Starting rowing as a walk-on to the Princeton University women’s open crew program in 2009, Heidi Robbins has enjoyed an astonishing rise up the sport’s ladder.
Robbins, a native of Hanover, N.H., made the Tiger varsity 8 as a sophomore and helped the boat win the NCAA championship in 2011. She then earned a spot in the U.S. U-23 program and was on the U.S. women’s 8 that earned gold in the 2012 U-23 world championships.
After ending her Princeton career in 2013 by helping the varsity 8 to a win in the Ivy League regatta and a second place finish at the NCAAs, Robbins joined the U.S. senior national team.
In her first race with the U.S. women’s 8, she competed from the stroke seat as the boat set a world record of 5:54.16 for 2,000-meters in a world cup race in Lucerne.
Robbins was later chosen for the U.S. women’s 8 to compete in the 2013 World Rowing Championships at Linz, Austria.
But then Robbins hit the first roadblock of her rowing career. “We were over there and training and I hurt my back,” said Robbins.
“I had a herniated disc, it was sudden and it was pretty definite that I was going to be sidelined. It was a devastating loss, I had been so excited to be part of something.”
After months of rest and rehab, Robbins got back in the flow this year and made the U.S. women’s 8 that will be competing this week in the 2014 worlds, which is taking place in Amsterdam, Netherlands from August 24-31.
For Robbins, the injury setback helped give her a new perspective on the sport.
“It shifted the way I thought about things; it is a long haul and things aren’t always going to go well,” said Robbins.
“I know there are going to be blows and that I can come back. I know it is going to be a long haul and I still have a long way to go. I talked to some of the older rowers and it hasn’t been a straight line for them. The trajectory for everyone has been up and down; everyone has been there.”
Robbins ended her PU career on an up note in 2013, helping the Tiger varsity 8 to first in the Ivy regatta and second at the NCAAs.
“As a senior, to have that kind of race at the NCAAs was a good way to finish,” said Robbins.
“It was quite a race. It was a long season and there were races that we won but didn’t have the speed we wanted. We came together in that last race. We were up on the other boats at 500 meters. We threw it all down and Cal came through at the end.”
Things came together in college for Robbins through her decision to take up rowing. “I think the Princeton program has given me a lot of support,” said Robbins.
“It gave me confidence and helped me find myself in college. It gave me the feeling that I mattered, that I had a role and that people were invested in me. When you leave college, you realize you are on your own.”
It didn’t take long for Robbins to grasp that she was going solo after college.
“I had graduation and then the next day I was at national team practice,” recalled Robbins.
“The train kept rolling, the more I thought about it, the more scared I got. It was a very different system. There was a sense of loss, there was a little grieving. I couldn’t believe college was over and I was going to miss it terribly but there is a time and place for that.”
Despite ultimately getting chosen for the U.S. women’s 8, Robbins still harbored some fears.
“When I made it, it was oh my god, this is the two-time Olympic gold medalist,” said Robbins. “I was really intimidated. I put my head down and continued to do what I knew.”
Helping the U.S. boat set a world record in her debut at the senior level was a heady experience for Robbins.
“Lucerne was my first race, you talk about having some nerves,” said Robbins.
“I was at stroke. You just have to do what you know, I put my blinders on. It was a tremendous race, it was a lot of fun. You are so in a zone. At 1,000 meters, the cox, Katelin Snyder, told us the split and it was like an out of body experience the rest of the race. It was just driving and driving as hard as you could.”
Displaying her drive, Robbins has worked hard to get back up to full speed in rehabbing from her injury.
“It took time for me to get my strength back,” said Robbins. “It took three months before I felt I had my old self back again. I have gotten stronger physically, so hopefully I won’t get hurt rowing. I am better at taking care of my body and recovering.”
For Robbins, regaining her place on the 8 for the worlds left her with a feeling of redemption.
“I am so grateful to have another chance,” said Robbins. “I am thrilled to have the opportunity. The majority of last year’s boat is back with some new additions. There is a fun dynamic.”
That dynamic mixed with some arduous training has Robbins excited about the boat’s prospects in Amsterdam.
“The training has been good; they told us to expect to feel tired getting on the plane for the flight over there,” said Robbins.
“There are always expectations. You have to take it like it is your first time and take your best shot. It is my first time; I can’t wait to be out there.”
Now, Robbins is hoping to ascend to the summit of rowing by competing in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
“That is the goal,” said Robbins, who has been keeping busy off the water by working in a lab with the Princeton biology department and hopes to go to medical school someday.
“When I first got rowing with the national team I was asked how long I was going to be rowing and I said my dream would be the Olympics. I was quiet about it at first. It is my goal, it is my dream so I don’t need to be quiet about it.”