Sammy Johnson: Earning a spot on a Division One crew roster without rowing


Credit: Courtesy of Sammy Johnson

Wayland Class of 2022 graduate Sammy Johnson makes the University of Madison-Wisconsin Division I rowing team with no prior rowing experience. Following her signing with the team, Wisconsin’s novice coaches are teaching Johnson the fundamentals of the sport. “It feels great to represent my school,” Johnson said. “Out of the 45,000 students that go to Wisconsin, only 900 are athletes, so it feels pretty cool to be one of them.”

Emily Roberge

It’s 5:45 a.m. on a Monday morning. The sun has yet to rise. The temperature remains cool at 20 degrees Fahrenheit on Lake Mendota, Wisconsin. While other college students get a few hours of extra sleep before their 9 a.m. class, Division I athletes find themselves training at early morning practices. For many high school athletes, who have spent years competing in their respective sports, the opportunity to be a part of a Division I program is a distant dream. But not for first year University of Madison-Wisconsin rower Sammy Johnson.

Johnson achieved athletic success by becoming a three season varsity athlete in soccer, basketball and lacrosse at Wayland High School. With her accomplishments on the field and court, Johnson had no interest in pursuing any other sports. That was until her freshman year orientation at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she considered a new passion: rowing.

“My mom made me go up to the rowing table and talk to the coaches,” Johnson said. “I got the coaches’ information and they seemed interested, so I got to campus at the end of August, and then I completed a two week tryout period in the beginning of September.”

During the two week tryout period, the athletes practiced on the open water, learning the fundamentals of the sport. Tryout time not spent on the water included four mile runs and 40 minute hill sprints up the campus’s steepest hill, the 850 foot Bascom Hill. Out of the 150 girls that tried out, only 40 made the roster. And Johnson was one of them.

“It feels great to represent my school,” Johnson said. “Out of the 45,000 students that go to Wisconsin, only 900 are athletes, so it feels pretty cool to be one of them.”

But Johnson is not the only newcomer to the sport, as roughly 40 of her teammates have just begun rowing. These new rowers are taught by the Wisconsin novice coaches, who work beneath the head coach to help introduce the athletes to the sport.

“The novice coaches really want you to be a part of the program and love the sport,” Johnson said. “They are really open and encouraging throughout the whole tryout process. The team’s environment is such a good environment and everyone is there for you and builds you up.”

Along with the novice coaches, the connections she shares with her teammates have eased Johnson’s transition into a Division I program.

“The girls are super nice,” Johnson said. “They are all similar to me in how they played sports in high school, so it’s super easy to interact with them. A lot of the girls also wanted a big college experience and couldn’t play their respective sports at that level, so they gave rowing a shot.”

Despite Johnson and her teammates being new to the sport, they still have time to adjust. Because rowing is a spring sport, Johnson’s team is still in preseason. During the fall, the team trains for the Big Ten rowing season’s start in March, where they will travel to places like New Jersey, Florida and even California. Even though her team isn’t in season, rowers still have long hours of training.

“Right now, we are in 16 hour weeks,” Johnson said. “We have practices 4-6 p.m. Monday through Friday and a three hour practice on Saturday. As for fitness, twice a week on Tuesdays and Thursdays we are at the University of Wisconsin’s stadium, Camp Randall, at 5:45 a.m. running the stadium stairs.”

Different from their dry land training, rowing offers a combination of both competition and teamwork.

“It’s a really cool feeling seeing the boat next to you and wanting to beat them,” Johnson said. “Of course, I am new to it, so I am focused on doing the right thing and not messing up, but hopefully I will get more used to rowing and calm down more on the water.”

Beginning a sport late has taught Johnson necessary life lessons, especially as an elite athlete.

“Rowing has taught me consistency,” Johnson said. “You are not going to become an Olympic rower in one day, so you must show up to practice every day with a good attitude and be ready to learn.”

Following her first few months with the Wisconsin rowing team, Johnson encourages others to take a chance and try something different. She had never picked up an oar before, now look where she is.

“Just go for it,” Johnson said. “You don’t really have much to lose. If you don’t make the team, then at least you can have an experience that not many people get to experience. If you make the team, then it is a great experience that you can only learn from.”