ENJOYING THE RIDE: Princeton University women’s open rowing coxswain Roopa Venkatraman guides the varsity 4 in a race this spring during her senior campaign. Venkatraman, a Cranbury resident, helped the varsity 4 win both the Ivy League and NCAA titles this spring. (Photo by Row2k, provided courtesy of Princeton Athletics)
By Bill Alden
Suffering a leg injury from running cross country at the Deerfield Academy put Roopa Venkatraman on a path that ultimately ended up with her winning an NCAA title in rowing.
Needing to be on a team in the spring of her senior year at the Massachusetts prep school, Venkatraman hit the water.
“As we were required to play a sport for at least two seasons, I started looking for an alternative to running track in the spring,” said Venkatraman, a native of Cranbury. “Many of my friends were on the crew team at Deerfield, and I originally joined as a way to just spend some more time with them before we graduated. I didn’t know much about coxing, though many of my friends had told me I’d be a good fit for the role.”
Coming home to go to Princeton University in the fall of 2018, Venkatraman decided to join the Tiger women’s open rowing program.
With her limited crew experience, Venkatraman faced a challenge getting up to speed.
“Walking on to the team with 10 weeks of rowing experience, at best, I was put in a position to direct and lead people who had been rowing for five to 10 years, many of whom had national and international titles,” said Venkatraman.
“I was not incorrect to think that I was underqualified. I could barely tell port from starboard. It’s true that many people walk on to crew and the opportunity to do so is wonderful. But I think that walking on as a rower is, in some ways, different than walking on as a coxswain. As a coxswain, you’re automatically put in a position to lead. Your mistakes are literally broadcasted on speakers. If you underperform, you actively hinder the ability of the entire crew to practice and reach their potential.”
Reaching her potential, Venkatraman guided the Princeton varsity 4 win both the Ivy League and NCAA titles this spring in her senior campaign.
In becoming a national champion coxswain, Venkatraman applied a studious approach to the sport and her position.
“I asked for feedback from my rowers constantly and taped practices and races, which accelerated my growth,” said Venkatraman. “I was pretty close to the coxswains in the years above me and they also really helped me along the way. I may not have been the best when I started, but I cared a lot about getting better, which helped my teammates invest in my growth. Even as I found my confidence by the end of my first year, I still asked for feedback all the time and continued to push myself to get better.”
Princeton women’s open head coach Lori Dauphiny was impressed by Venkatraman’s rapid improvement.
“Roopa is very detail-oriented, she did progress very quickly,” said Dauphiny. “The most challenging part was helping her figure out if this was where she wanted to invest time and energy. She decided yes and when she did that, it was unbelievable. She was good before that and when she knew what she wanted, she just got that much better. She was a student of rowing. She did go out on the coaches launch quite a bit to learn more. She would videotape and listen to the coaches’ commands.”
As Venkatraman became proficient in the boat, she fine-tuned her mental approach to racing.
“There’s a misconception about coxswains just shouting all the time during races, but I think there’s a value in being technical and relaxed during races,” said Venkatraman. “You’re competing with athletes who already perform at a high level and have a lot of their own internal drive. I tend to believe that just adding more motivation on top of that only has marginal gains. I really like focusing on keeping a cool head and a calm tone to inspire confidence. Being a good coxswain is about building trust with your rowers and I think you have to choose your moments to say “now’s it, you have to go now” during a race carefully.”
Dauphiny credited Venkatraman with mastering that aspect of being a coxswain with aplomb.
“Her biggest hurdle was learning to be a racer and she became a real racer,” said Dauphiny. “That’s something that is taught but also has to come from within. She didn’t have that skill coming in because she had done so little of it. She hadn’t manifested it yet. I think she really learned to take command and how to work with a crew and change the intonation in her voice and all of those things besides steering.”
After the 2020 season was canceled, Venkatraman took a big step forward last spring in the return to competition when she guided the varsity 4 to first place in the C final at the NCAA championship regatta.
“I got a lot better at figuring out how to focus on the few low effort, high impact improvements that can make a crew that hasn’t been together long a lot faster,” said Venkatraman. “At the NCAAs in 2021, we had a few days to throw together our best race, and it was under this pressure that we were forced to make the best of what we had. I think our team definitely shares the mentality of making whatever line up you’re in the fastest, but I got much better at identifying and focusing on these changes when the stakes were high. I gained a lot of optimism about the potential of our team, especially in the 4, going into a full season.”
In Dauphiny’s view, Venkatraman and her teammates made a lot of progress in 2021 even though the schedule was sharply curtailed due to ongoing COVID-19 concerns.
“I think it was a big turning point and even though it was the C final we were so proud of winning it,” said Dauphiny. “It was a big stepping stone. It was an experience that carried through to this year and it gave more confidence to those young kids who hadn’t been to the national championships.”
Returning to the varsity 4 for the 2022 season, Venkatraman said a 2.8 second loss to Texas in late April actually proved to be a confidence builder for the boat.
“We didn’t find the combination we raced at nationals until our duel against Texas,” said Venkatraman. “I’d say this race against Texas was the turning point for us since we’d stacked up decently against the first ranked team and felt like we had serious potential to do some damage at Ivies and beyond. We held them off from the start in that race, though they seemed to have a more sustainable base at that point in the season. However, once we walked on them in the last 250 of that race, we really started to set our sights a bit higher because we knew it was possible. I had a feeling that this would be the lineup we’d need to race at nationals in order to win.”
