Despite being a sophomore, coxswain Eleanor “Ellie” Oken has established herself as one of the most experienced Owls of the women’s rowing team.
Oken led her boat to a 10th place finish in the first race of the Head of the Schuylkill Regatta on Oct. 27. This came a week after Oken led the same boat to a seventh place finish at the Head of the Charles Regatta, one of the world’s premier rowing events.
None of the Owls had raced on the Charles River in Boston before, except for Oken, who had raced the course twice.
Oken’s unique experience mirrors her background. Oken is the only rower on the team not from the Northeast. She attended high school in Portland, Ore.
“Temple actually found me through one of my coaches in high school,” Oken said. “My coach was on an Olympic team, which the coxswain was from Temple, so they connected and found me.”
However, Temple did not begin recruiting Oken until March of her senior year of high school.
“That was really late in the game for college applications,” Oken said. “The nursing program had already closed its applications, so the coach had to pull a few strings to get them to let me apply.”
“I pretty much had to race every single weekend to the end of school,” Oken added. “So, there wasn’t really any time for me to come out [to visit]. I kind of winged it.”
Before joining the Owls, Oken never anticipated rowing for a team whose boathouse was a tent, as is the case for the Owls. Temple offered Oken a few surprises, beginning with Hurricane Irene.
“I remember my first day coming down here, the parking lot was flooded, so we couldn’t do anything,” Oken said. “We had a dock here which was like vertical. It was crazy, got totally pushed up.”
“The next time we came down here, we had to take a bunch of stuff out of the canoe house,” Oken said. “We were cleaning it out with shovels. And then we were still using the second tent, and it was just filled with trees and debris. It was wild.”
Oken soon settled into her new team in a new city. However, homesickness inevitably crept into Oken’s mindset on occasion, and still does, she said.
Oken’s parents have only been able to see their daughter race once, at last year’s Dad Vail Regatta.
“It was really awesome to show them around,” Oken said. “Show them around Temple, Philly and then to have them watching the regatta, such a huge regatta, was really cool.”
“Everyone else has parents here every weekend, so just to have mine watch me in college once was really, really awesome,” Oken added.
Making the move to the East Coast was not the only major travel in Oken’s life.
Oken was born in Eugene, Ore., but during her middle school years, a job opportunity at Vanderbilt University for her father meant her family had to move to Nashville, Tenn. The summer before high school, her family returned to Oregon, but this time to Portland.
One of Oken’s new neighbors had recommended a summer rowing program to her. This was the spark to Oken’s rowing career.
“I was like, ‘Hey, that sounds really cool,’ and I went down, and I loved it,” Oken said. “I had so much fun being on the water.”
Gaining an interest in rowing in Portland, a place where the rowing culture is far smaller than Philadelphia, Oken was able to use the long rivers and fewer boats to her advantage.
Quickly, Oken realized her stature meant she would be a coxswain.
“When I started out, I was about 5 [feet], 1 [inch] and 95 pounds,” Oken said. “I could barely carry an oar, so they kind of nudged me into the coxswain seat.”
“It’s also kind of my personality to be in charge,” Oken added.
Upon first meeting Oken, new coach Rebecca Smith Grzybowski noticed Oken’s personality.
“[Oken’s] definitely a coxswain,” Grzybowski said. “Coxswains are a little bit sassy, and they like to be organized and be in control, so [Oken] definitely gets it done.”
“She is on the top of her game when it comes to preparation: studying course maps, taking turns, studying the competition,” Grzybowski added.
These same traits are noted by Oken’s teammates.
“[Oken] definitely has a wealth of knowledge about everything when it comes to rowing,” senior Joanna Sutor said. “She knows pretty much everything about boat rigging, steering, the different mechanics of the boat and she is very good at keeping us calm during situations [when] we might get frantic.”
Heading into the spring, though, Oken would like to get more aggressive with her coxswain style. Currently, she is very technical, and getting more aggressive can be a struggle for her, she said.
“Every day when we’re on the water, I try to be a little more aggressive,” Oken said. “So hopefully for spring, I can make it a habit.”
Being aggressive will be crucial for the team heading into the spring, as courses are generally straight, she said.
As for Oken’s personal life, the coming weeks serve as a time to focus on family again. As Thanksgiving approaches, Oken would like to head home because both her and her father’s birthdays fall around the holiday.
“Thanksgiving is a really big family time, and it’s really hard to be away from them then,” Oken said. “It’s such a short break and flying takes almost all day, so it’s kind of a push to get home for Thanksgiving.”
Liam McKenna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.