Jessica Schoonbee's tumultuous year of rowing leaves her without an ending

Thursday, April 30, 2020 - 7:52pm

Jessical Schoonbee's year of Olympic hopes ends at home

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Jessica Schoonbee is bored.

She gets up around 7:30 every day — sleeping in compared to her typical rowing schedule at Michigan. 

She has an iced coffee and toast with peanut butter for breakfast.

She tries to squeeze in a workout either before or after her online classes, still only half the amount of training she does during the school year. 

In another reality, Jess would be finishing up her sophomomre year by taking finals in Ann Arbor and gearing up for another Big Ten Championship.

Or she’d be ramping up her practice schedule for the Final Olympic Qualification Regatta in Switzerland.

She’d be in a boat on Belleville Lake, training every day for the chance to bring home a national title at the end of the month.

Instead, she finishes her peanut butter toast and sits down at her computer. 

When she’s done with her school work, she tries to keep herself occupied, spending time with her family and running — she even dyed her own hair a couple weeks ago. 

That’s the routine she’s developed since returning home to Johannesburg in the middle of March, when her rowing career, her Olympic dreams and her life were put on hold because of COVID-19. 

***

Last May — just before Big Ten Championships — then-junior Tayla-May Bentley picked up a call from Roger Barrows, the head coach of the South African National Team. He had a question: did she and Jess want to compete at the Under 23 World Championships? 

Both women had competed for the Junior National Team in high school, but because of their collegiate racing schedule, they didn’t think they’d get the opportunity to race for their home country again until after graduating. 

Jess and Tayla-May spent all year rowing in an eight and didn’t have any experience in a pair. The regatta was in less than two months — it would be a shot in the dark, but they’d dreamed of racing on the international stage again. They couldn’t pass up the opportunity.

They finished out the collegiate season — winning the Big Ten Championships and coming in third at NCAA Championships — and returned to Ann Arbor to start training in the pair. 

From then on, all they did was row. They woke up in the morning, went to practice at Belleville, came back to watch TV for a couple hours, then got up to go to afternoon practice. 

Transitioning from rowing in an eight to rowing in a pair isn’t easy. Maintaining balance in a smaller boat is more difficult, and racing in a pair typically takes longer. 

Still, that wasn’t their biggest obstacle. Because Jess and Tayla-May were both used to rowing on the port side, Jess had to switch to starboard. In rowing, that’s practically the equivalent of waking up one day and deciding to be left-handed. 

But they came back day after day. They had a single, unwavering focus: get on the podium at U23s. 

Day after day, they got faster.  

Before they knew it, they were sitting at the start of the A Final of the Under-23 World Championships next to Russia and Greece, the odds-on favorites. 

“I was just adamant that someone was playing games with us,” Jess said. “That we weren’t actually that fast.” 

But it wasn’t a game. After months of training and planning, a lifetime of dreaming and hoping, for this moment, Jess and Tayla-May came in second on the international stage. 

The original plan had been to stop after U23s, but the second-place finish opened up new possibilities for the duo. They had speed. And the Senior World Championships, the first chance for Olympic qualification,were in a month. If they kept training, there was a good chance Jess and Tayla-May could qualify for the 2020 Games. 

But that meant more money, more practices and more international travel — not to mention the huge commitment of training for the Olympics if they qualified. The Olympics was their dream, though, and they never thought they’d have the opportunity at such a young age. Again, they took the leap of faith.  

They kept up their routine for another month before the regatta. But as the race got closer, Jess started to notice a stabbing pain in her side. She iced it and went to the team doctors, but nothing helped. She thought she had fractured her rib, but she couldn’t tell Tayla-May before the race. So Jess kept rowing despite the pain. 

In the end, whether it was the rib or their lack of experience in the pair, their hopes of qualifying at the Senior World Championships were short lived. Teams had to come in the top-three of the quarterfinal to stay in contention to qualify. Jess and Tayla-May were fifth, by a healthy margin.  

They had a choice to make. They could fly back to South Africa and keep training throughout the year for another chance to qualify in May at the Final Olympic Qualification Regatta, but that would mean they’d have to take the year off school. It would mean graduating a year late and missing a season the Wolverines were poised to dominate, with no guarantee their decision would pay off. Only two more pairs would qualify — it would be a long shot. 