Building on that triumph, the varsity 4 won its grand final at the Ivy League championships, topping Brown by more than four seconds in the grand final after having fallen to the Bears in a qualifying heat.
“The final was really exciting for us since we hadn’t raced this lineup in weeks and we had all individually found a lot more speed during the season that greatly improved our boat when we all came back together,” said Venkatraman. “It’s a testament to how everyone our team continues to push themselves, regardless of where they’re sitting. That mentality really helped us gain fitness and speed even as lineups change.”
As the boat prepared for the NCAA championship regatta, which took place from May 27-29 at the Nathan Benderson Park in Sarasota, Fla., the boat was focused on itself rather than its foes.
“Our mindset coming into NCAAs was centered around making sure our boat was performing at its peak in order to podium,” said Venkatraman. “Our goal was to meet or beat our third place seed. We never doubted that this wouldn’t be possible if we met our potential on race day. The majority of our focus was on our boat, including important technical changes, and our race plan.”
Dauphiny viewed Venkatraman’s serious mindset as a key to success for varsity 4.
“Going into the national championships, she was fully prepared and that was a fantastic weapon to have against those other crews who had a different season than us last year,” said Dauphiny. “She just brought an amount of detail and preparation and leadership that was needed. She was so studious, she really had it broken down.”
After winning its opening heat and then taking second in the semifinal, the varsity 4 produced a big effort in the grand final. Trailing nemesis Texas early in the race, Princeton took the lead at the 1,000-meter mark and pulled away for a 1.2 second victory, clocking a winning time of 7:05.23 over the 2,000-meter course with Ohio State placing second in 7:06.46 and Texas taking third in 7:07.18.
“I think we were the most relaxed and collected going into our grand final compared to any of the other races that weekend,” said Venkatraman, who was joined on the boat by Haley Mead, Catherine Garrett, Natasha Neitzell, and Lauren Johnson.
“We didn’t feel like we needed a miracle to win, we just had to execute to the best of our capacity. Our race plan was to get up off the line quickly and use the strokes after our shift to find a solid and sustainable base rhythm. Our battle with Texas and Washington in the middle 1K of the race was exciting. Once we started walking back on both crews, I could hear their coxswains getting rattled. I think what made the difference for us across the board was that we just stayed really relaxed, internal, and confident. Our boat stayed really responsive to calls and we knew exactly what we had to do to put our bow in front.”
The gold medal marked the first V4 medal in program history at the NCAA Rowing Championships and left an indelible memory for Venkatraman.
“I was absolutely ecstatic at the finish line. I mean, just over the moon; I don’t think I’ve ever felt that happy, it is definitely one of the proudest days of my life,” said Venkatraman.
“It was a bit funny actually because I think I was the only one who had fully realized we’d won once we crossed the finish line. Ohio State and Texas had walked back a good bit during the sprint and we weren’t exactly sure what the final margins were. When my boat started asking me if we’d won, I kept quiet until they announced it because even though I was almost certain, I didn’t want to say we had if we hadn’t. It wasn’t until when we were rowing back to the dock where we saw Lori and shouted at her on the shore to ask if we’d won or not. The second she said we had, we all went nuts.”
In reflecting on the boat’s achievement, Venkatraman acknowledged that it wasn’t an easy ride.
“The way we’ve grown this season has just been incredible,” said Venkatraman, who credited assistant coach Anna Kalfaian with playing a key role in the boat’s progress. “Every step along the way, it felt more and more possible. Seeing it come to fruition is incredibly gratifying, especially my senior year since I’m able to round out my four years with this feat. More importantly and regardless of our win, being on the team itself has been a privilege, and that’s honestly what means more to me. I’ve grown, struggled, stumbled over these past four years, and I could not be more grateful to have had the team around me to help me get up time and time again. It takes a village to raise a baby, it takes a team to win a title.”
For Dauphiny, Venkatraman’s growth was a testament to perseverance.
“What I am most inspired by is how she went through these challenging times and came out stronger and better; that is really a lesson for other coxswains in our program,” said Dauphiny.
“When you don’t make the top boat or when things don’t go your way, it is easy to give up or say I am not good enough, I will do something else. It took those four years for her to reach the spot that she did, winning the national championship. Those four years and that development were so important. I think sometimes people lose sight of that, they think they should be good at it immediately. This is proof of what you can do by getting through the challenging times and coming out stronger. That is Roopa. I am just very proud that she developed and hung on throughout the years. She not only did that but pushed herself to be better and the coxswain that she was for that national championship at the end.”
In Venkatraman’s view, pushing herself to become a stellar coxswain benefitted her on and off the water.
“I’m very proud of how far I’ve come and how much I’ve grown; I couldn’t have asked for a better four years and I certainly didn’t anticipate this walking on freshman year,” said Venkatraman, who will be competing on a Princeton 8 at the Henley Royal Regatta in England at the end of June to wrap up her rowing career and will then be starting a private equity job with McKinsey in New York City in August.
“That being said, it was a lot of hard work and I’ve learned a lot of valuable lessons along the way. As an athlete and as a person, I’ve become a lot better at making mistakes with confidence and taking ownership of my role. I’ve learned not to settle and how to bring the best out of others. I’ve learned how to stay collected and make decisions under pressure with a clear mind. Looking back, what stands out to me is how much of a team sport it is and how supportive our coaches are, without whom none of this would have been possible.”