Rowing Forward

Being the smallest person in the boat will benefit Sara Fazel next year as a coxswain at the University of Tulsa.

At 4-foot-11 and just over 100 pounds, Fazel’s collegiate athletic opportunities might seem limited. It’s not like she could play basketball, football, or hockey.

Except that the Ursuline senior has already done all three.

While growing up in Boston, Fazel became accustomed to competing alongside much larger girls (and boys) in physical sports for which her diminutive stature would seem to put her at a distinct disadvantage.

“I feel like I have a very big personality,” Fazel said. “It’s not until I’m standing right next to anyone that I realize that there is a size difference. I have to push myself harder than they do.”

So perhaps it wasn’t a surprise that when Fazel’s family moved from Boston to the Dallas area prior to her sophomore year, she took up another activity in which size typically matters — rowing.

Coincidentally, the sport is most common in New England, but Fazel had never tried it before arriving in Texas. She attended a summer rowing camp at Ursuline as a way to make friends before enrolling at the school.

“She had seen rowing, but she hadn’t done it before. She fell in love with the sport,” said Ursuline rowing coach Erin Sullivan-Baca. “The girls who have backgrounds in other sports, it translates really well for rowing. She already had the competitive nature from the other sports.”

Ursuline doesn’t have coxswains since it races only sculling boats, which have up to four people controlling two oars apiece. Coxswains are used only in larger sweeping boats, in which each rower has just one oar. They call out commands for navigation and steering.

Although Fazel hasn’t filled the role before, longtime Tulsa rowing coach Kevin Harris felt strongly enough that she could make the transition that he offered her a scholarship.

“Coxswains are usually pretty small people,” Fazel said. “He saw me trying to keep up with all the bigger girls. He liked that I was showing leadership.”

Sullivan-Baca agreed that Fazel has the skill set to switch from lightweight sculler to coxswain at the next level.

“She will yell at the other girls and motivate them,” Sullivan-Baca said. “That’s one of her best qualities.”

Fazel, who would like to pursue biomedical engineering, chose Tulsa over opportunities to attend more prestigious academic institutions like MIT and Harvard near her hometown.

That shows how passionate she has become about rowing, and about embracing the types of new challenges that motivate her every day. “Rowing is more about mental toughness,” she said. “People don’t see me succeeding in it because I’m so small. I make it work for me. It makes me push myself harder. There’s always someone that I want to beat.”

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