Jess talked the decision over with her parents and coaches, but, in the end, it was her older brother Kyle — who’d already qualified to row at the 2020 Games — who tipped the scales. 

“My brother said to me, ‘You haven’t been in the boat for that long. You switched sides; you fractured your rib; your rib’s gonna get fixed; you’re gonna get a lot faster. You’re going to qualify,’ ” Jess said. “So I decided I’m just going to give myself a shot.

“I was extremely nervous. It’s really hard to put all your eggs in one basket.” 

Jess and Tayla-May moved home to South Africa, rented an apartment and got back to work with the National Team. While Tayla-May trained out on the water in a single, Jess did what she could while she waited for her rib to heal. 

She spent some time with her family in Johannesburg. She watched “Jane the Virgin.” Sometimes, she’d get on the erg, an indoor rowing machine, to see if she could row. 

Yeah, still hurts. 

She tried to get her body moving any way she could — lifting and squats mostly — but even a heavy breath induced shooting pain. So mostly, she waited. 

Jess waited until a day in November when she was finally cleared to get back to training. Back to rowing. Back on the road to Tokyo. 

She left the doctor’s office and headed back to the apartment she shared with Tayla-May. Jess made herself dinner and settled onto the couch when Tayla-May came in with eyes bloodshot from crying. She was also on her way back from the doctor’s. 

The same day Jess was cleared, Tayla-May was told she’d injured both of her hip tendons. She likely needed surgery, keeping her out for the foreseeable future and making it unlikely she’d be back in time for the Olympics. 

The national coaches asked Jess if she would stay to train in a single and try to qualify by herself in the spring.

“It was really hard, because I did want to give myself a shot at the Olympics,” Jess said. “But a big part of it was that Tayla-May and I had started this journey together, and I didn’t want to end it without her.”  

After months of training and racing, thinking and decision-making, injuries and recovery, it was time to go back to Michigan. 

Jess flew back to the US at the end of December for the Wolverines’ training trip in Florida. Even though she was disappointed how her Olympic quest had ended, she was ready to throw herself into Michigan’s season.

Last year, Jess stroked the Wolverines to the Big Ten Championship title and a third-place finish at the NCAA Championship. This year, their sights were set even higher. With four rowers and the coxswain returning from last year’s boat, Michigan believed it could go for gold — something the Wolverines haven’t done in over 20 years.  

“Everyone was so focused on getting better technically,” Jess said. “We knew that we could win this season, which was something that we didn't know we could do last year. Previous to this year, we were almost too scared to want it really badly. You could also feel that we were almost scared of losing or failing. And I think this year it was like all that's out the window — it doesn’t matter, we’re gonna win no matter what.”

But two weeks before their first scheduled race, all the rowers were called to the training center. Jess started to get a bad feeling. Classes had already been moved online due to the COVID-19 outbreak, and most other conferences had already canceled the rest of their seasons. 

Michigan coach Mark Rothstein was on a conference call when the team got to the practice room. They sat down, trying to prepare themselves for whatever was about to happen. Rothstein came in, still on the phone, and sat in a chair at the front of the room with his team staring back at him. He handed the phone to assistant coach Liz Tuppen and explained to a silent audience that their season was over before it had even begun. Complete silence fell over the room. 

There would be no Big Ten Championship and no NCAAs — no chance to build on last year’s success. 

For Jess, it was one more premature ending in what had been the most unpredictable year of her life. 

***

May isn’t going to be the month it could’ve been for Jess. She’ll never know whether she would have qualified with Tayla-May or how the Wolverines would have done in the postseason. 

For now, she’s at home, establishing a new normal after a year that has been anything but. 

About two weeks after she got home, it was announced the Tokyo Games were being pushed back to next summer. 

She still dreams of going to the Olympics, but there are so many factors to consider. She has no idea what the selection process would look like or how it would fit in with Michigan’s season. She doesn’t know when she’ll be allowed to train, or even what the next school year will look like.

After she heard the news, Jess checked her phone, and saw she’d gotten a message from Tayla-May. When she read it, she couldn’t tell if it was a joke:  

Should we go for it in 2021?