Math whiz Jen Fox finds new challenge in rowing

by Amy Whitesall, Published December 14, 2011

Eastern Michigan graduate student Jen Fox always had the “student” part of student-athlete handled. 

But “athlete” was about the last thing she would have called herself when she decided to walk onto the EMU rowing team in 2008 after transferring from Oakland Community College.

She remembers her first workout that year—a training run that in hindsight seems like it was ridiculously short. And she remembers having to take a break in the middle of it.

Fox, twice named a national scholar-athlete by the College Rowing Coaches' Association, graduated in 2010 with a bachelor's in mathematics and a 3.71 GPA. She kept rowing through her first year of graduate school, using her final year of NCAA eligibility. A math major, she continues to hold down a 4.0.

“She always said her accomplishments were no big deal,” said EMU rowing coach Brad Holdren.

“She would say, 'I never made the top boat; I was always in the second boat.' But not everyone has the same natural gifts, and not everybody is going to be in the top boat. She worked to the best of her ability, and she helped other girls understand what it means to go after it.”

So how does a quiet, academic young woman become a college-level competitor in a sport she's never tried before?

“Crazy random happenstance,” Fox says, laughing. “Every year at Fajita Fest the rowing team girls go around handing out fliers. I thought, 'If I don't join something, I'm just going to sit in my room and do homework.”

Socially and physically it was a big leap for Fox, who was extremely shy and had little concept of working out and enduring pain on purpose. Everyone—herself included—thought she would quit. But her new teammates had become a support system, her family on campus.

“Even though I was not very athletic, I had these people encouraging me, telling me, 'You can be strong. You can be faster.' I couldn't let these people down,” she said. “I kept thinking, 'I won't tell them I quit—yet.'”

And every challenge met made her a little stronger and more determined. She eventually earned a partial scholarship and a spot in EMU's second varsity boat, then the full scholarship that would allow her to row one more year as a grad student.

She kept her grades up with the same kind of determination she applied to rowing, even though her best homework hours—late at night—conflicted badly with getting up at 5:45 a.m. for practice.

Now in her second year of grad school, Fox tutors other students and does supplemental instruction (SI)—a group tutoring setting that appeals to both her love of math with her enthusiasm for helping people. She plans to teach math at a community college after graduation.

“Being (at EMU) I've come so far out of my shell,” she said. “I think with rowing I've kind of become more sassy—more bold and more confident in myself. I've continued tutoring here, done some SI stuff. All of that put together has kind of made me who I am.”

Amy Whitesall

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