From an early age, Latin American studies freshman Rachel Fleming knew she would be attending the The University of Texas. The daughter of two Texas graduates, she applied to only one school her senior year, having already decided upon a burnt orange future.
Fleming planned to study in UT’s top-notch Latin American studies program. However, there was one part of her college experience she never anticipated — becoming a Division I athlete.
Rowing, unlike most collegiate sports, often fields walk-ons at the Division I level. Every fall, members of the rowing team scour campus looking for potential rowers to recruit to the team.
While walk-ons often play integral roles in the top boats of many schools, making the varsity teams is difficult. Out of an initial pool of 60 walk-ons, Fleming is the only freshman walk-on currently rowing in one of the top-two boats.
“Rowing is very hard, and there’s a lot of expectations that go with it, but we’re also given a lot,” Fleming said. “And those to whom much is given, much is required. I knew that D-I athletes worked hard, and I knew that it was hard to do it, but getting to be a part of it has been so cool, and I feel blessed.”
After walking onto the rowing team in the fall, Fleming quickly rose through the ranks to earn a spot on the second varsity eight boat. But, initially, she had no interest in joining the team.
“I was walking through the West Mall, and one of the current teammates handed me a flyer and was like, ‘Come to our informational meeting about rowing,’ and I didn’t know anything about rowing so I told her, ‘No thanks, I don’t row,’ and I handed her back the flyer,” Fleming said. “But she insisted that I come, so I did.”
“Plain and simply, rowing is a physical sport with a skill element,” head coach Dave O’Neill said. “But rowing is a sport where, if you just want to work hard, and you can endure pain, and you can keep just grinding it out, we can teach you the skill. If they can just have the right physical makeup and learn the skill, they can take off.”
After learning the basics of rowing and focusing on fitness in the fall, Fleming spent the winter break training intensively in the hopes of making one of the top boats.
“When we left for winter break, coach Mara [Allen] and coach Danielle [Bartz] told us that there would be one walk-on that came back and was really, really strong and fit and would kill it, and I hoped to be that person,” Fleming said.
Fleming’s performance after the break earned her the opportunity to row in the second varsity eight boat at the San Diego Crew Classic. Her boat won first place at the regatta and was named the Big 12 Conference Boat of the Week.
“It was really cool for me, being new, but it was even cooler for me to watch how excited my teammates were because I knew they’ve been working for this for a long time,” Fleming said. “Watching just how happy they were when we crossed the finish line was unlike anything else.”
Fleming said the experience, while challenging, has been worth the sacrifices.
“The first time I got a Texas rowing t-shirt, I can’t even describe the feeling,” Fleming said. “It was like, ‘I can’t believe I’m actually doing this rowing thing because it’s something that I never would’ve thought I’d be doing.’”