DURHAM, N.C. – Before Duke rowing senior Taji Phillips enters her final season as a Blue Devil, GoDuke.com reflects back on her time on the water.
Phillips joined DWR as a sophomore and competed in three spring races with the 3V8 at the Virginia Dual and ACC Championship and with the 2V4 at the Dale England Cup, where she helped the 3V8 to a first-place finish in the petite final against North Carolina with a year-best time of 6:58.091.
Phillips transitioned to the 2V8 throughout the season during her junior campaign and helped guide Duke to win the Carolina Cup by winning its race in 6:47.3, nearly 10 seconds ahead of second-place Clemson. Phillips and the 2V8 captured first at the Dale England Cup with a time of 6:50.50 to best No. 16 Indiana, Notre Dame and San Diego. In the ACC Championship Grand Final, Phillips and the 2V8 squad locked in a fourth-place performance and was named to the ACC Academic Honor Roll.
GoDuke.com recently sat down with Phillips to reflect on her time at Duke, discuss goals for the upcoming season and learn what DWR means to her.
How did you know coming to Duke was the right decision for you?
TP: “I knew Duke was the right decision for me from the moment I stepped on campus. I loved the spirit, the diversity and the slightly slower pace of life. With all of the resources and opportunities available to the students who went there, I had no doubt that I would quickly find my niche at Duke. When I was leaving my official visit, I remember getting in the car and my mom asking me what I thought. All I could do was smile, nod my head and say, ‘Yeah, that’s it.’ Deep down, it just felt right.”
What have the relationships you’ve formed here meant to you and how have they added to your experience?
TP: “The relationships I have formed here have made the experience all the more worthwhile. College is great but it’s difficult being stripped of the support system that you’re used to having back at home. I’m blessed to say that I have made amazing friends at Duke. They have picked me up and pushed me forward, advised and comforted me and, most importantly, accepted and celebrated me just as I am. They have made my Duke experience so vivid, vibrant and full of love. I can never thank them enough for it. As for my professors, coaches and other mentors, you have made me see that there is no reason why I can’t achieve everything that I want. It will be hard. It will require work and commitment. Yet, I am no different than anyone else. Successful scholars, athletes and doctors look like me and can be me. No matter what situation I come from, I have learned from them that it’s never wrong to pursue dreams that seem too lofty and to invest in yourself. They have given me confidence, self-assurance and the tools I need to go out into the world and show everyone exactly what I can do.”
What will a degree from Duke mean to you?
TP: “To me, a degree from Duke means that I saw it all the way through. It’s not just about the academics, it’s about my process through all of the experiences I’ve had here. When I finally hold my degree in my hand, I’ll be looking at myself now in juxtaposition with who I was my freshman year, my sophomore year, and my junior year. I will be thinking about the classes, the people, the highs and the lows that have worked together in some strange harmony to bring me here. A Duke degree, to me, means that I have come full circle, beginning to end, and I am here with this fancy diploma in my hand as a testament to it all. Finally, a degree means that I am ready. It means that my parents’ 22-year investment in me has produced a proud, confident young woman standing tall at a pinnacle moment in her life.”
What has been your proudest academic achievement throughout your four years?
TP: “My proudest academic achievement throughout my four years is the sheer fact that I will be graduating with a Bachelor’s of Science in Biology. My freshman year, my academic advisor was advising me to go for a Bachelor’s of Art or a humanities major because it was less taxing given that I would also be taking pre-med classes. Yet, the stubborn part of me was up for the challenge. I wanted to prove to myself (and to her) that I could do it. Of course, it was extremely difficult and some days I think of how different my experience would be if I majored in something else. All in all, I’m on the other side and I have zero regrets.”
What is one lesson Duke rowing has taught you that you will carry over to the rest of your life?
TP: “Never … give … up. If you want something and you put in the work for it, it CAN be yours. It doesn’t matter if you are down at the start or even at the 1000-meter mark, you can still come back and win it all. Duke rowing has taught me to be gritty and to never hesitate when it comes to going for it.”
What is one team goal you all have for the season?
TP: “Gloriously raising the ACC championship trophy above our heads on May 13th, 2018 and punching our tickets to NCAAs in Sarasota, Florida. Yeah baby!”
How has your role changed from your first year on the team to a senior?
TP: “My first year on the team, I was just trying to stay alive. I wasn’t really sure how rowing worked, I had never hit mileage like this before and I was trying to be as little of a nuisance as possible. In essence, I was just following and trying to get a feel for the culture. As a senior, I recognize that this is my sport and my team. I have the voice and the influence to shape our culture and have a direct impact on our success.”
What does Duke rowing mean to you?
TP: “Duke rowing is perseverance. Duke rowing is heart. Duke rowing is true grit. Duke rowing is the underdog. Duke rowing is family. More literally, Duke rowing is a unique group of talented, spicy young women who pull hard to win and never shy away from a challenge.”
What is one of your favorite rowing memories from being part of the rowing family?
TP: “There are so many! The best one was probably the day I learned how to race. I had spent a month in a straight four with two returners and a fellow novice and everyday our boat didn’t move. We were always a solid 500 meters behind everyone else and consistently frustrated with each other and our situation. Then, one Saturday everything changed. We were sitting at the start line at Lake Michie and it all finally clicked. We had rhythm, we had power and we had chemistry; it was electric! At that moment, it seemed as if every stroke we took and every hardship we faced was worth it. We ended up beating every other boat on the water that day and it was fun. Granted, we didn’t have a coxswain, so our boat was 100 pounds lighter than the others but, who’s counting! The progress we made was really the most exciting part.”
How do you plan to lead your team this year and how will you define success?
TP: “I lead my team through example and I lead my team through understanding. When I do something, I don’t want the team to think that’s what Taji does but that’s what we all do. We all strive for excellence, we all go all in, we all help one another. I want my team to feel comfortable around me and respected by me. We’re all very different, but still very important to the functioning of Duke rowing as a unit. Success is making strides forward every day, even if they are miniscule. It can be that we all learned to be more technically savvy, learned how to be more efficient with our studies or learned how to support each other better. It doesn’t matter. Any and all positive forward movement is success to me. When it comes to getting down to it on May 13th, these little steps will amount to a happy, prepared and unified team who’s ready to go for the win!”
What role are you embracing this year that you haven’t in past years?
TP: “I want to be the person on our team that connects to everyone in some capacity. I want to be a source of support, comfort and encouragement. I know that in past years other have done that for me and it has really helped. In a sense, this is me giving back all that has been bestowed upon me.”