Nov. 11, 2015

By Renee Peggs

If you had
One shot
Or one opportunity
To seize everything you ever wanted
In one moment
Would you capture it?
Or just let it slip?

Grammy award-winning rapper Eminem might not know much about rowing but Molly Bruggeman (’14) and Amanda Polk (’08) know a bit about his sentiment. The two Notre Dame alumnae have seized the opportunity to take their rowing to the next level at the Olympic Training Center (OTC) in Princeton, New Jersey.

Since 2009, Polk has been a member of the women’s senior national team, comprised of the best rowers in the country. a member of the women’s eight-boat that won gold in September for Team USA at the World Rowing Championships in Aiguebelette, France, Polk is now also considered one of the top rowers in the world.

But there’s no time to rest on her laurels.

“Typically there’s 25-30 women here at the Training Center at any given time,” she explains, “and we’re all vying for the top spots. Selection is a year-round process: we’re tested both on and off the water and it’s a super competitive environment.”

Members of the junior national team, typically at the U18 level, and also those who have rowed U23, are eligible to compete for placement on the senior national team. Each of several American Olympic training facilities has development groups of U23 rowers, usually recent college graduates or those who are taking time off from school to focus on training, which feed into the next group of senior nationals.

“It takes years of training to be at the level Amanda is at, where you’re competing for a spot on the Olympic team,” Bruggeman says. “I’m trying to build my fitness, learn as much as I can and continue competing with the hope of reaching Olympic levels eventually.”

She’s on her way: Bruggeman took gold for Team USA in women’s coxless pairs at the Pan Am Games in Toronto this past summer.

“Winning that gold medal and representing my country was incredible, especially since it was just my first time being in a pair and in that environment,” she bubbles. “It motivated me to demand more of myself going into this year. I keep that with me to push myself even harder, remembering how special it was and hoping to repeat and exceed it. I’ve made a lot of progress in my first year [at Princeton] but I obviously have much further to go.

“Being here at Princeton in and of itself is amazing, totally a dream come true,” she continues. “But having Amanda here ââ’¬¦ she’s a fabulous role model. She was a legend at Notre Dame and made a huge impact on those of us who came after her. We talked about her all the time and strived to be like her and also to be even better than she was, which I think she loves to hear because that’s just the nature of our sport.”

Polk corroborates: “To be the best you have to beat the best. My spot on the senior national team is definitely not a given. Everyone gets better and there’s only so many spots so I push really hard to keep mine.”

Rowers at this level constantly compete not only against the other women at their own training facility but also against those at other facilities. Making the senior national team is prerequisite to being named to a spot on the Olympic team next June: the center at Princeton will send its athletes to compete against rowers from other training facilities in the United States for the honor of representing Team USA at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio.

Fourteen women. Two boats. One shot.

So it’s all cutthroat and no friendships, right?

“Rowing creates a sense of team just by virtue of what it is,” Polk corrects, “and requires a dynamic both on and off the water. It’s a learning and maturation process to figure out when to have that competitive edge and when it’s not necessary. In terms of developing friendships on the team, the dynamic of the girls right now is great: there’s a lot of maturity and understanding. We realize that pushing each other is only going to make our team stronger but we also balance that really well with having a lot of fun.

“As a sport, rowing involves an investment in and care for each other, for our teammates, on lots of levels so we can be the best when it comes to that 2,000 meters. You can only row as hard and fast as the person in front of you. You cannot cross the finish line ahead of or without the other people in your boat. You all have to work as one, get out of yourself and be accountable in order to bring it to the next level.”

Not all sports are like that; as a former basketball player, Polk knows a bit about that, too. Joining her high school rowing team on the suggestion of a friend who sat coxswain was initially about cross-training for basketball: “I thought it would be great just for the off-season, help me box out harder,” she recalls. “Slowly I came to realize that I loved rowing even more than I loved basketball.

“Rowing is such a team sport: there’s no superstars. When you’re in a boat, it’s all of you or it’s none of you. In basketball, there can be someone with a triple-double who is clearly carrying the team and getting all the glory; the nature of that sport lends itself sometimes to being selfish. Rowing just isn’t like that and I really grew to appreciate the humility of it.”

That humility is a matter of faith.

Before Polk became one of the world’s top female athletes, she was highly recruited for collegiate rowing programs and struggled with choosing among many scholarship offers. Eventually she narrowed it down to Notre Dame or the University of Virginia.

