May 4, 2011
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - For Jenni (Vesnaver) Hogan, the Windermere Cup is more than one of the world's most raucous, unique crew races.
It's more than 40,000 people cramming the banks of the Montlake Cut to form a tunnel of noise on the annual first day of Seattle's boating season. It's more than the huge yachts stacked on log booms to watch the world's best crews compete.
See, 14 years ago the Windermere Cup changed Hogan. It changed her career. It eventually changed her home, her family, even her name.
Washington's signature boat race changed her life.
The former Huskies captain is one of the few to have been on five Windermere Cup teams in the event's quarter century. While an 18-year-old on Australia's Olympic crew team at the 1997 Windermere Cup, she accepted an unexpected scholarship offer from UW.
She's been here ever since, becoming one of the most recognizable and popular local personalities in American television.
"Yes, the Windermere Cup to me is why I am in America," the two-time national champion rower with the Huskies told me in her Aussie accent this week.
And here is a mighty good place for the native of Adelaide, Australia, to be right now.
We met in the lobby of the Maxwell Hotel in Seattle's lower Queen Anne neighborhood. It is a few downtown blocks from her job as a wildly popular traffic anchor for KIRO 7 TV in Seattle. In 2010, Broadcast and Cable magazine named her the most followed local TV anchor on Twitter in the U.S. This year she was a finalist for a national Shorty award, the "Oscars of Twitter."
Hogan had 26,417 Twitter followers as of Wednesday afternoon. And she has almost as many stories as followers.
Jenni has founded the Go Girl Academy, a career acceleration program for women. This month she is starting Mission Hot Mama, a blog to inspire mothers to "release their inner hotness and shine." She gets up around 3 a.m. each day to begin telling commuters at 4:30 how bad I-5 is or isn't. And she and her husband Josh are raising a baby girl, Siena.
Can she get a "Supermom" hashtag for that Twitter account, please?
Saturday morning, this dynamo will be among those screaming fans at the 25th Windermere Cup. Her Huskies are hosting world rowing power Cambridge University plus Stanford and Oklahoma. She's carving out time to be the color analyst on ROOT Sports' live cable TV broadcast of the race, in which she defeated the national teams from Great Britain, Romania and Egypt, among others, during her UW career that ended in 2002.
She wouldn't miss it.
"I've never seen something like it. It's amazing," the engaging Hogan said. "Just going through the cut, the audience can actually influence the race. Their screaming and cheering energizes the athletes so in the final 500 meters, where you can win or lose the race and your body is telling you to stop, you now have these other people who can get in your head and tell you to keep going."
THE INJURY THAT CHANGED EVERYTHING
Her story on how she got to crew, and to UW, is as unique as the race she loves.
Jenni Vesnaver played basketball growing up as the second child of father Livio, a bank teller, and Lisa, a financial analyst for the Australian government. They lived in Adelaide, in the state of South Australia. In 1993, when Jenni was 14, Australia was selected as the host for the 2000 Summer Olympics. The government then identified top athletes from Australia's high schools and brought them to select national sports institutes. It ran tests that placed the teens in what leaders felt was the sport with the best chance for him or her to produce a gold medal for the host nation in six years.
(It worked. Australia, the world's 53rd-most populous country at about 21 million people - fewer than live in Texas - won the fourth-most medals at the Sydney Games. The 58 medals was one fewer than China, the world's most populous country with more than 1 billion citizens.)
"My sport was rowing, purely on my body. My arm span is 12 centimeters longer than my height," said Hogan, who is over 6 feet tall.
"Apparently I have good leverage," she said, pantomiming a rowing stroke. "But I remember going down to a lake with my parents for the first time and saying, `I'm not going to fit in that because it's too skinny and small. I'm going to fall out.'"
The South Australia Sports Institute was no country club. Hogan was attached to heart monitors, breathing devices and all sorts of machines to measure stamina, fitness and conditioning in an effort to maximize her - and ultimately Australia's - performance for the Olympics. The program was modeled after Germany's legendary, intense regimen of athletes' training.
The program worked in rowing, but was off by a year. Australia won gold in the women's four and women's eight at the 2001 world championships.
Hogan was rowing for UW by then -- thanks to the Windermere Cup.
In 1996, she and her pairs crew partner Melissa Nyveld were considered Australia's shoo-ins to win the world championships. They had competed together there the previous year, and Hogan was in peak condition.
"The only thing we had to do was win our national championship race and we would go to the world championships," she said.
But at the start of the 1996 Australian national championships, Nyveld's knee gave out.
"So I was faced with being the fittest I've ever been in my life and not being able to go to the world championships," Hogan said. "I watched the rest of these rowers go to the junior world championships, and I was left at home in my mind being the best I could have been. That was a hard time in my career."
