By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE — From an early age, Sam Casto excelled in math and science, and as a girl she dreamed of becoming an astronaut.

That led her into aerospace engineering, her major first at Georgia Tech and now at the University of Virginia. But her career goals have changed.

“I’ve given up on the astronaut thing,” Casto said, smiling, “and I’m not really feeling like I’ll ever be the typical aerospace engineer, either.”

Her passion is rowing, a sport in which she had never participated before college.

“Hardly anyone from my town knows what rowing is,” said Casto, who’s from Dallas, Pa., whose population is about 2,800. “I think it probably shocked a lot of people when I started taking it as seriously as I do.”

Now in her final semester at UVA, Casto is a team captain and in her second year in the Varsity Eight, head coach Kevin Sauer‘s top boat. She was a first-team All-American in 2014-15 and is likely to collect more honors this season.

The Wahoos, ranked No. 3 nationally, host ACC rival Duke on Saturday, starting at 6:30 a.m., on the Rivanna Reservoir.

Casto turns 23 this month. Her meteoric rise in the sport, she acknowledged, seems “pretty crazy to me when I take a step back and think about it, because on a day-to-day basis, you’re thinking like, `All right, I gotta get faster, we gotta make these boats faster so we can win NCAAs.’ Then you take a step back and think, `Wow, four years ago I couldn’t really row to save my life.’ ”

At Dallas High School, Casto played tennis for four years and lacrosse for two. She also swam for three years, “but I was so terrible at swimming,” Casto said.

When it came time for her to choose a college, her top priority was education.

“I didn’t row in high school,” Casto said, “so my focus was going to a place with a really great aerospace engineering program, and at the time I think Georgia Tech was No. 2 in the nation for that.”

She enrolled there in the summer of 2011. Georgia Tech doesn’t have a varsity rowing program, but it has a club team that was looking for new members.

“The novice coach sent out an email, to probably most of the freshman class,” Casto recalled. “I got that, and I was pretty bored, and I had missed club tennis tryouts, so I decided, why not? So I showed up and really liked it.”

Her interest in the sport steadily grew, as did her prowess in the boat. Casto was named the Yellow Jackets’ most valuable rower in 2012.

What makes the 5-8 Casto so special, Sauer said, is not so much her size or athleticism, but her intelligence and perseverance.

“She’s tougher than nails,” Sauer said, “and she’ll push herself so hard, to exhaustion, almost to passing out. She’s sort of like a diesel engine. She can just go forever. Her top-end speed is not that fast, her raw power, but once she gets up to speed, watch out. She can go at a very high level for a long time.”

After three semesters at Georgia Tech, Casto accepted an internship in United Airlines’ structural engineering department in the spring of 2013.

“It seemed like an awesome opportunity to get some work experience,” Casto said.

The internship was in Houston, and Casto worked out on her own when she wasn’t on the job. After her internship ended, she went to Philadelphia to train with the Vesper Boat Club. In Philly, she met Maggie Bowman-Jones, a UVA rower.

They became friends and racing partners, and Bowman-Jones mentioned Casto to Sauer. “Maggie tells me about her and says she’s a great kid,” Sauer said.

At club nationals that summer, Bowman-Jones introduced Casto to Sauer and Virginia assistant coach Brett Gorman. Later in the summer, Casto ran into Sauer again, and they discussed whether Casto might be interested in transferring to UVA.

“I was instantly on board,” Casto recalled. “I didn’t really know that that was a possibility at all.”

After she returned to Georgia Tech in the fall of 2013, Sauer contacted her club coach to request a release for Casto. It was granted, and Casto transferred to Virginia in January 2014.

“I was pretty nervous I was going to be the worst on the team,” she said, “but my first experience with this team was our Florida training trip [that January]. That’s where I met everyone, and that was pretty awesome, because you’re just instantly immersed in this really big and really passionate team.

“It was good for me, because I knew Maggie really well, so I at least had one person where I was like, `OK, cool, I know you. I know you’re really cool, and hopefully the rest of the team is as well.'”

Casto need not have worried. “After three days I didn’t really feel like an outsider any more,” she said. “Everyone welcomed me.”

She earned a spot in Virginia’s Second Varsity Eight in the spring of 2014 and then represented the United States at under-23 world championships in Italy that summer. Casto moved up to the Varsity Eight last season and rows in the bow seat, at the front of the boat.

“What I always say to the bow people is, `You get the first of everything,’ ” Sauer said. “So if you’ve got conditions, like a bad cross headwind or something like that, or rough water, you’re getting slammed first. You’ve got to have somebody that’s tough that can handle that. And Sam’s got enough savvy that she can handle things that are going on.”

Casto helped the Varsity Eight place third at last year’s NCAA championships — UVA finished fifth in the overall team standings — and then represented the U.S. again last summer at the U23 world championships in Bulgaria.

She’ll graduate from UVA next month with a bachelor’s in aerospace engineering, but “I don’t really see myself using it anytime soon,” Casto said. “I think if I ever used the degree, I’d probably use it to do something like boatbuilding for rowing.”

Her immediate post-graduation plans?

“I want to go into coaching,” Casto said. “I want to coach collegiate women.”

And so her next stop will be Boston, where she’ll enroll in the Institute for Rowing Leadership, a one-year program offered through Community Rowing, Inc.

“It’s kind of like graduate school for coaching,” Casto said. “You’re taking rowing-specific classes in sport science, rowing administration and physiology, so you learn literally everything about rowing, not only about the physical side of it but also how to build a program. So I’m really excited about that, and I’ll keep training at the same time, because I’m not done rowing yet.”

Who knows? Maybe Casto will coach at UVA one day.

“She’d be a great addition to anybody’s staff, for sure,” Sauer said.

Asked why she fell so hard for the sport, Casto said, “I think what I really love about rowing is that there’s such a direct correlation between the work you put in and the result you get out. It feels like you can do anything with the sport if you’re just willing to put in the time and effort, which is something really, really cool. I also love the team aspect of it. Our team is absolutely amazing, and there’s no group of people that I’d rather be around for three to five hours a day.”

Her experience at UVA, Casto said, has been extraordinary.

“I could have never imagined that I’d be here, really,” she said. “It’s been pretty amazing.”

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