Junior rower Sarah Fletcher’s alarm still goes off at the same time it always has – 6 a.m. every weekday – to catch the bus to Lake Michie for practice.
At first glance, the alarm clock and the water on Lake Michie may seem to be the only constants for Fletcher during her three years with the Blue Devils. After all, the coaches have changed; the workouts on the water, in the erg room and with the strength and conditioning staff have changed; the mentality and attitude of the program have changed; even the boat in which she competes has changed.
The transformation, which began with the hiring of head coach Megan Cooke Carcagno in July of 2015, was immediately apparent when Fletcher and her teammates returned to campus for the 2015 fall semester.
“I had a unique perspective last fall being out with injury,” Fletcher said of the team’s first fall under Cooke Carcagno. “I was watching very much from the sidelines while on a bike. From the first 2x6K workout, one of the hardest we do, to the last, it was insane to watch. We got fit, fast. Last fall I don’t think my teammates realized it was happening over time, but I did. I was watching and thinking how I was going to come back in the spring and have to chase everybody because they were going to be so much faster.”
Members of the team have set personal record after personal record since the fall of 2015. Looking at the list of each athlete’s weight room and rowing workouts, Fletcher says, the progress is nothing short of amazing.
"This year, for me, is my first time really experiencing the program under Megan for the whole year,” Fletcher said. “The transformation I have experienced personally over this year is a testament to how much she has done for us a team. This is as fit and as fast as I have ever been, this is the first time In my 8 years of rowing that I have really felt like an elite athlete."
Not just the physical has changed, but the mental as well.
“I’ve definitely seen the culture and attitudes develop,” Fletcher said. “We have the mindset of being elite athletes. We go into races thinking we can win.”
Despite the changes, there has been one more constant for Fletcher since the day she arrived in Durham from London: teammates.
“The only thing I can say that has been a constant is the relationship with my teammates,” Fletcher said. “The team and relationships stay the same no matter who the coach is. Our team is only about 30-40 people at a time. Everyone knows each other and interacts. We all have this big bond. It is something we strive for. We are a very mixed bag in the best way. We are such a weird mix of people. This team attracts the most diverse group of humans you’ve ever seen, but it is awesome. Everyone is their own person. Everyone comes from their own backgrounds and upbringings. No one has the same story. I have always appreciated that.”
The practice routines and conditions of rowing also help to build community.
“We have to love each other,” Fletcher explained. “You will spend 100 hours with this person by the end of the week. You’re sweating all over each other. Within the first day, you’ve already become best friends with the people in your boat because they’ve seen you in a state very few other people will be allowed to see you.”
The love, acceptance and support for one another powered another program change as Duke advanced to the NCAA Championship for the first time last spring. Fletcher helped the V4 to the NCAA C Final title during the event with a time of 7:22.311. Her V4 crew also placed first in the C/D Semifinals (7:24.262).
“To finally see our name on the screen, know it was happening and know that all the work was worth it was mind blowing,” Fletcher said. “I think it took me until I was on the flight to the championship, at the course and seeing the course to realize we were there. I personally never thought I would be rowing at NCAAs, ever, but I wouldn’t trade that for anything. It was the best experience I’ve ever had. That was all our seniors last year ever wanted. It was great to do that for them.”
A new year has brought more change for Fletcher, who has moved from the V4 to the V8 boat and has become a Duke Athlete Ally Campus Ambassador.
Athlete Ally is a nonprofit organization that fights against homophobia and transphobia, advocating for inclusion and acceptance for athletes, coaches and fans. The organization provides public awareness campaigns, educational programming and tools and resources to foster inclusive sports communities regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.
Fletcher is one of many ambassadors across collegiate, professional and Olympic sports who work to foster inclusion and acceptance in their athletic environments. The programs include ambassadors from more than 80 colleges and over 100 professional athletes. On campus, Duke had an entirely new executive staff for Athlete Ally this year with Lizzy Raben (Women's Soccer), Brody Huitema (Men's Soccer), EJ Proctor (Women's Soccer), Gurbani Singh (Women’s Golf), and Michael Wilson (Men’s Track).
Athlete Ally was founded in January of 2011 by wrestler Hudson Taylor, a three-time All-America, ACC Wrestler of the Year in 2007-08 and 2009-10 and Maryland career record holder for pins (87), career wins (165) and pins in a single-season (24).
“Hudson’s story really relates to mine,” Fletcher said. “During his athletic career, he encountered a lot of homophobic and demeaning language. He started to know the students and become more aware of the situation. He stood in solidarity and received so much positivity from it, leading him to begin Athlete Ally.”
As a freshman, Fletcher was in the 2V8 boat with Liam Miranda and Alex Stonehill, who were members of Duke’s rowing program from 2013-16 and involved with Athlete Ally on campus. Fletcher is very grateful for her friendship with Stonehill and Miranda and how it has inspired her sense of purpose through Athlete Ally. During Fletcher’s freshman spring, 2014, Athlete Ally on campus spearheaded Duke’s You Don’t Say campaign to raise awareness about offensive words in everyday conversation. The campaign received national attention from CNN, Huffington Post, Cosmopolitan, BuzzFeed, Outsports and more. A year later, Miranda suggested that Fletcher apply for an executive position with Duke’s Athlete Ally group.
Fletcher took another step forward this year and earned the executive position. Her role has connected her with other ambassadors and continued her friendship with Miranda, who is now on staff with Athlete Ally as a research and program coordinator. When Fletcher has an idea for an on-campus project or event, she can go to Miranda, who then speaks with the Athlete Ally staff to figure out the best way to support the initiative, provide resources and offer advice.
“This year the enforcement of HB2 led many visiting teams to reach out to our group,” Fletcher explained. “The teams wanted to show solidarity and that they are standing beside us. The University of Maine men’s basketball team invited us to go talk to them after their practice. We were able to talk to them and they asked what they could do as male athletes to offer support and equality. That was great. The Marist College Student Government had a one-hour meeting with us on behalf of the Marist men’s basketball team. That was a very cool collaboration. You have this network of everybody all working toward the same things.”
Already this spring, Fletcher’s work has made an impact on her teammates. In March at the Carolina Cup scrimmage, the Blue Devils all wore rainbow wristbands in support of the LBGTQ community.
But as usual with Fletcher, more change is on the way as she wants to continue to grow and build Duke’s campus membership of Athlete Ally and develop as a leader, on and off the rowing team. Fletcher’s goal for the Blue Devils’ Athlete Ally is to build its membership, create more consistency of communication, hold more meetings and continue to let people know the group is there to support.
For now, though, she is happy with what all the change has produced in her life.
“Having a chance to row with the V8 is something I never would have thought could happen,” Fletcher said. “If you would have asked as a freshman if there was ever any way that I would row in that boat, I would have laughed in your face. I’m sitting in the five seat of the V8 and racing. There is no way I would have ever thought that would be possible before. I owe a lot to our athletic trainer Meaghan McMillen, who has done so much to help me recover and get to this place. This is very surreal for me. I just want to keep it going. I love rowing. I also have this position and a very unique opportunity to raise awareness of something I care a lot about personally with Athlete Ally.”
Let the changes, and love, live on.