In any sport, it is unusual for an inexperienced beginner to work her way up to the highest ranks in a short four-year span. In all but a handful of extraordinary cases, learning the nuances of a sport well enough to compete at its highest levels requires a lifetime of practice and knowledge. However, for one Big Ten athlete, the rise to the top has been as rapid as it has been rare.
Ohio State sophomore Jessica Shepherd was the definition of an all-around athlete in high school. A three-sport star at Richmond, Ohio's Edison High School, Shepherd was a four-time letter-winner in soccer, basketball, and softball, and was the team captain her senior year for all three teams, so there was never any doubt that she possessed the athleticism to be a collegiate athlete. However, as she began her college career, her thoughts couldn't be further from sports. "When I came to college, I wasn't planning on doing anything athletic, because I wanted to focus on school."
A pre-med biology major, when Shepherd entered college, her focus was solely on her academics, but soon the lure of athletics came calling. As she was moving into her residence hall, a member of the women's crew team came up to her with a flier in hand and invited her to come out for the team. "As I was moving into my dorm, someone came up to me and handed me this pamphlet and said `You look like you could be a rower,' Shepherd recalls with a laugh. "I wasn't sure what that meant, I had no idea what a rower looked like."
Despite her initial uncertainties, at the next day's Student Involvement Fair on campus, Shepherd approached the rowing team's display and began getting to know the coaches and her future teammates. "I talked to Midge (McPhail), who is the novice coach, and she seemed really excited. I also talked to some of the other girls, and I really liked the way they presented themselves, so I went and tried it out."
The practice schedule that a rowing team endures is as rigorous as any varsity sport. Practices routinely begin before 6:00 a.m. and require extreme amounts of physical exertion. Despite the significant time commitment that becoming part of the crew team required, something drew Shepherd to the sport. "I knew I needed that competition in my life. I had done it for so long, I felt like I needed that something."
Due to its lack of widespread youth participation in the United States, most veteran rowers come from overseas and many American rowers start in novice boats, the equivalent to the high school "junior varsity" team. Each crew team generally has six boats; two novice eight person boats, two varsity four person boats, and two varsity eight person boats. A beginning rower generally starts in the novice boats, moves to the fours, and then into the varsity eights. For an inexperienced novice, the rate of ascension through the ranks of a rowing team is generally about three years before she can compete for a spot on the First Varsity Eight shell.
While the specific skills associated with the sports in which Shepherd competed in the past do not apply directly to rowing, her experience as a high school athlete clearly prepared her to row at the major collegiate level. "When I was a freshman in high school, I didn't expect to go out and start on the soccer team, but every day I would go out and try to learn something else, and I ended up starting. I have had to do that in rowing, because I had never rowed before, so every day I would try to work a little bit harder and learn a little bit more every day."
Shepherd began competing in the first novice eight boat as a freshman, and as the postseason approached, an open competition was held for spots on the Varsity Four shells. Shepherd claimed a spot on the First Varsity Four and competed in that boat through the NCAA National Championship race, in which her boat finished sixth. Her rapid assent into a national championship contending shell left Shepherd in awe of her surroundings. "I was a novice, I wasn't supposed to be going to Nationals. I couldn't believe I was rowing in a boat with the girls I was rowing with. I did not have expectations of doing anything like that."
In her sophomore season, Shepherd has raced as part of the First Varsity Eight, the top boat on the team. Recently, the Ohio State crew finished fourth at the NCAA Championships in Sacramento, California with Shepherd's shell finishing sixth in its event. At the outset of the season, one of the biggest obstacles Shepherd had to overcome was adjusting to her new boatmates. "I know our captain Diana (Albrecht) has been rowing for nine years. I was just overwhelmed to be in a boat with her. I had so much respect for her and the rest of the team," Shepherd said. "I knew how good they were, I just couldn't believe that I was there with them."
Even with the success that the team and Shepherd has had this year, the sophomore has not let the training and competition detract from her original collegiate plans. Still focusing on a career in medicine, Shepherd is now hoping to add a minor in molecular genetics. While she knows that the added coursework will require more time to be focused on academics, Shepherd believes that she is prepared. "I spend a lot of time studying when I am not practicing. I definitely don't get to have all the fun times that you hear others having, but I think it's definitely worth it."
Despite being an accomplished waterskier, Shepherd's acclimation to being on the water, is no less stunning. Many novice rowers aren't able to do in an entire career four-year career what Shepherd has done in a single season. As she continued to advance up the rowing ranks, a singular thought kept pushing her to give more. "I would tell myself, `No matter what happens, no matter where I am, I just need to do as well as I can on that day, in that moment."