Wellesley rower earns berth in US team camp

Becca Kimball (front) rows with Jennifer Lamy in a pair on Lake Waban on the Wellesley College campus.
Becca Kimball (front) rows with Jennifer Lamy in a pair on Lake Waban on the Wellesley College campus.
Kayana Szymczak for the Boston Globe

Becca Kimball describes her transition from basketball star, at both Weston High and then Wellesley College, to potentially one of the premier college rowers in the country as “an astonishing and crazy journey.’’

Kimball, a junior in her first season rowing on the varsity eight boat at Wellesley, is one of eight individuals invited to USRowing’s prestigious “pre-elite” national team camp this summer at Syracuse University.

She is the only Division 3 athlete in the group, and the first rower from Wellesley chosen for a US team camp.

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When she received the e-mail from USRowing announcing its selections, Kimball was initially reluctant to open the attachment, she said.

“I was nervous and shaky and definitely had butterflies,’’ said the 21-year-old Kimball, whose school-record times on the Erg indoor rowing machine — 7 minutes over 2,000 meters, and 22:49 for 6,000 meters — prompted Wellesley coach Tessa Spillane to submit her numbers to USRowing last month.

“Honestly, I was pretty surprised because there are so many great Division 1 programs and rowers,’’ said Kimball, who occupies the No. 5 seat, part of the “engine room,” a crew term for seats 3 through 6 in the eight-person — plus coxswain — shell.

“The reaction from my team, from people around campus and old friends from Weston High has been awesome — lots of hugs and text messages,’’ she said.

“What makes it more exciting is that Wellesley athletics has been a huge part of my time here, my team is like my family, and now I have a chance to represent our program and school at the national level.’’

The 5-foot-11 Kimball still holds the career basketball scoring record (1,545 points) — for boys and girls — at Weston High, where she was the Dual County League MVP, and a track standout.

“Basketball was a big part of my identity and I never thought about rowing until I was asked by our assistant crew coach if I’d like to give it a try after my freshman basketball season, because of my size and athleticism,’’ said Kimball.

“In rowing, there are no individuals. Once you are in a boat, the outcome of the race is equally up to the nine people sitting there. Win or lose, no one person gets all of the glory or all of the burden. There are no statistics saying who did what in the race — you are a cohesive unit of nine powering down the race course.

“In basketball, there are obviously stats, and although great players don’t get caught up in them, that is what opposing coaches, newspapers, and the general public tend to focus on,” she said.

After sophomore year, she took a year off from school to volunteer and study in Nicaragua and Spain. Back in the States, she worked on the Obama presidential campaign in Boston.

Prior to her return to campus last fall, Kimball honed her technique with Community Rowing Inc.’s competitive women’s team under the guidance of head coach Matt Lehrer. Her first two years at Wellesley, she had rowed as a novice with the second varsity eight.

She rowed with CRI’s top eights and fours, and was part of five medal-winning boats — including three golds — at the last year’s USRowing Masters nationals in Worcester.

Spillane “recommended her and Becca immediately impressed me with her willingness to learn,’’ Lehrer recalled.

“She was incredibly fit and, even though she was on the younger side, other women just loved being in the same boat with her because Becca just put her nose down and soaked up all the knowledge she could from them.

“Her selection was a huge accomplishment, and I kidded her that I’m happy she won’t be with us this summer. Becca’s going to be in just the right environment for her national team aspirations.’’

The pre-elite camp focuses on developing athletes for the country’s under-23 and senior national teams. The regimen includes conditioning and fitness programs, sculling technique, two or three daily practices, and the opportunity to compete at the Royal Canadian Henley Regatta.

The camp, which starts July 8, is under the direction of Justin Moore, the women’s rowing coach at Syracuse University.

“It’s not that uncommon for athletes from small schools to become Olympians,’’ said Moore, “or for them to transition to rowing after they get to college.

“Our focus will be in making Becca and her teammates the best rowers they can be, and give them a big dose of experience that will help them realize what it takes to get to the next level, our U-23 team.

“This camp will be different because we are exposing athletes 100 percent to sculling,’’ using two oars instead of one, “which could increase their opportunities if they someday get to the Olympic trials,’’ Moore said.

Kimball had intended to play basketball at Wellesley last season, she said, but “I realized rowing had become a passion, and if I was to be at my best I had to do it full time. . .  Deciding not to play basketball anymore was one of the hardest decisions I’ve had to make.”

She said Jennifer Kroll, the basketball coach at Wellesley, was supportive of her decision.

“She understood where I was coming from, and said not to be a stranger,’’ said Kimball, who still plays pickup games on campus, competes in a rec league in Weston, and also coached the Weston High girls’ junior varsity squad this winter.

“Becca came back last fall completely ready for the varsity eight, and she just inspires her teammates with how hard she works,’’ said Spillane.

“I believe she will only get better, and I’m excited for her and for our program,’’ she said. “The day after the announcement, we had some pretty excited teammates joining Becca at our Erg workouts.’’

Wellesley College senior Jessica Fry said Kimball brings an “unrelenting sense of aggression and hunger” to the first varsity boat.

“When she decides to make a change, you can feel the whole boat respond, trust her, and then go with her,” said Fry, who sits in the sixth seat on the varsity eight.

“Becca is great at finding that critical balance between pushing her teammates past their limits while also supporting them in the process. Her positive energy and passion for rowing is contageous,” she said.

Rowing at Wellesley dates to the 1880s, when dormitories and classes competed against each other. The varsity program was established in 1973, and Spillane’s team placed a program-best third in 2011 and again last year at the NCAA Division 3 nationals. The school owns nearly a dozen racing shells, and practices are held on the Charles River.

Kimball said rowing has given her a renewed self-confidence.

“Track helped my conditioning and basketball influenced me in being part of a team,’’ she said. “But crew took me out of my comfort zone and presented new challenges. I take risks now I never took before.

“We leave at 4:30 in the morning except Sundays for practice, the sport requires complete unity and you have to give up all sense of self-identity,’’ Kimball said.

“It’s a tremendous commitment and I love everything about it.’’