San Diego, Calif. - Sarah Trowbridge would love to tell you she was a natural rower from the first time she settled into a shell at 17. That the oars felt comfortable in her hands, that the boat immediately and effortlessly glided across the water, that her lungs filled with joy, not pain. Except that it would be a great big fib.
“I wasn’t like astounding,” said Trowbridge.
Her mother reminds her that she wanted to quit her freshman year at Michigan.
Said Trowbridge, “If you would have asked the (Michigan) coaches, they would have said no way is she going to be a successful rower or game changer.”
Yet of the 17 head coaches on the University of San Diego campus, Trowbridge, 35, is the only Olympian. Trowbridge and teammate Margot Shumway finished sixth at the 2012 London Olympics in the women’s double sculls.
Now Trowbridge is in her first season as USD’s women’s rowing coach and the team makes its 2018 debut this weekend on Mission Bay in a scrimmage against UCSD, San Diego State and Orange Coast College.
Trowbridge is an example of the athlete who did not taste immediate success but in some ways that’s what drove her. Sitting at a Starbucks just down the hill from USD, Trowbridge said, “It wasn’t a sport I was naturally good at. It was hard."
She grew up in Washington, D.C. before moving to Connecticut for high school. She was athletic and strong growing up, “but never found the right sport to channel it,” she said.
She skied, pole vaulted, dived, sailed, competed in gymnastics, ran the hurdles. It was her mother who suggested rowing.
“My mom is just into new experiences, trying things that makes us uncomfortable, widening our horizons,” said Trowbridge.
She earned a small scholarship at Michigan, where she majored in English. Her mother is a writer.
“I took out loans,” she said.
She started with the novices and walk-ons her freshman year at Michigan. By the end of her career she was stroking the top eights boat. The Wolverines won two Big Ten championships during her stay in Ann Arbor.
Asked what drove her to row, Trowbridge said, “I was always thinking I could do better. I wanted to do better. Or had something to prove.”
Regarding her mom reminding her that she wanted to quit at one point, Trowbridge said, “Yeah, I wanted to, but I wasn’t going to. This is hard. I’m going to figure a way through it.”
In her post collegiate career, Trowbridge competed in four world championships, winning two silver medals. She quit competing after the London Olympics at 29.
“I didn’t want to overstay my welcome,” she joked.
She has served as an assistant coach for the U.S. national team, coaching athletes who advanced to the world championships and Olympics. Collegiately, she has coached at Georgetown and was Yale’s top assistant coach for three years.
Having trained in San Diego multiple times as part of the national team, she was drawn to USD in part by the city.
“I loved this city’s attitude more than anything,” she said. “San Diego, it’s pretty chill. It’s very water-centric. It’s such an active city. It definitely has an influence from south of the border.”
Her husband, Bryan Volpenhein, is a coach for the men’s U.S. national rowing team.
Her draw to college coaching is for the reasons you would expect, appreciating the opportunity to leave an indelible mark on young women.
“You’re impacting athletes at a time in their life when you can develop or have a hand in shaping character and work ethic and integrity and discipline, resiliency,” Trowbridge said. “And that’s really meaningful.”
As for Trowbridge’s goals at USD, they are broad and specific.
“Overarching is to create or perpetuate a healthy competitive team that develops each athlete, pushes them very hard and enables pride in their work while being a positive influence in their lives,” said Trowbridge.
As for results, the Olympian is not thinking small.
“My goal is to win WCCs,” she said, “and to place in the top 15 nationally.”
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