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Gently down the stream: three MSA grads row for Gophers

Jennifer Mehta, second from right, and her Gophers rowing teammates compete in the Head of the Mississippi, the first race of the year, at East River Flats Park in Minneapolis in October. (Submitted photo)1 / 3
Elizabeth Mockenhaupt and Mikayla Dalton competed for the University of Minnesota's novice rowing team last season during their freshmen years of college. (Submitted photo)2 / 3
University of Minnesota freshman Jennifer Mehta rowed for the Gophers last season. (Submitted photo)3 / 3

The first time Mikayla Dalton got out of the boat, she didn’t feel too well.

“I was seasick,” she said. “I was like ‘oh my gosh, this is going to be a really long year.’”

It was her first practice session on the river as part of the rowing team at the University of Minnesota, and it didn’t go well -- not for her stomach, anyway.

Still, she wasn’t going to quit on the team that easily.

“I put in so much hard work that I just didn’t want to give it up,” said Dalton, who never again felt seasick after the first occurrence.

Dalton was one of three graduates of the Math and Science Academy to join the rowing team as a freshman last fall. Joining her were Jennifer Mehta and Elizabeth Mockenhaupt.

But the three didn’t all simply join together, Mehta said. Each individual made the choice to join by themselves.

“It was like ‘oh, you’re doing this as well? That’s so great, because now I actually have a familiar face,’” Mehta said.

The three were active in sports in high school, but like most athletes who join the walk-on novice team with the Gophers, they had zero prior experience in competitive rowing.

So the girls were treading through rough waters from the get-go.

“It was a weird day when I wasn’t sore,” Mehta said.

Dalton said in the beginning the new rowers primarily worked on the basic mechanics of the sport, which wasn’t easy because the rowing motion is an “awkward” one to learn.

“It’s a totally new motion you’re doing with your body,” she said. “Your hands start to get blisters.”

Still, even in the beginning, there were clear positives to being a part of the team.

Mehta said the structure of having practice and lifting sessions everyday forced her to excel in time management to stay on top of her school work.

“It was like a full-time job,” she said. “The adjustment in college is just having that first initial shock of how different it is. It took a little bit to get used to, but once you got into the rhythm of the year, it was pretty easy, actually. I liked having that structure.”

Both Dalton and Mehta said they enjoyed the instant friendships being on the team gave them.

“They’re girls that I’m talking to even after the season is over,” Mehta said. “Yes, rowing was the biggest thing we had in common, but through that we were able to see that we were just as good of friends even without the sport.”

Dalton said the difficult part in the beginning was the uncertainty of getting cut. The coaches cut down the novice team from the 70-some athletes that go out for the squad sometime after the first race, she said. And as a shorter athlete in a sport that favors the tall, she was nervous she wouldn’t make it through the roster trimming.

“Oh heck yes [I was nervous],” she said. “I was like ‘oh my gosh, I’m going to get cut.’”

But she didn’t. All three of the MSA grads make the final roster.

Dalton said that’s when the girls began to really fine tune their strokes, that’s when they began to form a family.

“You’re on the Mississippi River with eight other girls and you all have to be in sync,” she said. “You get close whether you like it or not. You have to learn to work together. … You have to like them, otherwise you’re going to be miserable.”

It was a family that included three girls from a graduating high school class of 28 kids. While all of the girls on the team were friends, Dalton said Mehta and Mockenhaupt were her “go-to girls.”

Mehta said she couldn’t be more grateful for the opportunity to row. She called the Gophers boathouse, which is located on the East River Flats in Minneapolis, one of the University’s “best kept secrets.”

And though the season ended in May, that doesn’t mean the rowing stopped.

Mehta said she is rowing with the Minnesota Boat Club this summer. She said it’s amazing she’s been able to keep some kind of consistency with her rowing throughout the year, and she said she can definitely see herself continuing to row for the Gophers throughout her collegiate career..

“[Rowing is] something I latched onto without knowing,” Mehta said. “I really couldn’t imagine my freshman year any differently.”

That might not be a possibility for Dalton. She’s currently rehabbing from a stress fracture in her femur and hip damage she said was likely caused by overuse of her lower body. Dalton sounded pessimistic that she’d be able to return to the Gophers rowing team in the fall, but that doesn’t mean her rowing career is over.

If she can’t continue with the Gophers, she said she too would like to row with the Minnesota Boat Club. Rowing, a sport that so was foreign to her a year ago, has captured her heart.

“I just spent a whole year learning this new sport and I’ve grown to love it,” she said. “I just don’t want to stop.”