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Thrill of tackling a new challenge drew Melia Martin to rowing

Eudora native excelling in new sport at a rate similar to that at which she glides through the water

4 min read
KU rower Melia Martin, a junior, was the co-Big 12 Newcomer of the Year after her freshman season. Not bad for someone completely new to the sport. [Kansas Athletics photo]

Melia Martin had done it all in high school, it seemed — and done it rather well.

She lettered in basketball. And track and field. And cross country and soccer.

Along with lettering a total of 10 times, the Kansas native piled up a host of athletic awards:  cross country rookie of the year as a freshman and part of two 4A regional championship teams and two state runner-up finishes during her career; a state qualifier in track and field; part of two 4A sub-state championship teams in basketball — her favorite of the sports.

She excelled in other areas, too: honor roll, National Honor Society, perfect attendance, Outstanding Student Award laurels in both Spanish and art.

So, when the time to start college came around, why not try … rowing? Martin felt ready for another challenge, and the pieces came together to take her skills to the water.

“I wasn’t quite at a (Division 1) basketball level,” Martin told R1S1 Sports. “I had gotten requests from a couple other colleges to try track and cross country, but I wanted to try something new. I heard about the rowing team at KU, reached out, and wanted to know if I’d be able to join or try out.”

The Kansas part of the decision was easy, as there really had been little question where she would go to college.

Her parents had been cheerleaders at KU, and an aunt, uncle, and one of her brothers had also been Jayhawks. She grew up attending KU basketball games. Her home, in Eudora, sits less than 20 minutes east of the campus.

When Martin’s inquiry came to KU rowing coach Carrie Cook-Callen, it wasn’t a hard decision for her, either. She looked at Martin’s resume’ and quickly knew Martin had the tools to be successful.

“She’s an athlete,” Cook-Callen said. “Athleticism transfers across a variety of sports, including rowing. That’s something we look for in recruits who maybe haven’t had the chance to get into the sport but have this versatile athleticism and with the right training and coaching around them can develop into a good rower. And that’s exactly what Melia did when she set foot on campus.”

Indeed, it didn’t take long for Cook-Callen’s faith to be rewarded. In Martin’s first year with the Jayhawks, she worked her way up to the No. 1 boat, won KU rowing’s Outstanding Newcomer Award and shared Big 12 Newcomer of the Year honors, as well, after helping to lead several boats to first-place finishes during the season. A press release at the time said Martin “quietly learned to generate consistent power.”

“She’s an athlete. Athleticism transfers across a variety of sports, including rowing." — KU rowing coach Carrie Cook-Callen on junior Melia Martin

Reaching such lofty heights in one’s first year could be daunting, as it sets a high bar. But for Martin, it meant just one more challenge to fulfill. Describing herself as “a hard worker” and “very detail-oriented,” Martin, who is studying to become a physical education teacher, said she “likes to get things right the first time.”

She admits it wasn’t easy, though, especially at the start, as rowing required a new set of skills and a grueling training regimen. Her other sports had never brought surprises like accidentally bumping a manatee with an oar while training in Florida, either.

But, as always, she threw herself into it. And on the heels of her newcomer awards, she took it up another level.

“I definitely was very shocked by it and very happy when I got the award,” Martin said. “That summer it really drove me to work hard. I worked hard over that summer and made some good progress. It was definitely a little bit of pressure, but it really pushed me.”

Success continued in her sophomore year, with winning boats in several races during the season and a second-place finish at the Big 12 Championships, along with a spot on the Academic All-Big 12 first team.

Now a junior, highlights have included a trip to the prestigious Head of the Charles Regatta in Boston, a Jayhawk Jamboree victory on the Kansas River, and building toward other goals, with an eye on this year’s Big 12 Championships in Sarasota, Fla., in May.

“Some of our team’s goals for the season are to really share that Kansas is (a program that) can compete at a higher level,” Martin said. “We’re trying to get some competition and regattas in with some teams that make it to the NCAAs and show that we can compete with them.”

As Kansas’ relatively young program pursues those aims, Cook-Callen said Martin is an important part of the present and future. Describing Martin as “steady” and “reliable” and someone who “takes care of business,” Cook-Callen has seen her make strong progress.

“Now she’s at the point where she’s gone through the cycle a couple of times and knows what to expect, but also can receive a higher level of coaching and technical feedback,” Cook-Callen said. “From freshman year, she showed the capability to be in our top boat. Now that she can make that boat, can we elevate that boat’s performance? Can we boost the entire program?”

More challenges, more imposing objectives? That’s right up Martin’s alley. And she’s glad to be doing it all at KU, just upstream from home.

Fresh off of a trip to Raleigh, North Carolina for the Lake Wheeler Invite, the Kansas rowing team will play host to Kansas State and Creighton at the Sunflower Showdown on Saturday before beginning preparations for the Big 12 Championships on May 19 in Sarasota, Florida.

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