SALISBURY — Rachel Jones came to the school she had grown up loving with her family last fall excited to start college. Clemson then threw her a curveball and handed her an oar.
Jones, who was a standout swimmer at Salisbury High, is still in the water as she joined rowing team at Clemson after an e-mail from a coach persuaded her to walk on.
“I was excited because I never thought I’d be doing a sport in college,” said Jones, a rising sophomore. “But that’s what the gym girl told me, ‘swimmers make the best rowers.’”
The numerous blisters on her hands serve as battle scars and prove the sport, although unheralded in most parts, demands perseverance. Jones, a swimmer since age 9, has dived in head-first. At orientation, she attended an open house at the practice facility and grew attached. Most days during the school year start around 5 a.m., with practice, classes, then another practice.
“I was at the boathouse pretty much at 4:30 every morning,” said Jones, a health sciences major. “You don’t have time to play around. You go to class, go to practice, do your schoolwork, go to bed. There’s a set schedule.”
Her father, Johnny, was a Clemson grad and Jones grew up going to football games at Death Valley. Jones would have loved to swim for the Tigers along with SHS alum and friend Garrison Stevens but CU dropped women’s swimming in 2012.
The majority of the team stands 6-feet and taller. Jones is around 5-9. That’s significant because the legs are crucial to generating strength and maintaining form.
“In rowing, the legs are your basis,” Jones said. “But you have to use these muscles that you never knew you had.”
She was on the novice team as a freshman but will join the varsity this season. Most of the her teammates on novice will move up with her. There’s about 61 on the roster with four varsity boats, two with eight members, two with four, and two novice boats, both with eight rowers. Jones sat in the third seat back at the Clemson Invitational and the Clemson sprints for the second novice boat. The races are generally 2,000 meters.
Rowing isn’t big in the south, but it has a niche in the upstate South Carolina town that sits on Lake Hartwell. Rowing is the fourth-highest revenue sport at Clemson behind football, men’s basketball and baseball.
Jones says it’s important to keep focus during a race, which can be an adrenaline rush when things get tight.
“It’s a whole new world,” Jones said. “You’re up in the air and there’s no one else there. I get in trouble a lot because I like to look around and see where we’re at.”
This spring, the Tigers finished second in the ACC for the fourth straight season behind powerhouse Virginia, and was 14th nationally. Duke, UNC, Boston College and Miami are the other ACC schools that have teams.
“Normally in the front, you want your taller girls because it’s more leverage with your legs that’ll get you pushing further,” Jones said. “I started towards the back and moved up.”
Jones is home for the summer, but practices on a rowing simulation machine every day at her parents’ house.
“It’s like a part-time job,” Jones said of her experience. “It allows me to get my mind off my studies and take my anger out on something.”
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