Jessica Thoennes isn’t representing just the United States at this summer’s Tokyo Olympics, she is also representing the University of Washington.
UW rowing to be more specific.
“I will never not represent the University of Washington,” said Thoennes, who graduated from UW in 2018 and will compete for the U.S. in the women’s eight. “I wear that title of a rower at the University of Washington with such pride, and I conduct myself knowing I’m proud to be a rower of the UW. … Being a rower of Washington takes a special human being.”
Thoennes is one of 16 current or former Husky rowers competing in Tokyo — representing seven different countries — continuing a long tradition of UW rowers taking part in the Games. No other university in the country can match that number.
“Isn’t it crazy how many people made it?” said UW women’s coach Yaz Farooq, who will be at the Games as a support coach for the U.S. women. “It’s unbelievable. I think when we all get to Tokyo and we all see each other in our different nations’ uniforms, at the heart of it all, we are all still Huskies.”
Going back to the nine Husky men who won gold in the U.S. men’s eight in Berlin in 1936, there have been 45 UW athletes who have won Olympic medals, and a Husky has won a medal in the past four Summer Olympics.
UW men’s coach Michael Callahan was part of the 2004 U.S. Olympic team as a competitor. Eight rowers he coached at UW are competing in Tokyo. He has been in the stands in the past few Olympics to see his Huskies perform — but because of COVID restrictions will be watching this year from home on TV.
“You’ve recruited student-athletes, been in their living rooms, and you tell them if they come to the University of Washington that you will develop, and we’ll help put you on the Olympics path if that is your dream, and you have the capacity and the desire to do it,” Callahan said. “Then you’re sitting in the stands with moms and dads … and it’s really fulfilling emotionally, and there’s nothing like it. It literally is a dream come true, and it’s fun to share it with them. I am fortunate to have a little piece of it.”
Thoennes arrived at Washington having never rowed. She was a basketball, volleyball and track athlete and walked on to the UW rowing team in 2015. None of that athletic experience helped her when she first got on the water.
“I was awful, terrible,” she said. “There are no two ways to cut it. I was a very bad rower.”
And how did that change?
“Hard work, patient coaches and people who believe in you,” she said, “And a lot of practice.”
Another walk-on for the UW women was Brooke Mooney, whose main sport in high school was skiing. She is also on the U.S. women’s eight team that is looking for its fourth straight gold medal. The coxswain is Katelin Guregian, a former coxswain for the UW men, who helped the U.S. women win a gold medal in 2016.
Thoennes and Mooney are carrying on a long tradition of Husky women walk-ons making it to the Olympics.
“That legacy is something we were made aware of every day,” Thoennes said. “You can be as great as these women because where they started, you started. What you make of this opportunity is up to you, but you can do it. It was a privilege to be on the same roster as legends.”
Thoennes worked her way up to the first varsity eight boat as a junior, helping UW to a sweep of the three races at the national championships. As a senior, she was moved down to the No. 2 boat, a testament to how deep the Huskies were.
The UW second varsity boat won its race at the 2018 NCAA championships, but UW did not repeat as national champions.
“Going to the second varsity eight was a test for me of how good of a teammate I can be,” she said. “What kind of teammate are you? And what kind of person are you when the going gets tough? It was a privilege and a joy to row with those women. We had so much fun, we did so many incredible things. When showtime came, we put the rubber to the road and destroyed it.”
She got an email during her senior year asking her if she would like to train with the national team in Princeton, New Jersey. She wondered at first if the email was sent to the right person. It was. The day after graduation ceremonies in 2018, she was on her way back East.
It has been 60 hours a week of training since. It all became worth it when Thoennes learned this spring that she had been selected to the Olympic team.
“I just broke into tears because I had done months and years of work … and it worked, it paid off,” she said. “There was a moment where I felt weightless because it was so relieving and exciting.”
That she will be joined by Mooney in Tokyo makes it even more special.
“I’ve had the privilege of being her teammate since Day 1 and to go to the Olympics together has been something that we’ve joked about — but when it actually happened it just felt so right,” Thoennes said. “Being a part of her journey has been the greatest honor because she has done so many incredible things. And it is so exciting to be a part of it.”
Farooq coached Thoennes and Mooney for their last two years at UW.
“I remember looking at these two — incredible athletes as well as incredible people and thinking, ‘Wow, if it’s in their hearts, I think these two could have a chance to make the Olympics,’ ” Farooq said.
Thoennes, who said there is nothing more she wants to do each morning than row, said she is “over the moon and can’t put in words how excited I am because I am so excited.”
Farooq, who competed in two Olympics as a coxswain, understands the emotions. In 2008, she was a commentator for NBC at the Beijing Olympics. One of her rowers from Stanford, Elle Logan, was on the women’s eight that won the gold medal, the first gold for the U.S. in that event since 1984.
Farooq said she thinks she was more excited than if she had won gold.
“When you are calling that race as a broadcaster, you have to be impartial as a broadcaster, but as soon as that race was over I was overcome with emotion,” she said. “And when they played the national anthem, I just started crying because as an athlete, it’s your dream to represent your country and to have a shot at a medal on the podium. It was truly emotional and I was so happy for her.”
Farooq doesn’t have to be impartial this year, and she will root for all of her rowers, no matter the country they represent.
“It’s just so cool to see these women have the opportunity to represent their sport at the highest level on the highest stage,” she said. “I am beyond proud, and I am so thrilled I get to be there to see them all race.”
Washington Rowing in the 2020 Olympics
Women’s Pair — W2-
Megan Kalmoe ’06, USA
Men’s Pair — M2-
Conlin McCabe ’12, Canada
Women’s Double — W2x
Chiara Ondoli ’18, Italy
Women’s Quad — W4x
Valentina Iseppi ’20, Italy
Men’s Four — M4-
Will Crothers ’09, Canada
Women’s Eight — W8+
Fiona Gammond ’15, Great Britain
Kirstyn Goodger ’14, New Zealand
Phoebe Spoors ’17, New Zealand
Katelin Guregian ’09, USA
Brooke Mooney ’18, USA
Jessica Thoennes ’18, USA
Men’s Eight — M8+
Jacob Dawson ’16, Great Britain
Ben Davison ’17, USA
Stuart Sim ’16, Australia
Bram Schwarz ’20, Netherlands
Simon van Dorp ’20, Netherlands
Note: Michiel Mantelr is an alternate for the Netherlands.