This week’s row2k Interview is with San Diego Junior Emily Cary. We talk with Cary on walking on with the Toreros, working in Hawaii during Covid, and more.
row2k – You started rowing as a novice at San Diego, what was your athletic background prior to enrolling?
Emily Cary – I was always an insanely active kid involved in a diverse array of activities, but I never specialized in a single sport prior to college. My earliest memories are of my neighborhood pool where I grew up swimming every summer. The fall season was reserved for cross country, while basketball dominated my winters, and track filled the spring. Beyond my formal competitive athletic involvement, my Pacific Northwest upbringing fostered a love for outdoor adventuring sports like climbing, skiing, backpacking, and mountaineering. As you can tell, I always identified strongly as an athlete, but I remained well-rounded and multi-sport capable far longer than all my specialized athlete peers.
row2k – How did you find your way into the rowing program?
Emily Cary – I found my way onto the rowing team due to a desire to explore my physical limits and find a community that shared my values. Plus a conveniently placed flyer in my freshman dorm planted the seed in my head to try out the sport.
Since I never specialized in a single sport prior to college, I was left wondering what might be possible if I sought to max out in a focused physical discipline. I wanted to test my limits and discover the extent of my abilities. Rowing presented itself as a perfect tool to unveil those possibilities.
Additionally, I craved a network of likeminded female athletes on my college campus. I struggled with the superficial, appearance-based culture I sensed in southern California and I wanted to find a niche community here that aligned more with my values. Our three core values on the USD women’s crew team are inclusion, effort, and trust. I find these three elements foundational to the health and success not only of my team, but also in my personal life. The USD rowing team echoed the values I already held personally and provided a setting that encouraged me to live up to those values every day.
row2k – How did you manage the 2020 season with all the COVID cancellations?
Emily Cary – In all honesty, my novice year was incredibly difficult even before covid ended it all. I felt like an unwanted nuisance among the experienced recruited rowers. But I felt stifled and unable to reach my full potential among walk-ons who had differing levels of commitment to the sport. Besides me, only a handful of the walk-ons my freshman year remains on the team today. I too nearly quit various times to pursue my goals through other means because I wasn’t sure I would ever be fully accepted into this rowing world. I desperately wanted the team to understand my dedication and potential, but proving yourself takes time, especially in a sport like this. Yet I knew it was possible with persistent hard work. This valuable lesson made my novice year a critical time of growth even before the pandemic struck.
Cary in San Diego
In my first spring race, the Crew Classic, I stroked my novice 8 through an admittedly messy, but wildly rewarding 2k course. I was immensely proud of my boat for how far we’d come since our very first day on the water flailing our oars around and flipping boats just a few months earlier. If we could come this far in so short a time, where might we soar with every passing week of experience throughout the rest of the spring season? I wanted more chances to race with these teammates and show everyone what we could do! It was amidst this long-awaited flurry of hope and excitement after a fall plagued by doubt and discontent that we received the news that covid was forcing the NCAA to cancel all further competitions that spring.
I want to mention here that I was extremely lucky to be only a freshman, and a walk-on at that, during this time. While the seniors were robbed of their culminating season in their long rowing careers, I knew I would have more chances to compete ahead of me. Furthermore, I was able to harness the ensuing covid disruptions to my advantage in ways that radically altered my physical confidence and psychological approach to rowing.
row2k – What alternative path did you take during the COVID-affected seasons?
Emily Cary – When I realized over the 2020 summer that fall classes would be completely remote and rowing possibilities were uncertain, I decided to take two semesters off from USD. I wanted to find a (safe) way to continue learning, exploring, and growing amidst this pandemic that was leaving everyone around me stifled and stagnating. So I coordinated with organic farms on the big island of Hawaii through a work exchange network called WWOOF to live, learn, and work with local farmers there. In all my free time, I went off adventuring to volcano summits, jungle hikes, outrigger canoe paddling voyages, and open water ocean swims. Through all of this, especially the many solo endeavors, I found a new sense of empowerment and confidence in my own capability to accomplish physical feats. I heard time and again that what I was doing was too dangerous, that a single woman shouldn’t go alone, or that a young girl like me simply couldn’t do it.
Lo and behold, I actually could do it all. When fatigue started building in my shoulders when I was half a mile from the nearest shore in Kealekekua Bay, I acknowledged the feeling without panic and knew that I could use mental willpower to keep my muscles moving despite any external physical sensation. The same is true on an erg. This moment reminded me just how strong and resilient we can all be. The self-doubt I struggled with in sports prior to this point suddenly vanished. I knew what I was capable of and I wasn’t afraid to push the edge of my abilities. In fact, after these empowering experiences in Hawaii, I was increasingly curious where that edge might be. Coming back to rowing was the ideal opportunity to channel that energy and test my limits.
row2k – What do you like most about the sport of rowing?
Emily Cary – The three aspects of rowing I love most are the mental challenge, the community, and the setting. Rowing, like swimming and distance running, is a pain-based sport in which the challenge is not winning a game, but instead outlasting and out-powering your opponent through sheer effort and grit in the race. This is a mind over matter battle, and I crave that mental challenge. Because of that nature of the sport, it attracts similarly motivated (or arguably masochistic) people who are familiar and comfortable with enduring the screams of a body’s physical pain. This translates to the kind of tough, ambitious, and highly capable individuals that I respect most. These individual characteristics combined with rowing’s requirement for interdependence create a uniquely hard working and well-bonded community. Finally, the incredible settings in which we get to do this sport are unmatched. We connect with the water and the natural world in ways that few other athletes can. Seeing the sun rise over our boats in San Diego’s Mission Bay reminds me every morning how lucky I am to be a rower.
row2k – What are your goals for the spring for yourself and the team?
Emily Cary – Of course the ultimate goal is win our West Coast Conference and compete in NCAAs this spring, but we are more focused on the interim process goals that will enable us to get there. Central to everything we do is continuing to cultivate those three team values of inclusion, effort, and trust.
We cannot reach our greatest potential collectively unless we break down the exclusionary barriers to entry in this sport. As a walk-on, I know firsthand how many talented athletes walk away from this sport, or are never even exposed to it at all. Conscientious inclusivity is especially essential in light of rowing’s classist, racist, and sexist roots. USD is a place where we want to change this sport’s exclusive reputation. Anyone who is willing to put in the effort deserves a fair shot. I want to finish every erg test, every hard piece on the water, and every race knowing that I, and the rest of my team, truly emptied the tank completely. When we all see each other putting in that effort, it creates a cycle of inspiration and motivation throughout the team. That’s the momentum we seek. And that’s where we develop and prove our trust in one another. This is how inclusion, effort, and trust will enable us to become the fastest and best version of USD women’s crew we can be.
row2k – What are you studying at USD and do you have any plans for after graduation?
Emily Cary – Since I have enough seasons of eligibility to row through spring of 2025, I plan to graduate then with a bachelor’s and master’s degree in International Relations as well as a Spanish degree. I intend to join PeaceCorps following graduation, but I dream of ultimately becoming a foreign correspondent writing for a news company or entering the foreign service in embassies around the world. Regardless of my profession, I will be an athlete for life. I hope to spread my love of movement, teamwork, and hard work (that rowing has fostered!) wherever my life may take me. With all that being said, I remain open to all the possibilities and look forward to seeing how my current plan evolves, including in response to my continued development as a rower!