from the school," she said. "I asked them what that was all about, and the coach said they were having troubles with their program and I might want to look elsewhere."
That same coach put Barnes in touch with both the Minnesota and Ohio State rowing programs. Within five days, she took visits to both campuses.
Unlike her missed out opportunity with Purdue basketball, Minnesota did in fact have room for her on the squad and was actually in a position to offer her a scholarship, something Ohio State could not do at the time.
"We were actually really lucky to get her," Davis said. "She was set to transfer to Cincinnati, but they cut their program and we were able to give her one of our scholarships."
Since arriving on campus, Barnes has helped the Gophers achieve unparalleled success. She competed in every race during the fall and spring seasons in the First Varsity Eight boat and earned first-team All-Conference, Region and America honors in 2006. Last year she duplicated those efforts and was named the Big Ten's Athlete of the Year after helping Minnesota to a record-breaking win at the conference championship. The Gophers would go on to finish sixth at the NCAA Championships and Barnes later was the team's first-ever rower invited to the U.S. Under-23 Selection Camp.
Barnes has played a major role - an engineering role, if you will - in the progression of the Minnesota program.
"It was great to win Big Tens last year because when I first got here, I think no one on the varsity level had ever medaled in an event. Then we had some boats win and last year we won it all as a team."
It is only those types of medals that Barnes is focused on winning. She said of her postseason accolades that she hopes those only show others what type of work ethic she has and the type of athlete she is.
"I try not to think a lot about those things," she said. "I don't go shouting off the rooftops."
Davis says her senior standout should be proud of her accomplishments.
"She is very quiet though," Davis said. "I wonder if she even has those awards hanging in her room. I wouldn't be surprised if she didn't."
As the Gophers are getting underway in the spring season, all signs seem to point toward another successful year for Barnes and the team. Despite losing a number of starters in the First Varsity Eight boat, several rowers from the second boat are eager to step up and follow Barnes' lead.
Davis points out that while Barnes is a quiet leader, her efforts in the weight room and on the lake have been noticed. She is arguably the strongest rower on the team and is often hearing the praises of Davis from the shoreline.
The latter, however, is not something that has always been a good thing. In her first two years, Barnes would hear her named called by Davis because she was not performing on a level at which the boat and her teammates demanded. Davis says Barnes is typically tense at the start of the race, which has not helped the boat in the early stages.
"Last year she was still figuring out the technique, but in the second half of the race is when she would come into her own. That kind of became our signature and now she hears her name yelled out, but followed by 'Good job.'"
Speaking of signatures, Barnes says that while this year's academic demands have not been as great as in year's past, majoring in chemical engineering often leaves her looking at homework with a blank stare, convinced the only thing right on the paper is her name.
"You have a lot of assignments in engineering and sometimes you have a night when you just stare at the paper," she said. "Last year I had 11 experiments over the course of the year. It's not like this is a major where you have Fridays off either."
Scheduling is another factor that plays into Barnes' stressful juggling act. Often times the team is on the road by Thursday and has been known to miss a few Mondays on the back end of competition.
But one of the perks Barnes has now is the flexibility with professors, advisors and tutors, something she did not have when she was a "regular student" at Purdue. In fact, she has even managed to balance school and rowing with a part-time job as a lab technician at 3M in Minneapolis.
Barnes is in the process of interviewing for a career in the engineering field and says she would enjoy staying in Minneapolis for the next few years.
That is of course until 2012, when Barnes and Davis hope she has other interests to pursue.
"I'd definitely like to pursue rowing in the future," Barnes said. "Going to the U-23 camp over the summer was a good experience and it showed me what they are looking for. You see the work that needs to be put in and I think it broadened my knowledge of the sport."
Many now can look at the Minnesota rowing program and see the work Barnes has put into the sport in her three years on campus. For Davis, Barnes' efforts are simply one by which others will be measured.
"She will have left her mark when she leaves," Davis said. "And it's that this is the standard. This is what it takes."