Mooney was a skier growing up, and now has become one of the top rowers in the country.
Raised in rural southern Vermont on the grounds of a prep school where her father was the resident headmaster, Brooke Mooney grew up with cross-country ski trails literally in her backyard.
“My family was really into skiing,” said Mooney, whose mom was promotion manager for Skiing magazine. “I was put on skis very early and grew up in a skiing culture. It’s what my friends and I did in the winter for recess or after school.”
A talented sprinter (1.2km and 1.3km races), Mooney was a member of New England’s Junior National Nordic Ski Team for three winters, posting four top-three finishes at U.S. Junior Nationals.
She liked soccer and tennis, too. Rowing? It was just a cross-training option for skiing suggested by a summer-camp coach when she was an eighth-grader. Yet the sport’s appeal grew on her each subsequent summer until, for her senior year at Vermont Academy in tiny Saxtons River (pop. 565), she joined the varsity crew. The newbie excelled, first being named team captain and later Most Valuable Female Rower.
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That was an eye-opener. Mooney elected to pursue rowing as a collegian and began filling out online recruiting forms for various colleges, “just putting my name out there across the U.S.,” she said, to gauge potential interest. One form arrived at Washington.
At UW, which has a tradition of converting diverse high-level athletes into rowers, Conor Bullis was the freshman coach at the time.
“He responded to my email probably within 30 minutes,” Mooney recalled. “The next day I was on the phone with him learning about the program, and by the end of the week I was setting up an official visit. It all happened really fast.” She soon committed to rowing for a college 3,000 miles from home. Good move.
Mooney has grown to become one of the nation’s strongest collegiate rowers, anchoring the engine room of UW’s top-ranked varsity eight boat from the 4 seat with a stroke considered among the most powerful of any U.S. female rower at any level.
The 6-foot-2 senior will put that talent to work this weekend as the No. 1 UW women seek to defend their 2017 national title at the three-day NCAA rowing championships that begin Friday in Sarasota, Fla.
Mooney’s skills have already earned her an invitation to train this summer with the senior U.S. National Team, along with teammates Karlé Pittsinger (a converted shot putter from Chelan) and Jessica Thoennes.
How substantial is Mooney’s stroke? During an early-season one-minute training test on an ergometer (a stationary indoor rower), Mooney recorded a sustained pace of 615 watts — an astounding figure.
UW coach Yasmin Farooq asked national team coaches Tom Terhaar and Laurel Korholz how that stacks up. “They did not recall anyone having ever gone above 600,” Farooq said.
Plus, in what’s known as a 10-stroke test, in which a rower is scored on the highest number of watts generated in a single stroke, Mooney pulled 854 watts — another unprecedented number, according to what U.S. coaches told Farooq.
“You don’t have to know rowing to see her strength,” Farooq said. “Watch her and you think, holy smokes, this woman has some serious power.”
When Farooq was hired in 2016, she became Mooney’s third head coach in three seasons. Mooney had spent her sophomore season deep on UW’s depth chart, rowing in relative obscurity with the fourth varsity eight. Yet Mooney’s physical gifts were obvious to Farooq, and she asked volunteer assistant coach Elle Logan, a three-time Olympian whom Farooq had coached at Stanford, to take Mooney out in a pair and evaluate her.
“She came back and said, Yaz, she has so much potential. She could really go all the way,” Farooq said. “You’ve got to keep working with her. Brooke’s the real deal.”
In 2017, a newly motivated Mooney swiftly ascended from the fourth V8 to the first, and her growth has continued. In a timed training session this spring, she and freshman teammate Sofia Asoumanaki, who rowed for Greece in the 2016 Olympics, both broke UW’s 2,000-meter record on an erg (6 minutes 35 seconds). Mooney has improved her 2017 erg time by a whopping 15 seconds.
What propelled Mooney’s leap from the fourth boat to first? Flipping a mental switch.
“When she started to realize her true potential, she really embraced every opportunity,” Farooq said. “We told her, you can pull way harder than you think you can. You don’t think you’re holding yourself back, but you are. You have to give yourself over to this and go harder and realize you’re not only going to survive but you can keep going at this level.
“She started taking risks. She still hasn’t done a piece where she went out so hard that she blew up, which is what we call it if you overextend yourself. She is just getting an understanding of what she can do. It’s got to be really exciting for her. She’s improved exponentially over where she was. When we say 6:35 on an erg, that’s what Olympians are pulling.”
Mooney, 22, appreciates the prodding. “Yaz has really pushed me and helped me get to where I am today,” she said. “She makes sure I’m not holding back and taking the steps I need to make to reach new PRs (personal records).”
Farooq praises Mooney for embracing self-direction in her development.
“She’s captured all the elements to make sure she can optimize her performance,” Farooq said. “You’ve got to manage your time. You’ve got to fuel well before and after workouts. You’ve got to get enough sleep. She does all that, all while being a student, and that takes a lot of discipline. That’s why the U.S. coaches are so interested in her. She has the mental discipline to be an elite athlete.”
Farooq marvels at how quickly Mooney rebounded from an unusual health scare. Last April recurring headaches led Mooney to discover she had a cyst sitting near her optic chiasm (the part of the brain where optic nerves cross), pressuring both nerves.
In late June, after UW won the NCAA championship, she underwent a delicate endoscopic brain surgery where the mass was removed via her nostrils. After a six-week recovery, she resumed normal training.
“No lingering effects,” she said cheerfully.
“That tells you something about her preparation and her commitment,” Farooq said. “In the beginning, I don’t think Brooke really believed she could do what she’s doing now. Then she started to believe, and I think she decided that she really wanted it. Over the years I’ve seen athletes who seem like they have a lot of potential. But the ones who actually go after it, who truly pursue it, make something happen. That’s what Brooke is doing.”
• Last year UW claimed its first NCAA championship in women’s rowing since 2001 (and fourth overall) by sweeping all three races — varsity eight, second varsity and varsity four, the first time in the event’s 21-year history any school accomplished that feat.