By MICHAEL BURWELL
COLUMBUS — It’s hard to believe that an athlete can play an NCAA Division I sport for a major school when they didn’t even know the sport existed while in high school.
For three former area athletes, though, it didn’t matter that they didn’t know the sport.
And now, they’re a part of a successful program at Ohio State University.
Hopewell-Loudon’s Anne Fruth, Ottawa-Glandorf’s Kelsey Hoehn and Liberty-Benton’s Samantha Rhodes each walked on to the Buckeyes’ women’s rowing team.
Although it involves a boat and water, it’s a lot more extreme than a simple canoe trip down the Blanchard River.
“Rowing is just so unique. I’ve been involved in a lot of different sports before, and it’s the most intense, the most pain I’ve ever felt in my life but it’s also the most rewarding sport,” Rhodes said.
Fruth, a junior at OSU, has been on the team for all three of her college years, while Hoehn and Rhodes are both in their first year on the team as sophomores.
The Buckeyes, who have 64 women out for the upcoming season (nine seniors, 14 juniors, 19 sophomores and 22 freshmen), have a varsity and novice team. In order to get to the varsity level as a walk-on, the player must compete on the novice team for a year.
Fruth started her freshman season as a novice rower, and Hoehn and Rhodes are part of that group this season. The Buckeyes will open their season Saturday with a home meet on the Scioto River’s Griggs Reservoir against Indiana and Michigan.
OSU has several boats that compete in each regatta, or series of races: a first and second varsity eight; a first, second and third varsity four; and a first and second novice eight, depending on the meet. Each race is 2,000 meters, and there are different sessions as well.
The novice program is used throughout the season and in the Big Ten Conference tournament, but not in the NCAA tournament because not all schools have novice programs.
So how did Fruth, Hoehn and Rhodes find out about the rowing team? It involved recruitment, but not until they got to Columbus.
Ohio State recruits not only high school rowers from around the world, but also recruits rowers on campus. The three found out about the team either by emails from coaches, checking out the Buckeyes’ athletic website or other rowers talking about the sport.
“I think it’s something that makes rowing pretty special because there’s really no other Division I intercollegiate sport where they’re giving people who haven’t been in that sport for years, up to 10 or 12 years practicing their sport, (a chance),” OSU women’s rowing head coach Andy Teitelbaum said. “We’re the only sport really giving people an opportunity to start a sport and compete at the highest collegiate level.”
Because of that, all three rowers took advantage to continue their athletic career, despite never thinking back in high school they would be part of a college crew team.
“I didn’t really know rowing even existed to be honest, so I never knew that I was going to be doing this,” Rhodes said. “But it’s such an awesome experience to be able to be a part of.”
All three said they were interested in rowing because they missed the competition and being part of a team.
“I have had an athletic background and I just really enjoy sports,” Fruth said. “I’ve done endurance sports before with cross country in high school and I just enjoy sports and competition, so I checked it out.”
Fruth, Hoehn and Rhodes were multi-sport athletes in high school.
Fruth played softball along with running cross country; Hoehn was a three-sport standout in soccer, swimming and track; and Rhodes ran cross country and track while also playing basketball for the Eagles.
“It’s just so different and not anything that I’ve ever been used to,” Hoehn said of rowing. “So I guess every day I feel like I’m learning something new about the sport, and that’s just really interesting.”
Just like swimming and running, the best way to get better at the sport is to, well, row.
The Buckeyes practice up to 20 hours a week either on rowing machines in St. John Arena or at the $5.2 million Griggs Reservoir Boathouse along the Scioto River about four miles west of campus which was built in 2011.
All of that practice has paid off for OSU, which has one of the best women’s rowing programs in the country. The Buckeyes won the 2013 NCAA team rowing championship for the first time in school history.
It was also Ohio State’s first NCAA team championship in any women’s sport.
“There was a lot of pride once we had accomplished it, stepping back and sort of seeing the mark that we had made,” Teitelbaum said. “From a coaching standpoint, it was really sort of quite humbling watching our athletes do as well as they did and row with as much passion and enthusiasm and commitment for each other that they did throughout that regatta.”
Ohio State is one of four schools (along with Brown, Princeton and Washington) to have qualified for 14 consecutive NCAA rowing championships, according to the school’s athletic website. The NCAA tournament featured 22 teams (11 conference winners and 11 at-large teams) last season, up from 16 teams each of the previous four years. The Buckeyes have also won four Big Ten championships (2013, 2011, 2006 and 2002).
Not bad, considering OSU’s women’s rowing program didn’t even start until 1995.
“A lot of it is credited to the athletes that have rowed for us, really,” said Teitelbaum, who has been the Buckeyes’ only head coach. “They’re the ones that make the boats go fast, they’re the ones that have committed themselves to making sure that Ohio State rowing is amongst one of the best programs in the country.”
Although Fruth didn’t compete in the NCAA championships last season, she saw plenty of time in the water on the second and third varsity four team. She was a part of the second varsity four team that finished third in the Big Ten Championships.
As a freshman, Fruth started out on the second novice eight, but worked her way up to the first novice eight, which won a Big Ten title.
“She’s a quiet worker, so you don’t get a whole lot of complaining from her or anything like that,” Teitelbaum said of the 5-foot-8 junior. “If anything, she sets a good example for everybody else because she’s not naturally gifted in terms of being really tall or anything along those lines. Her toughness and I think her appreciation for this opportunity to be a varsity athlete and to race for Ohio State is something that’s important to have on the team.”
Being part of a national championship team, though, is something Fruth said she’ll never forget, and she’s still on “cloud nine” almost a year later. Competing for a Division I college team is also something she, along with Hoehn and Rhodes, said she’s thankful for.
“Ohio State athletics is such a high program, so there’s no way I really could have seen this coming,” Fruth said. “I have to pinch myself every day still to really think about where I am and what kind of program I’m with.
“Coming in, I didn’t know anything about rowing. I was just a little freshman trying out a sport, and for it to turn into something as great as it is, you want to represent it well because it’s given you so much.”
Send an E-mail to Mike Burwell