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May 25, 2017

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — Freshman pitcher Bobby Nicholson made his first start for the University of Virginia baseball team at Davenport Field last week and, in a win over Richmond, sparkled in his five-plus innings on the mound.

Allie Nicholson was elsewhere that evening.

“I’m the worst sister ever,” she said, laughing, the next day.

No, she’s not. Nicholson, who graduated from UVA on Sunday with a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology, had a good excuse for missing her brother’s debut as a starter. She was practicing on the Rivanna Reservoir with the Virginia rowing team, which competes this weekend at the NCAA championships in West Windsor Township, New Jersey.

Nicholson rows on the team’s top boat, the Varsity Eight, whose victory May 14 on Lake Hartwell in Clemson, South Carolina, propelled the Cavaliers to their eighth straight ACC title and 17th in the event’s 18 years.

At the regatta, Nicholson was named to the All-ACC second team. That’s heady stuff for a young woman who had never rowed before enrolling at UVA in 2013.

“She’s the whole package,” head coach Kevin Sauer said. “She’s going to be successful no matter what she does. But it’s really cool to see her find a sport that she could sink her teeth into at the Division I level, a very high level. It took her four years, but to see her work her way over time into stroking the Varsity Eight, it’s an amazing story.”

When she returns home to Charlottesville, Nicholson will start the next phase of her life: a gap year during which she hopes to work at UVA’s hospital as an emergency room technician. In 2018, she plans to return to school to become a physician assistant. She’s on track to be certified as an EMT (emergency medical technician) next month.

“She’s the type person I would want taking care of me in the future as a health-care provider,” said Dr. Bobby Chhabra, an orthopedic surgeon at the UVA Hand Center and a professor in UVA’s School of Medicine.

Nicholson did an internship this semester with Chhabra at the Hand Center.

“She is not only a great athlete, she’s a great student and great person,” Chhabra said. “So I was very fortunate to get to work with her.

“She’s very bright, very knowledgeable, very ambitious. Her personality is fantastic. She gets along with patients so well and with our staff as well. She will be a great clinical provider, regardless of whether she’s a doctor, a PA or anything she decides to do in medicine.”

Nicholson, a graduate of nearby St. Anne’s-Belfield School, grew up dreaming of playing volleyball in college. In the ninth and 10th grades, she attended Western Albemarle High School, whose rowing coach tried to talk Nicholson into trying the sport.

“But I was just all volleyball all the time,” Nicholson recalled. “That was my love, that was my passion, that was kind of where I thought my life was headed.”

One problem: “I’m just really way too short to play,” Nicholson said, smiling. “I’m 5-9 and a half. I never quite hit 5-10, as much as I’d like to say that I did.”

Cornell liked Nicholson as a volleyball player, but a coaching change there derailed her plans to attend that Ivy League school. Then came a chance encounter in Charlottesville that put Nicholson on a new path.

About three weeks before the start of her senior year at STAB, she was working out in the school’s weight room when “this giant, burly man started rapping on the window of the gym super fast,” Nicholson said. “He was sweating and really red, so I thought he was having some sort of medical emergency. I’d been CPR-certified, so I thought, `Oh gosh, here we go.’ “

Nicholson ran outside, where she found there was no emergency. The man she’d seen was Frank Biller, who coaches men’s rowing, a club sport, at UVA.

“He was like, `Who are you? Do you know anything about rowing? My name is Frank. I’m the men’s coach, but you really need to call Kevin Sauer,’ ” Nicholson said. “And I was like, `Who’s Kevin?’ “

Sauer built the women’s program at Virginia into a national power, leading it from club to varsity status. Nicholson knew none of that at the time, but she politely thanked Biller for his suggestion before they parted.

“Then I called my dad and my mom, and I said, `This random guy approached me and told me I need to call Kevin Sauer. I don’t even know who that is,’ ” Nicholson recalled, smiling.

