Embracing the Challenge
An eclectic past as a competitor prepared all-conference rower Anna Greene to excel in yet another athletic endeavor.
STORY BY DAVID PLUMMER
Anna Greene grew up a golfer. Her dad bought her a set of clubs when she was in fourth grade and she has been playing ever since. She was all-conference on the Irondale High School golf team in high school. She spends her summers working on the Hiawatha Golf Course in south Minneapolis. She plays with her dad whenever she can.
She also happens to be a first team All-Big Ten rower.
“All throughout high school, my home course was Victory Links in Blaine. Playing 18 holes every day in the spring for three years made that place home,” said Greene. She had spent a lifetime golfing, but turned down a chance to play collegiately at St. Catherine University in St. Paul. The lure of the University of Minnesota’s campus was too strong.
Her family moved to suburban St. Paul from Dayton, Ohio when she was in eighth grade and she says she “fell in love with Minnesota.” Her father worked on campus and, as a result, Greene was always around the U of M. She loved the big school feel. She knew she wanted her college experience to include going to football games and attending classes in “big lecture halls, like in the movies.”
Greene’s introduction to college rowing came in what has emerged as a critical, if not unconventional, part of head rowing coach Wendy Davis’ recruiting process. Greene received a pamphlet. Davis said her program tries to “get talented walk-ons who are athletic and want the opportunity to be an athlete.” That strategy has helped Minnesota compete at the highest levels despite the challenges of its Upper Midwestern location.
Greene’s dad encouraged her to pursue rowing, but she was still skeptical. At ExploreU, a campus orientation event for first-year students, Greene said she was “signing up for everything she could” when the novice rowing coach found her.
“He came up to me and said ‘You’re tall. You should be a rower.’” While on its own maybe not the most compelling recruiting pitch, it seemed rowing would always find Greene. At an event where she was looking for ways to get involved in campus, she again found herself being drawn into rowing. She surrendered. She went to a team informational meeting and decided to join. She told herself then that she could walk away at any time and that there was nothing holding her to the team.
After one day of practice, she knew she was going to stay.
It’s certainly not because that first day was easy. Greene remembers enduring a rough few weeks as she began her rowing career. She missed the first day out on the water, a day spent in a boat the team calls “the barge.” The nickname fits the flatter boat that moves more stability to help first-time rowers. Instead, Greene’s first day on a boat was in a real racing shell.
“I was convinced I was going to die out there,” she recalled.
Greene’s ability as a rower were to be determined at that point, her ability to be a great teammate shined through right away.
“I met Anna the first week of practice, she was actually the first person I met on the team,” said Greene’s teammate Anna Cruse said. “Within the first five minutes of conversation, she was cracking jokes. She brought so much humility and lightheartedness to a very stressful situation. It was refreshing, and from that moment we were friends and have been very close ever since.”
Greene showed that dedication to her teammates early on. When someone was late to a practice where the team was running the hundreds of stairs rising and falling from the flats that flank the Mississippi River, Greene stayed and ran extra so her teammate did not have to go alone. Davis said that Greene “embodies what we are about” and that she is “exactly what you are looking for in a rower.”
“You have to love training,” Davis added.
Greene, who did not run in high school, found herself running regularly to become a better rower. She said that once she realized she could not cheat her training and still succeed, she started to get her work done. Then she started to get extra work done. She would regularly spend an extra ten minutes on the rowing machine after practice was over.
By her junior season, Greene was setting personal best times in practice nearly every time the team tested. She believes that simply that working hard and doing a little extra began to mold her into a competitive rower. At development camp over the summer, she signed up for every optional practice.
“If you want to get better, you have to put the work in every practice,” she said. While a simple idea, the concept can be amazingly hard to execute on a regular basis. For a novice rower, she sounded like a veteran.
Cruse remembers a six-kilometer test that fall where “Anna and I sat next to each other and during the whole test we were about 10 meters apart. Because we were so close, we were pulling faster numbers than we probably would have if we were not next to each other. It was support through competition, which is really fun.”
Greene remembers how her mindset about training shifted going into her junior season, not just in terms of the volume of time she trained, but her mentality throughout those sessions. “I attacked every practice and every stroke and it (has) made a world of difference.”
Instead of dreading every practice, she started looking at them as opportunities to improve, another trait usually only found in the most experienced athletes.
While working through one of those optional summer practices, an assistant coach asked her in what boat she wanted to row that coming season.
“I just blurted out, ‘top 8,’” a term used for the team’s number one boat, which is powered by the team’s best rowers. She had challenged herself to become one of the best on the team.
For any rower, the highest levels of collegiate competition can be daunting. There are meets where someone like Greene, a first-time varsity rower, finds herself looking over at the boat one lane over and sees Olympians starting back. That pressure only intensified when realizing how little margin of error separates the extraordinary from the ordinary.
Davis put it in these terms: “Think of three one-hundredths of a second on each stroke over six minutes.”
Those micro-seconds can make for a big difference. Rowing is a sport of endurance, but it is also extremely precise. While Greene’s relentless training produced endurance, she felt like she had some experience when it came to being precise.
Few sports require more precision from its athletes than golf, Greene’s lifelong love. When Greene looks for the roots of her rowing success, she sees it in her high school past, however; she doesn’t recall Victory Links. She remembers a color guard competition at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Ind.
Greene competed in both color guard and winter guard while at Irondale. The core tenet of any guard performance is to stay in perfect time with all other members, creating the best possible visual effects for the group’s performance. Her team competed in front of nearly 50,000 people that afternoon in Indiana.
“I knew if I wasn’t doing the same thing as everyone else with that many people watching, someone would notice,” Greene said. Precision was everything.
Greene had the precision and the endurance to row. No stranger to challenges, she also had the competitive fire to become great.
“It’s a decision,” she said about being in a race. “As [the other team] gains water on you, do you let it happen?” She says that you can break another boat and, as you start go by, you get a lighter feeling. “In rowing, you can see a team start to panic as you take seats on them.”
Her oddly assembled athletic history has given Greene the traits to be a successful rower. Her ascent from that first day in the water to one of the best rowers on the Gopher roster is a testament to that. She understands the challenges of a walk-on rower’s journey. Having experienced that, she believes her greatest contributions to the team come away from the oars and the stopwatches.
“I think it’s the positivity I bring to the team.” She maintains strong relationships with every athlete on the team, even going so far as to putting Hershey’s kisses in the lockers of girls who have had a hard practice.
“(Anna) brings leadership, especially as a captain,” said Cruse. “She has a contagious laugh and laughs at pretty much anything, so she is able to lighten any situation. She tells jokes during ab circuits and writes jokes on the whiteboard in the locker room reminding us every day that in addition to being serious and driven toward greatness, it is important to have some fun along the way.”
What many athletes and coaches love about rowing is the team atmosphere it breeds.
“There is a camaraderie and closeness in the sport, everyone relies on each other,” said Davis. Those feelings are what Greene loves about the sport.
“I like the accountability. If someone isn’t working as hard as they can, they are letting the rest of the team down.” At its best, when everyone embraces that and it clicks, “I’m reminded of why I love the sport.”
At a recent practice, Greene said her coaches went down the line to every pair on the boat and asked them to put in a little more.
“You can feel the shift in intensity as everyone starts to pull harder.”
As her coach passes Greene’s pair, she puts in the extra effort and they start to fly.
David Plummer is a 14-time All-American swimmer at the U of M and was a Gold and Bronze medalist at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. He currently works in athletic administration for Gopher Athletics. Contact him at email@example.com.