Jenna Hoffstatter had accomplished her dream.
After a stellar volleyball career at Stanley-Boyd, the Orioles’ setter was able to continue her career collegiately at the Division I level at UW-Green Bay 2016. She got a chance to play, too, suiting up for 88 sets as a freshman while averaging 1.26 digs per set for the Phoenix.
Still, something didn’t feel right. Green Bay just wasn’t the place Hoffstatter wanted to be.
“It didn’t really fit me personally," said the three-time All-Cloverbelt selection.
So, she went back to another dream of hers – competing at the University of Wisconsin. Volleyball seemed unrealistic, considering the level of recruits the Badgers often go for and that she already had burned a year of eligibility. Then she remembered the pamphlets she used to get in high school.
“Everyone got those flyers in the mail,” Hoffstatter said. “’Come row at Madison.’ If you’re a student athlete, everyone gets those.”
She decided to give it a shot and emailed the Wisconsin coaching staff. After a few emails, Hoffstatter went on an official visit and accepted a perferred walk-on position on the team.
Despite no prior rowing experience and minimal knowledge of the sport, she transferred to become a member of an NCAA crew team.
“I didn’t even know what each side of the boat was called,” Hoffstatter said.
It seems crazy, but Badgers assistant coach Jim Mitchell said it isn’t unusual, especially at Wisconsin.
“I’d say probably close to 80 percent of our team started on our team with no rowing experience,” Mitchell said. “We’re getting more and more recruits with high school experience and even some international students, but still, most of our students start as athletes from other sports. We call it our talent transfer program.”
Mitchell said coaches look for a handful of traits, including overall athletic ability and drive. A strong core is a major plus. Hoffstatter is far from the biggest athlete on the team, but she makes up for it with her work ethic.
“In a 2,000-meter race, what we do in the spring, it takes about 240 strokes,” Mitchell said. “We can see her pulling all out for all 240 strokes. That’s pretty tough to not take a stroke off.”
She started in the novice boat with the rest of the newbies, finding a home in a racing shell that holds eight rowers and a coxwain to steer and motivate.
The first time she went on the water they connected two boats together for increased stability, but that didn’t settle the nerves.
“That was even scary,” Hoffstatter said. “All of us were just kind of freaking out.”
The sea legs developed eventually. She sat in the seventh seat, toward the back end of the boat, when the group finished in fifth at the Big Ten Tournament.
Despite the stark change in sports, she found some of her previous athletic training came in handy.
“Rowing is very technical,” Hoffstatter said. “Obviously I was a setter, a defensive specialist. I was honing those skills for 12 years, practicing non-stop. I picked it up quick but I always wanted to get better. … We’re just trying to improve, and I guess I always liked that mindset.”
Now in her second year on the team, she’s jumped to the varsity level. Madison has become a second home, she’s in the best shape of her life and has made close bonds with teammates built through gruelling practices and 5 a.m. wakeup calls.
Hoffstatter said her goal is to get into one of the team’s top three boats in the spring, the main season for collegiate rowing. Since that first practice, her technique has improved and so has the mental side.
“I just really think the sport is built to make mentally strong individuals,” Hoffstatter said. “It sounds cliche, but it kind of changed how I view myself, how I deal with difficult situations.”
Her passion for volleyball hasn’t left. She still loves watching and often goes up to Green Bay to see her friends and former teammates play.
There’s a new sport taking up her time now, though.
“If anyone is thinking about doing it, I’d say just go for it,” Hoffstatter said of persuing crew. “I met some of my best friends … some of my bridesmaids. It’s grueling, but all of these girls have your back. It’s the camaraderie that you do it for. I think that’s what everyone is kind of after.”