Rosie Popa: Rowing for the “Land of Opportunity”
July 11, 2012
The half day of air travel en route to the 2012 World Rowing Under 23 Championships is a fairly short trip for Rosie Popa.
“I think our total travel time is about 13 hours, with a few layovers,” said Popa. “It’s really not that bad; a bit like going home.”
For the bow seat of the U.S. under 23 women’s pair, the journey to Trakai, Lithuania, to race this week is shorter than her average trip home. The flight back to Melbourne, Australia, is at least a 15-hour and 7,919-mile trans-Pacific trek from Los Angeles.
Nonetheless, every minute passed and mile covered by Popa and the rest of the under 23 team is part of the opportunity to race against some of the world’s elite rowers. This year will be Popa’s second at the World Rowing Under 23 Championships. Last year, she took seventh in the women’s quadruple sculls.
This year, Popa decided to row the pair with Anna Kaminksi from George Washington University after getting cut from the women’s quad. The girls had three sessions of practice together before qualifying for the team June 27 at the Under 23 World Championships Trials in West Windsor, N.J.
And with such little training time together, Popa is realistic, yet optimistic, about their upcoming races.
“It will be good to get some more international racing experience, naturally, and just being able to handle the pressure. I think for our boat, if we can get into the A final, it would be really good,” said Popa. “Just considering the time restrictions we’ve had, I think it is a realistic result if our plans go smoothly when we get to Lithuania. Every time we’ve gotten into the pair, it has gotten so much better each session. Now we just need to take advantage of every session.”
Her coach at the University of California, Dave O’ Neill, feels Popa’s ability to keep the window of opportunity open and still make the under 23 team is a characteristic she continues to hone at Cal.
“She got cut from the quad selection and she knew trials were coming up, so she jumped into a pair right away,” said O’Neill. “One of the things she has continued to learn on our team is how to take responsibility and looking at the possibilities in every opportunity. With the U.S. being the land of opportunity, Rosie is definitely making the most of the opportunity in front of her.”
Her adaptability in this situation is just one example of her overall life approach.
“We’ve had quite a few people from our team move on to the under 23 team, the national team and even the Olympics,” said O’Neill. “And I’d say the training that we do is quite good. The technique that we do is quite good, but I think one of the biggest lessons that the successful student athletes from our team have learned is the need to take responsibility for their success. She definitely takes the responsibility upon herself to determine what she can do to make the boat better or to help the boat win.”
Popa is one of three rowers on the 2012 U.S. Under 23 National Team with hometowns in foreign countries. However, Popa is the only one that considers herself a native Australian. As a result, Popa’s experience at international competition is different than most of the team’s athletes.
“It is strange racing people from Australia, but when it comes down to it, it is a sport,” said Popa. “There are no Australians in the category I’m rowing in this year. Last year, there were. It was a bit weird. I thought it would be a little bit more tense than it was, but everyone seemed to be pretty cool with it because they knew where I was coming from.”
Popa’s decisions to row for the United States, rather than the country she grew up in, is especially noteworthy considering her parents are Olympians. Both rowed for the Australian national team. As a dual citizen, her mom, Sue Chapman-Popa, won bronze in the four with a coxswain for Australia at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. After immigrating to Australia from Romania, Ion Popa won bronze in the Australian eight in 1984 and took fifth in the eight at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea.
For the daughter of Australian rowers, the choice to head to America was about taking full advantage of her available opportunities.
“With the Australian system, you can’t really row full time and be in school full time,” said Popa. “I would have to miss a lot of school to row at an elite level. We [Rosie and her parents] looked at rowing in perspective of my college career. I wanted to finish school in four years. I have American citizenship and the U.S. program is really strong, so all of it seemed like a good fit. I wanted to see if I could get into it rather than going home missing months of school or not even going to college at all.”
Like most American teenagers, after finishing secondary school, a college degree from the “right” university was high on Popa’s list of priorities.
“It was also about having an international experience and being able to row for a college I liked as well,” said Popa.
After making a few unofficial visits to Pac-12 universities with consistently strong rowing programs, the Popa family narrowed down the field to Cal, where Rosie has been rowing and studying since 2010.
“We’d narrowed the Pac-12 schools to Cal, Stanford and University of Washington,” said Rosie. “I went and visited Cal, went out in the launch and walked around the school. It just kind of fit with me. I liked the school, got along well with the coach and liked the way they row and the mentality of the crew. The whole vibe of it really fit my personality.”
Regarding her addition to his roster and varsity eight boat for the past two years, O’Neill said, “Somehow Rosie has a U.S. passport. She is still very much Australian. And even when we were recruiting her, it was as an Australian recruit.
“It was then that she told us that she has U.S. citizenship as well. Once we started talking, it became apparent that she might have ambitions to race for the U.S., as opposed to racing for Australia, and that has been an ongoing discussion. We’re certainly glad that she has chosen to race for the U.S. She has become more and more Americanized the last few years.”
One opportunity Popa does not think she will ever pursue is rowing for both the Australian and the United States national teams. She thinks it would be a poor idea to try and row for the “Land of Opportunity” and the “Land Down Under.”
Popa intends to focus her energy on making the U.S. senior national team after graduating from Cal.
“I definitely would like to try for the 2016 Olympics,” said Popa. “I finish school in 2014, so that gives me about a year and half to get into the system. I have one year left in U23s to try and see if I can make another boat next year. And, then I’ll give Rio a shot.”
To get the chance to follow in her parent’s footsteps, Popa knows she has some work to do before she attempts to race for the United States at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
“I need to put in a lot of hours to get really strong, because I think that is what held me back from getting into the quad this year,” Popa said. “I have plans to get into a really hard weights program when I get home, and I have a year to get that sorted.”