Hogan quit rowing and transferred to beach volleyball at the sports institute. Three months into that switch, Australia's Olympic crew team needed a replacement for a retiring member, before it raced in the 1997 Windermere Cup.
"All the junior girls were gone to the world championships - except me," Hogan said. "So I got a phone call to join the big leagues, to go to the Windermere Cup and join the Olympic boat that was going.
"When I thought the worst thing was happening in my career, it actually opened the door to something better. That's the lesson I tell people if something really bad happens. If that didn't happen to Melissa - poor Melissa - I wouldn't be over here, I wouldn't have been on the national eight team."
Instead, on Windermere Cup day in Seattle, Hogan was standing on the metal grating atop the Montlake Bridge watching opposing boats training under her when Eleanor McElvaine, Washington's women's crew coach at the time, offered her a scholarship.
"So that was my recruiting trip -- without me knowing it," Hogan said, laughing.
I told her I was surprised a coach at a rowing power would offer a scholarship on the spot to a teenager from halfway around the world, that the coach had never seen compete.
Hogan looked at me like I was missing an oar.
"Well .... uh... I mean, I was on an Olympic eight, this top team. And I was just an 18-year old," she said, trying not to brag.
Hogan wasn't totally alone in Seattle. She had an uncle, Tom Eckmann, and an aunt, Suzanne Keel-Eckmann, living here. Jenni met them for the first time on that Windermere trip. When she told them UW had offered her a scholarship and that she was inclined to say no, they responded: "If a school as good as U-Dub offers you a scholarship, you better take it."
"College rowing in Australia is not at the highest level. Then I came here and saw how serious U-Dub was about rowing. I mean, everyone on my team was international caliber," Hogan said.
STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND
Accepting UW's scholarship offer didn't mean she was in. Not yet.
First, she rented a movie.
"I watched Revenge of the Nerds, to learn what college life would be life in America," she said.
I roared at that one.
Plus, she said, "I'd never heard of an SAT score. We don't do SATs in Australia."
To get the standard entry requirement to UW, she took a three-hour flight to Sydney and took the SAT with a handful of other countrymen trying to get into U.S. colleges, at the only testing center in the country.
No SAT prep course. She just went in cold and took it, her athletic and academic careers on the line.
She received her two SAT scores the night before Thanksgiving. She saw her score in the math section and the one in reading - and was crushed. Each was way below the score to get into Washington. It was weeks before she was to fly to Seattle for good.
She didn't know the two scores added up to get her SAT entrance mark.
"We don't have Thanksgiving in Australia, so I didn't know why no one was calling me back for four days from the States," she said.
By that Monday, Huskies coaches were laughing at Hogan. She had an excellent total score, easily enabling her to enroll at UW. In fact, she eventually graduated in 3½ years with a double major, in finance and communications.
"My dad growing up, instead of coloring books on the coffee table he had IQ books, for some reason," she said. "So this SAT stuff was very similar to those IQ books that my dad had planted."
Livio Vesnaver immigrated to Australia from Italy by boat when he was 8. He was a bank teller his whole life - until he got laid off when Jenni was a teenager, when technology's boom swept through her country.
Jenni came to UW thinking she's stay a year and return home. Then she learned getting a degree wouldn't be such a grind with the academics and athletic programs more in harmony at Washington.
"The difference was athletics and education worked hand in hand here. In Australia, they were competing against each other," she said. "Trying to get a degree in Australia while competing, it probably would have taken me six or eight years because I had to train three times a day and then go to school part time. Here, it was awesome. You could work out and work with the academic side and actually graduate at the same time."
But she didn't just study.
Hogan won four Pac-10 titles in the four years at UW. She second of two national titles came in 2002 as team captain and stroke on the Huskies' junior-varsity eight.
Moments after that race, Hogan walked away from the sport. She hasn't picked up an oar since - not that she has time to.
"It had been 10 years of rowing, so I retired," she said. "I've been asked so many times to join the alumni rowing, the masters rowing - it sounds so odd to say that -- but there is no way. I can't casually row. Since Day One, when they identified me for rowing, it's been all about winning."
Nyveld, the former rowing partner whose injury changed the course of Jenni's life, remains "like a sister" to Hogan. Hogan stayed with her the last time she visited Australia, a couple years ago.
"Yeah, I've called Melissa and thanked her for hurting her knee. Many times," Hogan said, laughing.
"That one phone call to come to the Windermere Cup changed my life. What I thought was the worst moment of my life at the time turned into something that has made my life so great."
About Gregg Bell Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director of Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for The Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.
Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.