It all began with happenstance meeting with a Greek rowing legend.
Sofia Asoumanaki was 16 and vacationing with her family on a beach in Greece when Greek Olympic medalist and now rowing coach Vasileios Polymeros noticed her playing volleyball.
Asoumanaki, a powerful 6-foot-3, is easy to notice.
“He asked me if I wanted to try rowing,” said Asoumanaki, who grew up in Athens. “It was like, ‘I don’t know, I am a swimmer.’ He said just come and try.”
Asoumanaki, who had been a high-level competitive swimmer for years, was a natural at rowing from the start.
Three years later, she just missed winning a medal in the 2016 Summer Olympics at Rio de Janeiro by placing fourth in the women’s double sculls, and last year she was the Pac-12 freshman of the year and helped lead the UW women’s eight to a second-place finish at the national championships.
“Everything was happening so fast that I could not realize what was happening,” said Asoumanaki of her rapid ascent in the sport, which included winning a silver medal in the double sculls at the 2017 World Championships. “In that period, everything was really crazy but I had to be focused and it was really hard.”
At 21, Asoumanaki aspires to not only win an Olympic medal after coming close but to also get a college education, and that’s what made UW so attractive to her.
“I felt it was really interesting to me to try something extra than rowing and to focus on my studies,” said Asoumanaki, who plans to major in international studies. “The University of Washington is the best rowing program in the States and my parents were so happy and so excited. They said, ‘Don’t even think about it, just go.’ In Greece, you have to choose rowing or studies, and here you can do both at a very high level. And this is really important to me because when you are done with rowing, you need something to support you. It’s like a dream combination.”
Not that it was easy, particularly at first, when “I couldn’t even say a word” of English, she said.
“I improved my English in three months when I got here, but it was really hard,” she said. ” I couldn’t understand anything in the lectures. It was just like noise in my ears. But I had real good support from my teammates and I was asking them all the time to help me.”
Once again, she proved a quick study, and UW coach Yaz Farooq said Asoumanaki got a 3.5 GPA in her first quarter and made the dean’s list.
“The adaptation was huge, but she is an excellent student and an excellent rower,” Farooq said. “I feel like we turned out to be the perfect fit. She is one of the most kind and gracious people on the team. For her to come in and have Olympic experience, you would never guess it because she is that humble.”
Not only did Asoumanaki have to learn a new language, she had to learn a different style of rowing. In double sculls, competitors use two oars while on the UW women’s eight, she sweeps with one oar.
“I learned sweeping at UW,” she said. “That was hard, but also being a part of this big boat, because there are a lot of minds just like me and also the coxswain was new for me. It was a new experience for me, but the team is really strong and close and I feel like they were for me from the beginning and it was like a home.”
Asoumanaki said she was surprised at being named Pac-12 freshman of the year, and she only figures to get better with more experience in an eight-plus boat. There is no question about her talent, and she holds the 2,ooo-meter world indoor rowing record for 17- and 18-year-olds.
It was that record that caught the attention of UW and other schools, and Asoumanaki now aspires to break the overall record.
“I am not that far away, and I think I can do it,” she said.
Asoumanaki also believes the Huskies can win the national title in early June. Cal, which lost to UW in the Pac-12 championships, got revenge at the NCAA championships.
“We were really happy to have the title of Pac-12 champions, and we were really sad we couldn’t do the same for the NCAA,” she said. “This year, we are going to try really hard that that doesn’t happen again. Both the men’s and women’s teams are working hard for something really special. I think this is our year.”
Asoumanaki was happy that her best friend from Greece, Dimita Tsamopoulos, decided to come to UW and is a touted freshman on the team. The two are rooming together.
“It’s really helpful that we have each other,” Asoumanaki said. “We can speak to each other in our language.”
But even from the start, she has never regretted making the move thousands of miles from home.
“It was totally worth it, and I am really happy,” she said. “I am looking to stay here, even if it’s hard. I have my friends, my team and everything.”