“My dad is a researcher, and by the time I got home he had these articles printed out. He said, `Allie, do you understand that the women’s rowing team at UVA just won a national championship? These people are so good. They’re legitimate. I had no idea that we had this dominant program in our backyard, but you need to call this guy.’ “

A meeting followed with Sauer, who told Nicholson she would be welcome to join the team as a walk-on if UVA admitted her. She was accepted to the University, and in the summer of 2013 she showed up for her first workout with her new teammates, having spent little time on the ergometer, a device that measures work output.

“Not knowing anything about the sport, I didn’t realize how hard it was,” Nicholson said. “And so I was a little bit naïve and probably a little cocky in a way, because I thought that, because I was one of the better athletes at my high school, this rowing thing was going to be no problem. I’m fit. I’m a swimmer. I play volleyball.

“I’d been on the erg maybe two or three times, and obviously I wasn’t going hard enough for it to be hard. Then the first day of practice we show up, and it’s the entire team. It’s incredibly intimidating, because I’m realizing I’m still one of the shortest people here, and there are all these tall, athletic-looking girls, and that’s kind of when it hit me: Oh, my gosh, I am so unprepared for this.”

She rowed on the Cavaliers’ Third Varsity Eight as a freshman and sophomore, and each year helped the boat win an ACC title. Overall, though, her second year on the team was a struggle.

“I was OK, but it wasn’t quite clicking,” Nicholson said. “I knew the basics of the stroke at this point, so I couldn’t really lean on the fact that I was a novice anymore, because I wasn’t. I had a lot of erg anxiety. Whenever we would do erg tests, I would just freak myself out and underperform, and that was very frustrating to me.”

Concerned that rowing was interfering with Nicholson’s schoolwork, her father, a former football player at Tulsa, suggested she consider giving up the sport.

“But I didn’t want to quit rowing,” Nicholson said, “because at that point most of my friends were on the team. It was something I enjoyed. It had been such a big part of my life up until that point, I didn’t want to quit.

“So that summer, right after the team got back from NCAAs, I had a meeting with Kevin. And I said, `Kevin, what do I need to do to get better? I don’t want to row in the Third Varsity Eight again. I want to make improvements.’ And he gave me some pointers. He said, `Allie, you need to get in a pair” — which is a small boat — “almost every day this summer. You need to erg more. You need to get over your erg anxiety. You need to figure it out.

“He gave me some great points, and so that summer I worked really, really, really, really hard.”

That work paid dividends, as did the technical improvements Nicholson made in the fall of her third year at UVA. She moved to the Second Varsity Eight, the team’s No. 2 boat, and helped the `Hoos finish fourth at the NCAA championships last May. She was put on scholarship after the 2015-16 school year.

“It’s never really been about the money for me,” she said, “but it’s what the money represents: hard work.”

Mononucleosis sidelined Nicholson for part of last fall, but in late October she returned to row with the Second Varsity Eight at the storied Head of the Charles regatta in Boston. She spent most of the spring in that boat, too, before being promoted to the Varsity Eight late in the season.

This has been an uncharacteristically trying year for the Cavaliers, but their performance at the ACC championships encouraged Sauer.

“We’re doing something right as we get towards the end of the year,” said Sauer, who has guided UVA to two NCAA titles (2010 and ’12). “Hopefully we can keep going in that direction. But the kids have shown a lot of resolve. It’s been a tough year. We’ve gotten beaten up a little bit.”

At the 22-team NCAA regatta, which starts Friday on Lake Mercer, the `Hoos are seeded 12th in the Varsity Eight, 11th in the Second Varsity Eight, and eighth in the Varsity Four.

A third NCAA championship is not a realistic goal for Virginia this weekend, Sauer acknowledged, “but how far can we get up the ladder? That’s the key.”

Once her UVA rowing career ends, Nicholson will transition from athlete to fan. She’s looking forward to cheering on her brother and the `Hoos in the NCAA baseball tournament.

Asked about attending the University with Bobby, who’s also a STAB graduate, Nicholson said, “I love it.”

She laughed. “He’s way cooler than me,” Nicholson said. “He has a lot of friends and he’s very busy and, unfortunately, academically we’re on two completely different sides of the spectrum. I’m more in the math/science kind of thing, and he’s econ/business/history, that kind of thing. But I have enjoyed every second of it. I wish I had another year with him.”

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