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Designs On Success

Aug 23, 2022

This feature originally appeared in the 2022 Summer edition of the Cal Sports Quarterly. The Cal Athletics flagship magazine features long-form sports journalism at its finest and provides in-depth coverage of the scholar-athlete experience in Berkeley. Printed copies are mailed four times a year to Bear Backers who give annually at the Bear Club level (currently $600 or more). For more information on how you can receive a printed version of the Cal Sports Quarterly at home, send an email to CalAthleticsFund@berkeley.edu or call (510) 642-2427.

Cal women's rowing standout Charlotte Wesselmann was awarded a Pac-12 postgraduate scholarship in May. The award was created to honor outstanding scholar-athletes intending to pursue graduate studies.

The two-time All-American's application for the scholarship had a constant theme, from her time before Berkeley all the way through to life after graduation - competition. Wesselmann thrives on competition – whether she's competing against other boats or with herself to achieve success both athletically and academically.

And that includes the world of architecture.

"Everything I do, whether with myself or with others, is a competition," said Wesselman, a 2019 Cal graduate with a degree in architecture. "I think that comes from my family. I have two sisters (Paula and Lucie); we are all close in age, and my dad is extremely competitive. Paula rowed as well, and from when I started rowing when I was 11 it was always a competition to be not only the best in my age category and win my races but be better than she was when she was my age."

Before setting foot on campus in 2015, Wesselmann suffered a serious injury to her knees. A subsequent surgery had her off her feet for several months, scaring away other schools from recruiting her.

"They basically cut the tendons to her kneecap and then had to straighten them out," Cal women's rowing head coach Al Acosta said. "She kind of fell off the recruiting radar because teams were unsure of what she would be able to do. Even when she was here I was a little concerned. I didn't offer a full scholarship. I said 'You can come here for a semester and we will see how it goes.'"

One of the conditions under which she ultimately received a scholarship was to become one of the top-20 rowers in the program - a tall order considering the depth and talent the Bears had during the 2015-16 season and the lingering injury that kept her from training. However, through her competitive fire, Wesselmann finished her freshman campaign sitting in the stroke seat of the second varsity eight, leading the boat to wins at the Pac-12 Championships and NCAA Championship.

It was the first time in program history that Cal's second varsity eight won an NCAA championship.

"The team has been around for almost 50 years and that happened," Acosta said. 

Named the Pac-12 Newcomer of the Year in 2016, Wesselmann was not content to just excel as a rower. Despite suggestions she shouldn't study architecture while also learning to transition to the life of an NCAA student-athlete as a freshman, Wesselmann's determination and drive helped her make improvements to her time management skills and study habits. As a result, she improved her GPA by a full point.

Over her remaining three seasons at Cal, Wesselmann added two All-American honors, All-Pac-12 accolades and Pac-12 All-Academic honors, all while guiding the Bears to another NCAA championship in 2018 and a Pac-12 title in 2019. She did all this while balancing her commitments to the rowing team and her major.

"Because of her architecture schedule, she had to do a lot of training on her own schedule," Acosta explained. "Her afternoon training was often on her own away from the team. And that is really difficult to do. Because you are not in a boat with a bunch of people – you have to be self-motivated when you are training on an erg and weight training by yourself. When you are doing the erg training or weight lifting without the team even there it becomes doubly hard, but she was super motivated to get the job done."

In her final race in the Blue and Gold, Wesselmann stroked the nation's top-seeded varsity eight boat. In the grand finals of the 2019 NCAA Championships, the Bears suffered their first loss of the season, finishing fifth in the tightest race in 23 years.

Wesselman channeled the disappointment at the finish of her collegiate career into her training with the German National Team in an effort to make the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. With her degree in hand, Wesselmann was able to fully devote herself to her goal of helping Germany reach the Olympics.

"It was such a huge disappointment to not even medal at the NCAAs – I still believe we were the fastest crew out there," Wesselmann said. "I had achieved so much in the U.S. already. In Germany, it's basically you make the team; or you don't and you quit. That's the mentality."
But even that wasn't enough.

"Coming from the U.S., we were used to being on the lake at 5:30 a.m. and being up until midnight in my case – to going, 'I can take a nap in between practice'," Wesselman said. "And then I'd get up and row again, go to dinner and go to bed. That was a really big change. You were physically extremely exhausted but I couldn't sleep because my brain was running at 70 miles per hour. I begged the coach, 'Can I please have a job, can I please do something else?' I needed that other thing to focus on to keep me going." 

Her stint training with the national team was short-lived as the 2020 Olympics were delayed a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Moreover, an injury which originally was only supposed to keep her off the water for a short time, needed longer to heal and kept her out of the running for the Olympics.

That was not the end of Wesselman's competitive career, however. Following her time with the national team, she got an internship with Roedig Schoop Architekten, an architecture firm in Berlin, Germany. There, Wesselmann found the competitive outreach she needed in the form of an architecture competition.

"In Germany, if you want to build something, you can't just pick out the people to do it. If the government is paying for it, they can't pick favorites because that would be considered lobbying," Wesselmann said. "So everything that the government wants to build has to be in the form of an architectural competition. I joined this firm and they asked me, 'Are you interested in competitions because your resume seems like you are a very competitive person?' And I said, 'I would love that.'"

Her first competition was for a multi-million dollar bank complex. She started working with the founder of the firm and the two of them put ideas together. Through that, she took on more responsibility. She eventually led a team of two other architects and took third place in the competition. From there she entered other competitions, and eventually pursued her master's at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London.

While in London, Wesselmann lived the normal life of a full-time student with an internship. But the itch to compete in rowing returned.

"When I was just rowing, I realized I'm missing something else - I need to work out my brain every day," Wesselmann said. "When I was not able to work out and row and I was just doing my internship, it made me realize that I needed something to balance that. That's why I was thriving at Cal – I couldn't just dive fully into rowing. That's why the national team wasn't for me – I need to juggle multiple things in order for me to have that balance."

To find that balance in London, Wesselmann joined the Thames Rowing Club. Initially, she thought she would just do it for fun. But after three weeks, she realized she needed the scheduling and the organization that rowing brings into her life.

It all led her to compete in one of London's premier races - the Henley Women's Regatta. The race is emblematic of that self-realization that initially dawned on Wesselmann when she was a Cal student athlete - she's at her happiest as an ultimate competitor.