Nobody laughed at Samantha Upton when she played soccer for Napa High School two years ago.
Tall and always wearing her game face on the back line, the defender was a key to the Indians’ 16 shutouts and eight goals allowed in 23 games during their undefeated 2010 regular season.
But when she turned out that fall for the UCLA women’s rowing team, she drew chuckles from teammates.
As a UCLA freshman, Upton was on the water for the first time, trying to use the stroking techniques she had been working on for two weeks on an indoor rowing machine.
She wasn’t doing too well that first morning. Trying to row with her were two teammates who had been on high school rowing teams. They found Upton’s efforts amusing.
“They just sat there and laughed,” she recalled. “It’s just so ridiculous the first couple of days, so impossibly hard. You have no idea what you’re doing and it’s hysterical.”
“They were laughing at me, but with me, too, at the situation,” she clarified. “I didn’t know them (enough to tell them to be quiet).”
After spending her freshman year as a novice on the team, Upton had the last laugh this past fall when she earned a spot on the traveling team in a four-person boat.
She said 40 to 50 women on the team competed for spots in two eight-person boats and two four-person boats.
The Bruins hosted two meets in October and November at the UCLA Boathouse in Marina del Rey, then concluded the fall season at the Newport Rowing Festival on Nov. 6 in Newport Beach. They will open their 2012 schedule by hosting Loyola Marymount on March 3.
If UCLA is ranked among the top 16 teams in the nation after a tough spring schedule, it will continue on to the NCAA Championships May 26-29 in West Windsor, N.J. The Bruins just missed qualifying for the NCAAs last year with a No. 17 ranking.
Upton, an aeronautical engineering major, at first tried out for the women’s club soccer team.
“There were only five positions open and about 50 girls trying out, and they weren’t looking for any defenders, so I wasn’t able to make that team,” Upton said.
Then she met a girl who lived on her floor in the dormitory who was on the rowing team, who suggested Upton try to walk on to the squad.
“I went to two weeks of tryouts, and at the end of a pretty grueling process, I made the team,” said Upton, one of 12 walk-ons to make it out of more than 100 prospects. “I showed a positive attitude and I’m really fit. There aren’t a lot of opportunities to try out for a Division I sport so it’s a really cool process. It was just something I could do competitively and be a Pac-10 athlete.”
The Pac-10 became the Pac-12 this year with the addition of Utah and Colorado, though it’s more of the “Pac-7” in women’s rowing. Only UCLA, USC, Stanford, California, Washington, Washington State and Oregon State offer the sport in the Pac-12.
Upton had played water polo in high school along with soccer. But the only time she had been on the open water was on her family’s boat on Lake Tahoe when she was younger. She said her mother, Tracey, was the first to suggest she try rowing during the summer of 2010.
One of her two sisters, UCLA freshman Montana Upton, is playing club lacrosse for the Bruins after a year away from that sport.
“She and I are both pretty athletic, and if I hadn’t made the varsity rowing team I would have tried out for the club lacrosse team, too,” Samantha Upton said.
But she’s happy she found rowing.
“It’s cool how much of a team sport it is — so unified, so rhythmic, so all together,” she said. “You form closer bonds with the girls in your boat because you’re all working together toward one goal. You work toward the same goal in other sports, too, but more in rowing because you’re all in sync. Everything has to match up perfectly, otherwise you’re less efficient and don’t go as fast.
“I’m still improving. Technique-wise, there’s no perfect stroke; there are girls with years on the team who have been rowing since they were freshmen in high school who are still working on things. But I’ve improved dramatically, that’s for sure.”
As she juggles rowing with a busy academic schedule, it’s amazing she’s kept her head above water.
“My classes and schedule are incredibly hard. It definitely doesn’t allow me to procrastinate at all,” she said. “I have to be up at 5:30 every morning for practice, so if I want to get a good eight hours of sleep I have to get to bed at 9:30. I have to start my homework early and use every minute I have wisely. But if I didn’t have rowing, I’d have more time to waste — and I will waste all of it.”
Upton gets rest whenever she can. “We are the masters of naps,” she said. “I have one class at 11 a.m., so I leave practice at 10:30, get to class at 10:40 and sleep for 10 solid minutes.”
On top of that, she and Montana are involved in the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s UCLA chapter and College Against Cancer program. Their father, Greg, succumbed to leukemia 14 years ago at age 39, forcing Tracey to raise Samantha, Montana and 14-year-old sister Dakota, a Vintage High freshman, by herself.
“I’ve always aspired to make my mom proud,” said Samantha, who was 5 when her father died. “Not knowing what would make my dad proud, I’ve always had this drive to do the best I can so whatever his definition of proud might be, I would surpass that with flying colors.”
She’s passionate about her major, so she wants to be as alert in her classes as she is in the boat.
“Airplanes and flying have always been real cool and mysterious to me, so I’ve always wanted to know more about them,” she said. “I’m also into being green, so a dream of mine is to find ways to make airplanes run more efficiently or find other resources for them to safely run on.”
She’s learned to do the same as a rower.
“I’m actually ‘stroking’ now, meaning I’m the one in the back of the boat that everybody else follows,” she said.