By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — After two decades in England, Sarah Cowburn decided she wanted to experience something different: life in the United States.
Her ticket to America? Rowing. Cowburn knew that she could compete for a college team here while pursuing a master’s degree, and so in the summer of 2010 she went on-line to explore her options.
Cowburn found the results of that year’s NCAA rowing championships. Then she e-mailed the head coaches of the top 10 finishers, including UVa’s Kevin Sauer, whose team had been crowned NCAA champion May 30 in Gold River, Calif.
“I got a few responses,” Cowburn said in a recent interview. “Kevin got straight back to me.”
Sauer’s enthusiasm was understandable. Cowburn, then heading into her third and final year as an undergraduate at Durham University in northern England — “It’s pretty cold there,” she said — is one of her country’s top rowers. She had rowed for Great Britain at the world championships in Poland in 2009 (and would compete in the under-23 world championships in the Netherlands two years later).
“I didn’t know who she was,” Sauer recalled Thursday, “but I figured it out very quickly.”
Cowburn, who had never been to the United States, was looking for a school that combined an elite rowing team with graduate programs in architectural history and art history. She narrowed her list to UVa and the University of Washington, and in September 2010 she came to Charlottesville for an official visit.
“I was just like, ‘Wow!’ ” Cowburn recalled. “I basically couldn’t fault it. And I came in with a very critical eye, because I’d been a student and an athlete and not had the best time doing it in the U.K.
“It’s not really the same as here, where you have a really good support system to be a student-athlete. You have some things, but I feel like Britain is so far behind America when it comes to student-athletes. There’s none of this.”
The heat and humidity of Charlottesville shocked Cowburn, but “then I looked at the climate of Seattle, and it looked like England, and I said, ‘I’ve had enough of rain,’ ” she recalled with a smile. Moreover, Seattle is a long, long way from the United Kingdom.
And so UVa it was. Cowburn enrolled at the University last August, and she quickly won over her new teammates and coaches.
“She been fantastic,” Sauer said. “She has good attitude and a great work ethic. She fit right into the team.”
Cowburn, one of the rowers on UVa’s top boat, the Varsity Eight, was named All-ACC last month and to the Collegiate Rowing Coaches Association’s All-South Region second team this week. She’s among the standouts in a program that will try this weekend to win the NCAA title for the second time in three seasons.
The NCAA championships start Friday at Mercer Lake, N.J., near Princeton, and run through Sunday.
In 2011, a rebuilding year for the program, the Wahoos placed sixth at the NCAAs. They come in ranked No. 2 nationally this time.
“This year we’re just more talented across the board, so we have higher hopes,” Sauer said.
That’s been evident to Cowburn from the start. Education is important to Cowburn, who earned a bachelor’s degree in English and art history at Durham University, but so is rowing.
“I knew if I came here, I wasn’t just going to come and mess around,” she said. “When I came in, the atmosphere on the team this year from Day One has been, ‘This is the year.’ And it was really refreshing coming here. The other people on the team are so competitive and everyone has this real passion for the sport, and Kevin, every day he’ll say something that just drives you on more.”
Cowburn, who’s from Redditch, a town in Worcestershire, is not the only Englishwoman on the team. Sophomore Fiona Schlesinger, who also rows on the Varsity Eight, is from New Maiden, near London.
Schlesinger and Cowburn were teammates on Great Britain’s junior national team in 2007.
“Before I came on my official, Kevin said to me, on the phone, ‘Do you know Fiona Schlesinger?’ ” Cowburn said, “and I was like, ‘Yeah, I know her.’ And then he said, ‘She’s here,’ and I was like, ‘What? I didn’t know that at all.’
“But it was really good having her here, because she’d come across and done it, and the first few weeks she was really helpful as well, sorting a phone out and logistical things. And it was funny as well on the water, because all the commands are different, and she would help me.”
In the United States, for example, the command “way enough” means stop. “But in England you say ‘easy oars,’ ” Cowburn said. “So sometimes they’d say ‘way enough,’ and I’d be [lost].”
She smiled. “One of the coxswains was like, ‘Oh, yeah, Sarah, the first few weeks you were here, I thought you were a right space cadet,’ because I just wouldn’t know the commands very well.”
Cowburn has had to adjust in other ways to life at UVa.
“It’s just a very different structure,” she said. “Just everything. How you have meals, the swipe system with the cards, and classes are very different. We didn’t have credits at home. We just did modules, and you just had to do six a year. That was it. And you did classes for the whole year. It wasn’t semesters.”
Her teammates, including roommates Marelle Myers, Carolyn Glandorf, Francesca Lauritano and Jenny Shultis, have helped Cowburn with her transition, and it’s been a rewarding — and enlightening — experience for her.
“One thing that I do think is really culturally different here is everybody’s like, ‘I can,’ ” Cowburn said. “There’s a lot of ‘I can.’ In England, a lot of people, culturally, they’re more reserved, and they’re much more cautious. Whether that’s a result of politics or [England’s] position relative to Europe, I don’t know. We’re a small island, and this is a massive country.
“Here, everyone’s just like, ‘Get up and go.’ Like the girls on the team. I’ve literally never met a group of people, women, who are as tough. I’ve trained with a lot of people, and yeah there’s a lot of tough rowers out there. Like on the national team, they were tough people. But these girls are in college, and they’re really tough. When we’re training in the boat, there’s no, ‘Oh, I’m a bit tired today.’ There’s none of that.”
And that, Cowburn said, has been a delight.
“Just being on the team is really, really good,” she said, “and it’s certainly been, I’d say, the most positive experience I’ve had in this sport, really.”