Rower Gemma Wollenschlaeger takes the world stage

Temple Rower Gemma Wollenschlaeger has only been rowing for five years, and now she’s competing in the Paralympics.

Temple Rower Gemma Wollenschlaeger joined the Owls in 2021, and despite only rowing for five years, her performance earned her a trip to the 2024 Paris Paralympics. | COURTESY / TEMPLE ATHLETICS

By the time Gemma Wollenschlaeger reached her freshman year of high school, she had all but given up on her love for sports. She tried every sport imaginable, but after being cut from her travel basketball team and losing interest in swimming, she decided to quit trying entirely.

She spent the next year lying around her house, watching Netflix and feeling sorry for herself. However, her itch for playing sports and being outside never faded. 

Around that time, Wollenschlaeger discovered a local rowing club, decided to give it a try and quickly fell in love with the sport. Fast forward five years later, she’s preparing to compete in the 2024 Paris Paralympic Games. 

“I realized that all these people were giving it their all and they were my kind of people,” Wollenschlaeger said. “The next day I went back and got in the boat, and the feeling of using my body to move the boat in synchronization with however many people are in the boat was an amazing experience.”

Before she was born, Wollenschlaeger was diagnosed with a left clubfoot, a disorder where the foot is twisted out of place. She underwent multiple surgeries growing up to correct her foot while completing countless hours of physical therapy just to be able to walk.

Wollenschlaeger is unable to walk for more than 15 minutes, which impacts her abilities with some sports. However, rowing doesn’t require her to stand at all, and she proved to be a natural in the boat, earning recruiting recognition for rowing despite just two years of experience. 

Temple Rowing head coach Rebecca Grzybowski, who recruited Wollenschlaeger, was more intrigued by her attitude than her skills.

“She was definitely not the fastest recruit in the class and she did not have a ton of race experience,” Grzybowski said. “What stuck out to me was her attitude. She was so invested in the idea of high performance and wanting to get better.”

Grzybowski was initially unaware of Wollenschlaeger’s clubfoot when she first recruited her, but Wollenschlaeger was upfront about it. She offered various alternatives to keep up with the rest of her team, like riding her bike with the team while they ran.

Wollenschlaeger’s solutions-oriented approach convinced Grzybowski she was fit for the Owls, and Wollenschlaeger committed to Temple in 2020.

Wollenschlaeger immediately took off once she arrived in North Philadelphia. She was named to the American Athletic Conference first-team all-conference in 2023 and helped lead the varsity eight to a third-place finish in the AAC Championships. 

“She just keeps improving, there is never any doubt of how well she is going to perform,” said teammate Amarna Milne. “She shows up, gives 100 percent and that is what has led to her success.”

Wollenschlaeger’s success at Temple earned her a spot on the US Para Rowing roster, which competed in the World Championships during the summer and gave Wollenschlaeger a taste of international competition in both Serbia and France. 

The success didn’t stop there. Wollenschlaeger won a silver medal at the World Championships and gained valuable experience that led to a spot on the Paralympic roster.

“Both of those experiences were nothing like collegiate racing,” Wollenschlaeger said. “It’s a whole different level to wear the USA uniform and to be a part of the team. That whole process I knew was leading up to the games.”

Earning a spot on the Paralympic Rowing roster was once unfathomable to Wollenschlaeger, but after entering the selection camp on Jan. 4, she knew she had a strong shot of being selected. Her dream became a reality when she was selected at the end of camp. 

“As a kid, I would always watch the Olympics and be like, ‘I wish I could be like them and I wish I was good at sports,’” Wollenschlaeger said. “After going through every single sport under the sun to then find rowing and get to that level is an awesome achievement. It means the world to me and it’s something I will never forget and something everyone around me will never forget.”

Alongside four other rowers, Wollenschlaeger will be competing in the PR3 mixed four with coxswain. With a silver medal already under her belt, Wollenschlaeger has her eyes set on the ultimate prize: a gold medal.  

The games don’t start for another eight months, but Wollenschlaeger will spend almost every day until then preparing to face the best competition in the world. On top of getting ready for the competition in the water, Wollenschlaeger wants to use the Paralympics to bring awareness to disabilities.

Wollenschlaeger hid her clubfoot from others growing up, but once she discovered rowing, she began seeing it as a gift and loves talking about it. She hopes that she can be a role model to other people dealing with disabilities and help them develop that same confidence.

One of Wollenschlaeger’s main goals is to have a platform to talk about her disability and help others with disabilities realize that they should be proud of who they are. 

“Embrace it,” Wollenschlaeger said. “You were given this awesome challenge and you should make that challenge into this amazing opportunity to run to the stars with.”

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