Kelsey Murphy says all freshman girls at the University of Notre Dame get the letter. The gist of it is, if you’re tall and athletic, please think about joining the rowing team.

Murphy, a Winthrop native, just happened to get the letter at a time when she was dearly missing the atmosphere of competitive sports. She had no rowing experience, but had played four years of basketball and softball at St. Dominic Regional High School.

She tried out, and made the team as a walk-on. Now a junior, Murphy has earned a scholarship, and is part of a team that has won the last eight Big East championships.

The image of all this is at odds with what most people picture when they think about Notre Dame athletics. A Fighting Irish athlete with no experience in that sport? A Notre Dame team sending out mass letters to freshmen, like a coach at a small high school trying to round up enough kids to field a team?

But in rowing this is pretty common. Notre Dame coach Martin Stone said about 30 to 40 percent of the athletes on the Fighting Irish roster are walk-ons.

“They bring a freshness to the sport,” Stone said. “Attitudinally, they haven’t burned out on it. That enthusiasm helps.”

“There’s only so many high school rowers to recruit from,” Murphy said. “So a lot of colleges are looking for novice rowers — and it is a sport you can pick up and learn in college.”

It can be easy to burn out on rowing. There’s the time commitment, naturally, that comes with playing a Division I sport, but the physical demands are so intense they often turn into mental demands.

“I’d say the toughest part was the mental fortitude of the sport,” Murphy said of her freshman season. “You’re definitely pushing your body to extreme limits. There are points where you think you cannot go any further, and you have no choice but to keep going.”

There can be a lot of physical exertion in high school sports as well, but Murphy said the nature of rowing makes it tougher than any sport she had played before.

“Of course, you’re working hard (in those sports), but there’s strategy involved, and your mind is on the game,” she said. “This isn’t much of a game. It’s just a physical workout.”

As Murphy has learned more about how to meet these demands, she has improved in the sport, Stone said.

“Her capacity to train has gotten better,” Stone said. “She’s gotten more fit. She’s taken some leadership roles on the team, whether in the boat or out of the boat.”

In last year’s Big East championships, Murphy was part of the third varsity eight boat, which won its race over Louisville, Georgetown, Connecticut, Syracuse and Rutgers. Stone said Murphy is in the third varsity eight again this season, although he said the process of deciding who goes where is ongoing.

Murphy is a psychology major with a French minor, and wherever that takes her, she can certainly say rowing has added to her college experience.

“I love being part of a team,” she said. “I can’t say enough about my teammates — we’ve all become best friends. I love racing. It’s what you worked for all season. It’s a great way to stay in shape.”

Matt DiFilippo — 861-9243

[email protected]

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