“The night before I had to make my decision, I said a prayer and asked for a sign: if I’m to go to Notre Dame, allow someone to give me something green tomorrow, and if I’m to go to UVA, allow someone to give me something orange. The next day in the lunch line, one of my best friends handed me some fresh broccoli and I said, ‘This is it! I know what I’m supposed to do!'”

As part of a Notre Dame legacy, Bruggeman had an easier decision.

“My dad and his three brothers and their father and my brother and sister and some of our cousins all went to Notre Dame; my mom and her sister went to Saint Mary’s. My parents actually met in college. I was probably brainwashed, to tell the truth!” she laughs. “I grew up loving ND and going to football games with my family when I was little. I visited lots of other colleges but when I had my official visit at ND I knew right away there wasn’t any other place I wanted to go.”

Top collegiate rowers like Bruggeman and Polk may petition Olympic training centers via an athletics “resume,” for acceptance to their facilities. The United States Olympic Committee then awards merit-based stipends, ranging from $200-$1,500 a month, to athletes selected for training.

“It’s definitely survival of the fittest,” Polk says gravely. “We train six or seven days a week, two or three times a day, so it’s not like we can have a part-time job on the side. The girls with lower stipends rely on their families to subsidize what they need in order to live.”

The training regimen is just one of the differences between competing at this level as opposed to undergraduate rowing.

Bruggeman names others: “We don’t have school to focus on! There’s no staying up till 2 a.m. studying for an exam the next day. We get the best nutrition at every meal instead of having to grab something quick on the way to class. There’s a lot more time for muscle recovery, getting much better and more consistent sleep. Those seem like little things but they make a huge difference in training.”

She has profound gratitude, though, for the foundation of her undergraduate experiences.

“Notre Dame rowing is such a well-rounded program that supports its girls from all sides,” she insists. “Coach (Martin) Stone is great, there are so many opportunities with the team, it’s a top university where you’ll get a fabulous education and you’ll be cared for completely. It was home to me and it still feels like home to me.”

And speaking of home ââ’¬¦

“We are so fortunate here at Princeton, as opposed to other centers like Lake Placid, Tulla Vista or Colorado Springs, because there is this fabulous network of host families that takes care of our room and board,” Polk shares. “We live among the community and feel like we’re part of it.

“My host family is Mike and Kathy Coppins and their daughters Lauren (14) and Nicole (17). I’ve been with them three years now and I consider them extended family at this point. They knew nothing about rowing before we met; they had just seen an ad in the newspaper and were interested in hosting an Olympian. It’s been a great fit: they include me in family events as one of their own and they’re just fantastic.

“My host sisters and I have this now-annual tradition of holding Pumpkin-Fest Spooktacular every October. We spend a whole day baking three or four different pumpkin desserts and then invite several of my other teammates over, have pizza and dessert, and we all go to ShadyBrook Farms for a haunted house, hayrides, all the typical Halloween stuff. It’s one of our favorite events all year.”

According to Polk, that steady sense of belonging is the key to her successful career.

“I have all this wonderful support – my family, my host family, my Notre Dame family: I’m not alone. My parents have done an incredible job supporting me and my four siblings, balancing what we each need ââ’¬¦”

She breaks off as emotion and tears take over.

Apologizing, she explains the role her family played when she was named a Team USA alternate for the 2012 Olympics but did not get to compete.

“Although it was a worthwhile experience, it was also very difficult: you’re there, you’re around the hype, but you’re just sitting the bench, and I’m not very good at sitting the bench,” Polk says. “My family was right there and continued to be there as I was trying to decide whether or not I wanted to come back to the Center in Princeton and try for Rio.

“Martin (Stone) and Marnie (Stahl) were also incredibly supportive. My relationship with them has deepened so much since I graduated. They still check in on me pretty regularly and ask if there’s anything they can do to help me as I’m training. Who they are as people is what makes Notre Dame rowing so great.

“I couldn’t be happier with my decision to keep training. This second time around has been so much better than the first. I know what to expect, I know where I need to be and what I have to do to get there.”

Editor’s Note: Erin Boxberger, a Notre Dame standout from 2012-2014, has deferred her senior year the past two seasons to train for the 2016 Olympics. She trains in Princeton, New Jersey.