By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE — She gave up rowing after her sophomore year at James Madison High School in Northern Virginia, with no intention of ever taking up the sport again. But plans change.

During her first year at the University of Virginia, Grace Tuttle was walking near the Observatory Hill Dining Room one day when Josh Gautreau spotted her.

Gautreau was then an assistant coach on Kevin Sauer‘s staff at UVA. The Cavaliers’ coaches are always on the lookout for female students who might be well-suited to rowing, and Gautrea noted Tuttle’s height — she’s 6-0 — and that she moved like an athlete.

“I ran right away to her and said, `I’m a rowing coach. Have you ever heard of the sport?’ ” Gautreau, now an assistant at the University of Washington, recalled last week.

Yes, Tuttle told him, “I’ve heard of it. I did it in high school. I’m done with it.”

Gautreau gave Tuttle his email address and asked her to contact him if she changed her mind. “I was like, `Yeah, right,’ ” Tuttle recalled.

“I get that response a lot,” Gautreau said, laughing.

So that was that, it seemed. But early in her second year at UVA, Tuttle had a change of heart. Her rowing experience in high school had not been altogether positive, but the possibility of being part of a college team intrigued her.

The conversation with Gautreau had “sort of planted this seed in my head,” Tuttle said, “because I had never thought I could possibly row for UVA.”

She was overweight and unhappy, Tuttle said, and so in “the fall of my second year I was like, `OK, something’s gotta change in my life. I’m existing here, it’s fine, but I don’t have a purpose. I don’t have a great friend group. I’m just drifting along at UVA, and I don’t like the way that I feel. I miss working towards something.”

So she emailed Gautreau, who responded immediately. Tuttle started training in earnest and joined the team in January 2014.

She was still out of shape and knew none of her new teammates, though, and the transition was not an easy one for her. The intensity of the Cavaliers’ workouts overwhelmed her, and she raced that spring with the Novice Eight and the Sixth Varsity Eight, boats filled with inexperienced rowers.

“Typically they’ve never rowed,” Tuttle said. “They’ve never even heard of the sport, usually. And I was effectively a novice. I hadn’t rowed in four years. I had to be re-taught everything.”

But Tuttle persevered, and her stature in the program steadily rose as she slimmed down and grew fitter.

“I remember after her first year [on the team], I saw her at the end of the summer at the boathouse,” Sauer said. “It was in August and school hadn’t started yet. I almost didn’t recognize her. I was like, `Grace, is that you?’ ”

Gautreau said: “She’s got the heart of a lion. She’s very courageous. She would always come back for more, always show up the next day and at the next workout. There’s a skill in just bringing it with the same kind of integrity and enthusiasm every day, and she does.”

In 2015 Tuttle helped Virginia’s Third Varsity Eight win an ACC title. In 2016, she rowed on the Second Varsity Four that captured another ACC title. Now, as a fifth-year senior, she’s a team captain who splits her time between the Varsity Eight and the Second Varsity Eight, the Cavaliers’ top two boats.

“Kevin will pull me aside and be like, `Did you ever think that you would be here when you started?’ ” Tuttle said. “And I’ll be like, `Kevin, no, I never thought I would come close to touching that boat.’ It’s just unbelievable to me.”

She earned a bachelor’s degree in Global Public Health last spring, and she’ll finish work on her master’s in Educational Psychology, from UVA’s Curry School of Education, in August.

“I never thought I would be here getting a master’s degree, so that’s pretty crazy,” said Tuttle, a fixture on the ACC Academic Honor Roll.

After graduating from high school in 2011, Tuttle deferred her enrollment at UVA for a year. During her gap year, she worked as a public health attendant at Kilmer Center, a Fairfax County public school for severely disabled children, and also worked at the Davis Career Center, which provides vocational training for intellectually disabled high school students.

Then she spent five months in a remote part of India as a volunteer English teacher through a program sponsored by Lattitude Global Volunteering.

“It’s crazy,” Tuttle said, laughing. “I wouldn’t think of doing that now.”

She enrolled at UVA, from which her mother has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, in 2012. Tuttle, 24, marvels at the changes she’s undergone during her time on the rowing team.

“I had such little self-confidence,” she said. “It makes me emotional to think of the person I am now and the person I was four years ago.

“It’s transformed every aspect of my life. I’ve made the best friends of my life, and the skills that I’ve learned here, I feel like I can apply anywhere. If I devote myself to something, I can start at the very bottom and just sort of claw my way up. And having a [coaching] staff that believes so strongly in each of us is truly unbelievable.”

Sauer, the only head coach in the program’s history, “cares about us on such a deep level,” said Tuttle, who lives with teammate Ellie Stewart.

“He wants us to leave here and be able to lead successful, healthy, empowered lives, and that’s something that he’s created over time. And there are alumni from every year who keep in touch with us. We’ve met them, and they’ve come to visit us. I see those people, and I’m like, wow. They’re 10, 15, 20 years removed from this team, and they are still so impacted by their experience here.”

This has been an uncharacteristically trying season for Virginia, a perennial power in rowing. The `Hoos have finished in the top four at the NCAA regatta 11 times, winning championships in 2010 and 2012, and they placed third last year. In last week’s national rankings, however, UVA was No. 12.

“I’ve never been at the top of the team, on the 1-V or 2-V, so it’s new for me,” Tuttle said. “But it has definitely not been a typical Virginia season, and that’s been really hard.”

Next for the Cavaliers is the ACC regatta, May 14 in Clemson, South Carolina. Virginia will be seeking its eighth straight ACC championship and 17th in the event’s 18 years.

The NCAA championships are May 26-28 at Mercer County Park in New Jersey.

With work on her master’s degree nearly finished, Tuttle has applied for several jobs in the Charlottesville area and Augusta County, where her family has roots. The possibilities include working with veterans or as a counselor for high school students. She also has a passion for helping people with disabilities, dating back to her days as a volunteer in a therapeutic horseback riding program in Northern Virginia.

“Hopefully one of those things will pan out,” said Tuttle, who’s president of 4S: Students Supporting Soldiers’ pSychology, a UVA club that supports the mental health of military personnel.

Sauer has no doubt one of them will. Whoever hires Tuttle, he said, will be adding a special person.

“I’ve written several [job] recommendations for her, and it’s probably one of the easiest recs I’ve ever written in my life,” Sauer said. “It’s just easy with a kid like that.”

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