Vanna Rocchi Rows her Way from Cal Crew to U.S. Navy

May 29, 2009

BERKELEY - Vanna Rocchi has put aside her schoolbooks, her leotard and, for now, her Navy uniform, to focus on one thing - contributing to the success of California women's crew in the NCAA Women's Rowing Championships.

A member of the Golden Bears' varsity 4+ boat, Rocchi rowed in the bow of the V4+ that won the Pac-10 title and helped Cal win over the overall crown at the 2009 Pac-10 Rowing Championships on May 17 at Lake Natoma in Gold River, Calif. Cal's varsity 4+ barely edged USC's boat, clipping the hard-charging Trojans by two tenths of a second, 7:20.0-7:20.2.

Next up is the NCAA Women's Rowing Championships May 29-31 at Cooper River Park in Cherry Hill, N.J. Cal will row in the first of three varsity 4+ heats slated for 10:15 a.m. ET on May 29.

Rocchi has just a few more days to spend as a collegiate athlete. She graduated from Cal on May 24 with a degree in integrative biology at Zellerbach Hall. Later that day, the aspiring doctor walked through another ceremony at North Field near Hearst Gym. A member of the Navy ROTC through her time at Cal, Rocchi was commissioned as an officer in the U.S. Navy.

'Since I've been commissioned, my teammates call me 'Ensign Rocchi,'' she said.

Hanging up her Leotard

The Oroville, Calif., product has had a busy tenure at Cal, including competing on the women's gymnastics team in her first two years. At some point Rocchi decided that gymnastics was no longer for her.

'In club gymnastics, I was able to do all four events,' she said. 'In college, I just specialized in the uneven bars. I didn't get as many chances as I wanted to. But the team was great. And I still keep in touch with most of them.

'I went to all the home events the past couple seasons in support of them, sitting in the stands instead of being on the floor. I like to keep a part of them, too, just because I was part of that freshman class.'

When she told her father that she was leaving gymnastics, he suggested that she try out for crew. Steven Rocchi, a Cal alumnus, keeps track of many of the sports teams at his alma mater and knew that women's crew was on the lookout for new members.

'I didn't want to do gymnastics anymore but didn't want to stop doing sports,' Vanna Rocchi said. 'My dad said to still do sports, and crew was a good choice because my arms are strong. Luckily my legs are strong, too. I went to a walk-on meeting in 2007, and it was a really good environment. Everyone who was there really wanted to be there and wanted to go fast. I didn't know anyone at the time, but everyone on the team's really cool.'

After that walk-on meeting, Rocchi introduced herself to the crew coaches. O'Neill said he was 'a little skeptical since she's much shorter than the athletes we typically look for.' Rocchi is 5-6 and is the shortest of the Cal rowers outside of the freshman class. Other than the coxswains, most of the Cal crew athletes are at least 5-7 if not approaching 6-feet.

'More importantly, we don't look to poach athletes from other teams,' O'Neill added. 'Vanna completely understood my concerns and said she'd be talking to her coach later that day. I talked to Cari [DuBois, the Cal women's gymnastics head coach] the next day, and she thought it was a good move for Vanna.

'We conduct a week-long try out for the walk-ons. At the end of the week, Sara Nevin [Cal's assistant coach who works with the novice athletes] and I discussed Vanna. We knew she was smaller than everyone else, but her attitude and work ethic was exactly what we look for. It sure turned out to be the right decision.

'Vanna came in with a great sense of work ethic, and she was very strong. From the outset she was really good with anything to do with core strength, push-ups, that sort of thing. Additionally, she seems to do quite well in knowing her body and dealing with injuries.'

Rocchi's strength and work ethic has helped to offset her size.

'It's kind of funny - I was always one of the bigger gymnasts, and now I'm one of the smaller rowers,' Rocchi said. 'It's cool to have the opportunity even though I am smaller. I'm always looking up at people, which is always funny. I have a lot of fun with it. I just have to make sure I really pull hard right off the catch so I don't lose any length. Everything I have, I have to use.'

In the 2008 season, her first with crew, Rocchi rowed bow on Cal's novice 8+, which raced through an undefeated season that culminated in a Pac-10 championship for that boat. Since the NCAA Rowing Championships does not include a novice 8+ category, Rocchi wasn't able to compete in the 2008 national regatta at Lake Natoma. The Bears, who co-hosted the NCAA Rowing Championships last season, took third place overall. The 2009 championships represent her last chance to row for a national title with Cal crew and the varsity 4+.

Trading One Boat for Another

Along with juggling the challenging course load of a pre-med student and the physically demanding life of a collegiate athlete, Rocchi also spent a portion of her time with the Navy ROTC. The NROTC scholarship intrigued her, and Rocchi, whose grandfather served as a captain and whose grandmother was an ensign and a nurse in the Navy, got on board.

The commitment entailed participating in weekly drills and taking a Naval Science course each semester.

'This semester I took a leadership and ethics course,' Rocchi said. 'We went over case studies of different scenarios that actually happened in the military and presented what we would do in the same situation.'

Her taxing schedule forced Rocchi to hone her time-management skills.

'I have to do every task when I got it; otherwise I wouldn't have time to do it later,' she said. 'I made sure I know deadlines ahead of time and I always told Dave and Sara when I had a mandatory ROTC event to go to. They'd always understand. Just being on top of everything made it so I didn't have to be too stressed out.'

Rocchi wants to pursue a career as a Navy doctor after leaving Cal. Hoping to specialize in orthopedic surgery, Rocchi is waiting to hear back from med schools to learn where she is headed next. From there, she looks forward to the days when she's healing her fellow officers at locations around the world.

But Rocchi doesn't want to look forward too much during her last few days as a Golden Bear.

'I'm in a Cal boat now and will be in another kind of boat in a few months or years, depending on school,' she said. 'I've had a lot of fun with this team and coaches. It's been great. I don't want to leave yet. I love it here.'

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