Team JL Spotlight: Rusna Sangha
Team JL Ambassador, Rusna Sangha joined rowing in 8th grade, after the president of her local rowing club reached out to her mom to recommend she try rowing due to her above average height. Coming from a competitive tennis background, she was not expecting to switch sports as she transitioned from middle school to high school. However, she took the recommendation, and after practicing with the women's varsity team and watching an amazing sunset on the water, Rusna immediately started to make room in her schedule for this new sport. She found a competitive, yet supportive team environment within rowing that she had not yet found anywhere else.
"My favorite aspect of rowing is how intertwined teamwork is with personal success. Rowing is the ultimate sport in which the individual drive of each person is strengthened by a tight-knit team environment. Everyone is competing for themselves and for their team at the same time. A win for the team is due to the individual effort of each rower, yet a win for a rower can only be attributed to the efforts of the team."
Once she had joined her local rowing team, she realized that although there were similarities between her and the other rowers such as height and a love for the sport, there was one thing that made her different: She was one of only three BIPOC athletes on the team. By the end of her novice year, she was the only BIPOC athlete left on the team.
"Being the only athlete of color on my team made me hyper-aware of the disproportionately low number of BIPOC athletes at regattas and how very few BIPOC athletes competed in their top 8+ or 4+."
It was discouraging to Rusna to not have a role model on her team, and to rarely see BIPOC athletes rowing in varsity events, and she quickly realized that medaling as part of her club's top boat would one of her goals. Although there may not have been another rower who looked like her on the team, she has loved being a part of her rowing club.
"I’m lucky to have had supportive teammates who challenged me to be the best athlete I could everyday. Without their support, I wouldn’t have gained the confidence to be where I am today."
In her first two years on the team, Rusna felt pressure to perform well. This pressure stemmed from both feeling the need to prove her athletic abilities as a person of color in order to earn opportunities, as well as knowing that there were people who looked up to her as role model for other BIPOC athletes. The pressure she felt made it difficult for her to accept the days where she didn't perform as well as she would have liked to in a race or on an erg piece.
"I’ve come to realize that I am breaking down barriers and for future generations of BIPOC athletes with every stroke I take. By continuing to be a BIPOC athlete throughout high school and into college, I’m encouraging other BIPOC athletes to participate and compete in rowing as well. I’ve seen the diversity on my team grow immensely since I first joined four years ago, and I can’t wait to see the same happen to the rowing community as a whole."
Every rowing practice and race that Rusna participates in, she is showing other people of color that there is a place for them in the world of rowing. One of the most impactful moments in her rowing career so far has been the College and Club Lightweight 1x at Head of the Hooch in 2019.
"This race was a huge opportunity for me, because it was my chance to prove my capabilities as a rower and athlete. As I flew down the Chattahoochee, I realized that I wasn’t just racing to prove myself to my coaches; I was racing to prove that people like me, people of color, can be successful rowers."
She got second place in the race, winning her a silver medal, which will always be a reminder to her of her goal to increase diversity in rowing.
Rusna currently rows for the Peachtree City Rowing Club in Peachtree City, Georgia. Her goal for this year is to place at regionals and make it to Youth Nationals.
"Coming from a fairly small and young club, being part of the first boat from my team to qualify for Youth Nationals would be a dream come true."
A few notes from Rusna:
Perseverance is a skill that has served me well in my rowing career. Not giving up during workouts, showing up to practice when tired, and pushing past the negativity that is shown to BIPOC athletes is how I’ve come as far as I have today. If I could tell young BIPOC athletes something, I would like to tell them that success is the result of perseverance.
Ultimately, I want to be able to go to a regatta and see BIPOC athletes represented equally on the racecourse. More specifically, I want to regularly see BIPOC athletes on the podium at regional competitions, Youth Nationals, and Jr. Worlds. By increasing racial awareness in the rowing community and encouraging BIPOC athletes to pursue rowing, I believe that we can increase Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion within rowing and see more BIPOC athletes reaching higher levels of the sport.
Much has been done to increase DEI in rowing, but there is still a long way to go. By not only creating opportunities for BIPOC athletes to join rowing, but also creating a welcoming environment for BIPOC athletes, I believe that we can drastically improve diversity within our amazing sport in the years to come. Introducing BIPOC athletes to the sport of rowing can be as simple as branching out to members in our local communities, but keeping BIPOC athletes in rowing requires kindness and inclusion towards athletes, regardless of their skin color. This initiative must start at a club level and eventually be adopted by the rowing community as a whole.