Spotlight Knight: Sarah Johanek
In the familiar waters of Ohio, senior Sarah Johanek took the stroke seat for a cornerstone moment in the history of Rutgers rowing. At the Big Ten Double Dual in Columbus Ohio, Johanek and the Scarlet Knights took the water at the Griggs Reservoir, rowing with a purpose as they found themselves at the highest peak of competition the program has ever seen.
Rutgers took five event victories, en route to pushing its already historic national ranking from No. 16 to No. 14. Even in the aftermath of rowing through one of the program’s most prominent meets, Johanek did not leave her home state of Ohio without the burden of an unsettled score from the event’s closest race.
“The last time I was there I was in high school. We haven’t had any races in Ohio so it was cool to be back there, I have a lot of friends and family in Columbus,” Johanek said. “Our race against Michigan was just the epitome of what rowing’s about. We were stroke for stroke, bow ball against bow ball. Every stroke, a different team was ahead and at the end of the race neither of us knew who won. Michigan got us by 0.3 seconds … I’m excited to race them again at Big Tens because they will not be getting us by 0.3 seconds again.”
Her parents, after endorsing an accomplished and premium high school rowing career, were rewarded by fate to see their daughter lead the Knights through their milestone event right in the waters of her home state.
Johanek said the support of her family was critical to her development as a rower.
“In high school I rowed for a scholastic team … and it was a brand new program so that meant it was very expensive. And my mom was fortunately able to pay those ridiculous dues in the fall and the spring,” Johanek said. “I remember her helping me through the whole recruiting process, which was new for her as well.”
At Saint Joseph’s Academy in Ohio, an all-girl Catholic school, Johanek earned 22 career medals. Moreover she showed her leadership ability and a presence that could lead a boat to historic feats. Johanek was a member of the first boat from her high school to attend the Head of the Charles in 2012 and re-qualifed each of the next three years, foreshadowing a Rutgers career in which she would lead the program to it's best performance at the Big Ten Tournament in 2018, and it's first national ranking in 2019.
By the time her career at Saint Joseph’s was over, she was a seasoned rower. She had a degree of experience uncommon in the landscape of college rowing.
When Johanek came to Rutgers, she was a unique veteran on the University's largest women’s roster. It is a roster that features a number of rowers that did not start their rowing careers until they came to the Banks.
“I don’t know any sports here where you can be a Division I athlete and not have any idea what that sport is before coming in as a freshman,” Johanek said. “It gives women the opportunity to become a Division I athlete and it’s kind of cool to have that relationship on my team where there’s some people who have been rowing, like myself, for eight years, and for some people in my boat this is their second year.”
That experience extends beyond both the border of the U.S. and the competitive purpose of the sport.
Following her sophomore year, her advisor showed her a flyer for a study abroad program and Johanek’s potential interest in public health brought the Knight to India as a researcher.
“I was in charge of leading a nutrition initaitve. We went into orphanges and schools and we did a needs assesment on their dietary plans,” Johanek said. “In these ophanges malnutrition and stunted growth are just a huge issue — these kids were 8 years old and I though they were 4.”
The trip was fully funded by Rutgers Athletics, and even helped Johanek fully manifest her interest in public health to an official decision on a major.
Even during her stint helping the children of India, Johanek still found time for rowing.
“Every morning I would get up and run a few laps around this little town," she said. "There was one man who had a single and he didn’t know how to row it but I was able to take it out a few mornings. I never thought I’d be rowing in India.”
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