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Iowa sophomore Contessa Harold is one of the Big Ten's top rowers. Here what she has to say about last year's NCAA championships, and this year's. Mark Emmert, memmert@gannett.com

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A year ago, the Iowa rowing team vaulted into the national conversation, making the NCAA championships for the first time in 16 seasons.

And it showed.

“They were looking around at the race site kind of like, ‘Hey, thanks for letting us play with you guys,’” Hawkeyes coach Andrew Carter said. “They didn’t feel terribly confident that they belonged, because it had been so long.”

Iowa finished 15th in a field of 22 last year. Afterward, a group of juniors huddled away from their teammates and made a vow that 2018 would bring a much better showing.

It has so far. The Hawkeyes enter the NCAA championships this weekend ranked eighth in the nation and aiming for a top-10 finish in a sport typically dominated by West Coast teams. Competition begins Friday morning at Nathan Benderson Park in Sarasota, Florida.

“Last year, I think we did a really good job of keeping our heads screwed on while we were at NCAAs,” Iowa sophomore Eve Stewart said. “But I don’t think we knew how good we were and how much we could have achieved. We could have had higher hopes for ourselves. We do now.”

Iowa’s first varsity eight boat, one of three that will be racing this week, is staffed by five sophomores, including Stewart. It’s one of the more remarkable storylines of this year’s team.

Another is that only three of the 23 Hawkeye athletes who will be competing were recruited to the school with previous rowing experience. The rest picked up the sport upon arrival in Iowa City. One of those, Contessa Harold, was just named the Big Ten Conference’s co-athlete of the year, a first for Iowa.

Much of Iowa’s success can be attributed to young rowers like Stewart and Harold, who took widely divergent pathways to competing in the black and gold. Here are their stories:

From South Dakota volleyball courts to providing power for the Hawkeyes

Harold never intended to play collegiate sports. The sophomore wanted to devote her time to earning a degree in civil engineering. And if she was going to compete, it probably would have been in volleyball, her best sport growing up in Chancellor, South Dakota.

Harold’s freshman roommate at Iowa said she was planning to try out for the rowing team and encouraged her to do the same.

“She told me they really liked tall girls and girls who were good at volleyball,” said Harold, who is 6-foot-3.

Harold gave it a shot. The roommate, it turns out, did not.

At first, Harold found the motion awkward. Two weeks in, she tried to quit.

Her coaches and teammates had seen something in her, though, and coaxed her back to the boathouse.

“Our group is really team-oriented, more so than almost any other sport, the inter-reliance,” Carter said. “They very quickly get glue between them and they all become like one unit.”

Harold was in the group. There was no escaping. She’s never looked back.

Harold was so good so fast that she was able to work her way into the second varsity eight boat as a freshman, gaining valuable experience and competing in the NCAA championships. She was so devoted to mastering this new sport that she spent last summer in Iowa City training.

This year, Harold was put into the first varsity eight — in the sixth seat, where power is paramount. She was so impressive that Big Ten coaches named her the best athlete in the league alongside Michigan senior Kendall Brewer, a three-time member of the U.S. national team.

That’s lofty stuff for someone who took up the sport 18 months ago.

“I can’t believe it quite happened,” Harold said. “I’ve been really focused on the team. There’s so many great rowers in the Big Ten.”

Harold’s original plan was to study architecture after getting her civil engineering degree. Her dream job is to design roller coasters someday.

But Harold’s immediate future might include rowing. She had watched the sport in the Olympics and now could get a chance to compete on that stage.

“I never knew it was a college sport,” Harold said. “It seemed like one of the sports that people just end up somehow doing.”

Like Harold.

From Netherlands to Iowa City, Stewart becomes Hawkeye 'metronome'

Stewart was set on leaving her native Netherlands to study English literature in the United Kingdom. She wants to be a writer.

The track athlete turned to rowing as a high school senior and the Dutch national coaches were so impressed they put her on a fast track. Carter reached out to Ronald Florijn, a two-time Olympic gold medalist who was one of Stewart’s coaches. Carter needed a skilled rower and had a scholarship to offer plus the prestige of Iowa’s writing program.

Stewart accepted the chance to come to Iowa City sight unseen.

She was skilled enough to earn a spot in the bow seat of Iowa’s first varsity eight as a freshman. She also quickly came to appreciate the magnitude of NCAA rowing.

“You don’t really know how big it is and how impressive the racing is here until you’re in racing season,” Stewart said. “It’s the epitome of collegiate sport. The racing is intense, and the same or bigger than any world championship event.”

This year, Stewart has transitioned into the stroke seat, directly in front of the coxswain, the last rower to cross the finish line at races. It’s a vital spot, and Stewart is well-suited for it.

“You need somebody who’s kind of a metronome and never say die,” Carter said. “She’s sort of a tiny rower and very predictable and easy to follow. She can set a rhythm that they can feel.”

Stewart said her biggest improvement while at Iowa has been mastering the mental aspect of her sport. Hours spent training on the indoor rowing machines called “ergs” (short for ergometer) can be both boring and exhausting.

“It’s just stroke after stroke,” Stewart said. “So learning from people, my team, how to deal with that little voice that says ‘Stop,’ because it’s always there in your head. Learning how to deal with that has been a big thing.

“We’ve worked extremely hard this year at getting this rhythm going that has enabled us to achieve everything that we’ve done.”

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