Molly Pluenneke didn’t have rowing experience on water.
But the Fredericksburg High School graduate’s time using a rowing ergometer was enough to whet her interest in joining the Duke University women’s rowing team.
The freshman, who competed in track and field and volleyball during high school, pursued rowing as a walk-on.
She said her mother saw an online notice about the Duke rowing team and forwarded the information to her.
After using a rowing machine through her high school years, Pluenneke was inspired to “row on the water one time,” she said. “We didn’t think I would make it (the team).”
She spent the fall semester with the other novice rowers learning the sport. “We were completely separated from the varsity team,” she said, noting that they had their own coach and own boat.
During the winter break, they attended a training trip to Florida.
“That marked our complete integration to the team,” she said, and they were practicing and competing with the varsity rowers once the spring semester started.
The whole time she was rowing and conditioning three times a day.
“It definitely was a hard adjustment,” she said. “I pushed myself athletically and physically.”
Not just physically, though. The walk-ons had to learn the language of the sport.
“They’d (teammates) be yelling words I had never heard. There were so many new terms,” she said.
Practicing in a four boat of newbies enabled her to master the rowing technique, including the timing.
She had to keep the handle height of her oar even with the oars of her teammates and stay in sync with their strokes.
Otherwise, Pluenneke said, “you can’t get the pull of the boat,” and move efficiently through the water.
Learning in the smaller boat was an adventure.
“We were going so slowly, and the boat was rocking back and forth,” she said, with a laugh. “It’s finding the power and strength of the strokes. Having good, strong strokes keeps the boat steady. There were a ton of blisters. My hands were always torn up.”
During the spring, she was a part of the 4 Varsity 8 boat that placed second to the 3 Varsity 8 in the 3V8/4V8 race, helping Duke win its fourth consecutive Carolina Cup. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, that turned out to be the team’s final spring event.
“I finished that race feeling like I gave everything I could have,” she said. “We definitely exceeded expectations. We had not held anything back. It felt really good.”