Who would have ever thought that a book relating the story of a crew team in 1936 could be the impetus behind a high school girl of today turning to the sport?
Yet that is the story behind John Jay graduate Jessica Hooper.
Written by Daniel James Brown, the book, titled “Boys in the Boat,” recounts the story of nine working-class boys from the American West showing the world at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin what true grit really meant.
With a team composed of the sons of loggers, shipyard workers and farmers, the University of Washington’s eight-oar crew team was never expected to defeat the elite teams of the East Coast and Great Britain, yet they did, going on to shock the world by defeating the team rowing for Adolf Hitler’s Germany.
Reading the book during her sophomore year at John Jay inspired Hooper to explore the sport of crew.
“I joined Greenwich Crew in Cos Cob, Connecticut, relatively late in the spring of my sophomore year,” Hooper said. “Being 5’11’ and relatively athletic, I found I was a good fit. Greenwich is a young club, but we swept regionals that year and took home the overall points trophy. By then I was hooked; I loved the friendly competition at practice, the hype of racing at regattas and, most of all, my team.”
Two years and countless hours of training, practice and competitions later, Hooper found herself signing on to row at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.
“The following fall (her junior year at Jay), I was promoted early on to the (Greenwich Crew) varsity team and worked my way up through the ranks until I reached the varsity first boat in the spring,” Hooper said. “Spring racing centers around 2-kilometer races, which are more of an endured sprint compared to the fall 5-kilometer races.”
She continued, “Rowing is noticeably clear cut when it comes to maximizing boat speed. Coaches factoring in ergo (rowing machine) scores and seat races, in which boats of equal speed are aligned and then rowers are swapped around to see if a rower consistently moves a boat further ahead.”
Hooper added, “Aside from numerical speed, sometimes a person makes a boat faster because they simply are a good fit and bring out the fastest speed of the entire boat.”
The chemistry of a crew is vital to the team’s success.
“Whether its personality, stroke timing or speed, coaches are always looking for that perfect combination of rowers that makes a boat fly down the race course,” Hooper said. “There is no hiding in rowing; you have to pull your weight or you’re out of the boat.”
She continued, “Part of what makes rowing so different from other sports is the physical connection of the boat. Everyone strives for the same simple goal: speed. However, as individuals in the boat, everyone must connect into the same rhythm and atmosphere. It’s not always about being the fastest individual, sometimes it's if your energy and stroke rhythm improves it.”
Hooper added, “After taking thousands of strokes with people, it becomes natural to feel the pressure and force everyone else is pulling around you; it is easy to know when someone else is giving it their all. That’s why rowers have such a strong connection; when you give up on rowing hard for yourself, you row hard for the people around you.”
To get to such a high level in rowing is no easy task.
“Rowing is a huge commitment,” she said. “I train six days a week for three hours a day throughout the year and I’m away competing in regattas over weekends. Unlike most of the team, I also had a 45-minute drive there and back from the club, sometimes getting up at 4:30 a.m. to fit in an additional training session before important races.”
Hooper continued, “I had to be very organized about my schoolwork and often make sacrifices with my social life and other hobbies. It’s a hard sport to do on a casual basis; you need to be passionate and committed.”
The ultimate satisfaction, though, comes in the shape of victories on the water.
“The spring of my junior year, we won regionals again and qualified for Nationals in Sarasota, Florida,” she said. “We flew down a week early to train and acclimatize to the extreme heat and humidity. All our long grueling hours of training over that spring paid off and we came home with a silver medal in the Open Weight Youth Ladies Eight.”
Although she has made it to the college level of the sport, Hooper was relatively late to the party when it came to searching for the right school.
“I began to search for colleges I could row with in late March of my junior year,” she said. “I had never seriously considered rowing in college until I took a season off to ski and I missed the sport, the people, and that athletic high where after the hardest practices, I felt like I had accomplished something amazing.”
She continued, “I emailed back and forth with different college coaches to update them on my progress and ergo scores. Both of my club coaches, Heidi Hunsberger and Catherine Starr who had rowed competitively in college (Wisconsin and Brown) understood the rigor of being recruited and helped me train to the best of my ability to achieve my goals.”
Hooper continued, “In the fall of my senior year, I was invited by Brown, Dartmouth, UMass, and Cornell for an official visit. I visited Brown first and it was love at first sight. I saw that I could thrive academically in challenging, unique classes where I could further my dream of being a marine biologist.”
She added, “But it was the fun, yet competitive team atmosphere that really made my decision because I could see myself growing as both a person and an athlete alongside such driven, enthusiastic people. When the Brown coaches offered me a verbal commitment, I immediately accepted.”
The decision cleared Hooper’s senior year, enabling her to continue her training.
“I considered my senior year as a chance to continue to impress the Brown coaches and myself as I got faster,” she said. “After winning second place at the Head of the Charles Regatta in the open weight eight during the fall, I trained hard over the winter of my senior year.”
Hooper continued, “I hoped to win gold at Nationals in the spring, and fully believed my boat and I were capable of doing it. Then the COVID pandemic struck and everything went into lockdown. I was gutted that the rowing season was cancelled, but the rowing community rallied and a virtual ‘Nationals’ was created.”
She began working out at home, running, doing core workouts and weights and training on her rowing machine under the guidance of her club coaches.
Hooper’s virtual boat, which was raced by averaging the ergo scores of eight people, won silver.
“Although, everything is changing and compromised due to COVID, I plan to continue pushing myself to achieve speed and help make whatever boat I’m in next the fastest it can be,” she said.