By Rick White
Jim Hernandez believes athletics are an important part of the educational process. So when he dropped his youngest daughter off at college in the fall, he urged her to stay involved in sports.
Jessica Hernandez played soccer, basketball and ran track at Clovis High, but it was her academic prowess that landed her at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif. Intramurals were an option, but she was looking for a bigger challenge, something that would test her body the way her political science classes did her mind.
Still, Jim Hernandez was stunned when he learned his daughter joined the school’s rowing team. The family has lived in the land-locked Southwest all of their lives and she had no rowing experience.
“I kind of wondered if she was sneaking down to Greene Acres Lake at night and was practicing,” said Jim Hernandez, a family services coordinator at Cannnon Air Force Base.
“It surprised me, because I had no idea what it takes to row. But she’s a strong girl.”
While the rowing program at Stanford is open to all students, few walk-ons make it to the varsity because of the sport’s demanding nature.
Hernandez is an acceptation.
After spending the fall semester training and developing her rowing techniques, Hernandez recently was moved from the novice team to the the varsity.
At a sturdy 5-foot-10, Hernandez is the type of cross-over athlete the coaching staff’s hoping to attract through its walk-on program.
“Rowing requires you to be a well-rounded athlete,” said Carrey B. Davis, Stanford’s assistant women’s crew coach.”We’re looking for girls exactly like Jessica, who are long and athletic.”
Experience is a plus, Davis said, “but I could teach my dog how to row if he could hold onto the oar.”
Davis said mental toughness and endurance are more important than technique.
“They have to understand and be more comfortable with a higher pain threshold,” Davis said. “It’s not a sprint and not an endurance race.”
Crew races are 2,000 meters, with eight rowers working in synchronization to power the torpedo-like, 60-foot carbon-fiber boats through the water for six-and-one half to seven minutes. Top crews can reach speeds of 11 to 12 m.p.h.
“It’s a weird balance of endurance and strength,” Hernandez said. “It’s by far the most brutal seven minutes I’ve ever experienced.”
Besides rolling out of bed at 5:30 most mornings for practice, Hernandez said balancing her time between school and athletics has been her biggest challenge.
“Not only am I rowing, but since I’m a freshman, I’ve had to adjust to the academics, being on my own for the first time and being away from home,” she said.
“Since we were young, all my siblings and I have been involved in sports,” she said. “More than anything else my dad sees it as teaching discipline for all the other aspects of my life.
“For me, it helps me focus in school.”
Although she can swim, Hernandez said she still gets nervous when the water gets choppy. The team practices in the frigid waters south of San Francisco Bay.
“I love the competition,” Hernandez said. “Plus, I think it’s the ultimate team sport. If you mess up, it messes up everybody.”
Stanford finished ninth at the NCAA rowing championships last year.
“She’s got a bright future if she sticks with it,” Stanford women’s head coach Aimee Baker said.
Jessica Hernandez said being part of the rowing program has helped smooth the transition from high school senior to college freshman, which puts a worried father back home more at ease.
“I was very concerned about her going to Stanford and being so far away from home,” Jim Hernandez said. “What athletics has done for her is keep her in a close-knit group. I sleep a little better at night knowing that.”