After graduating from Mountain Vista High School in Highlands Ranch, Jessica Thoennes started her rowing career as a walk-on for the University of Washington. After more than six years of hard work, she has been selected to represent the United States as the second seat on the Women’s 8+ Rowing Team in Tokyo this summer.
Thoennes, who has been training for the Olympics at Princeton in New Jersey, will leave for Japan on July 14. The 25-year-old said she is excited and humbled by the opportunity she has earned.
Thoennes, who played basketball and volleyball at Mountain Vista, said she always wanted to be a Division I athlete.
“When I played basketball and volleyball, I was OK,” she said. “I wouldn’t say I was ever the coach’s favorite. You wouldn’t want to put the ball in my hands when the game is on the line.”
Thoennes said she was weighing her options and looking around after high school when she went to the University of Washington to visit a friend who had joined the school’s rowing team. She was given a tour, met with coaches and offered a possible shot at joining the team.
“They told me they thought I would be good,” she said. “I was thinking there was no way.”
Thoennes said she immediately fell in love with Washington, pushing her to at least start going to school there, starting in 2014. After five months, Jessica said she decided to take the coach up on his offer for books and food in return for her being a walk-on for the team.
“When I first got out there, I had never touched an oar,” she said. “I thought I was going to break the boat. It took time to fall in love with this sport, but late in my sophomore year, I realized how much I love it. I know now that I want to keep doing this for as long as I can.”
Proud father Christopher Thoennes said being asked to be a walk-on in rowing at the University of Washington is like being a walk-on for Alabama and Duke football.
Jessica Thoennes said she is humbled with the thought of reaching the top in a sport she has been giving everything to for six years when other teammates have been training for 20 years.
“I have just kept showing up and working as hard as I possibly can,” she said. “I knew I had to walk the walk before I could get the accolades. My brain still can’t comprehend that after six years, I am now on to the Olympics.”
In her climb to the top in the sport, Thoennes won the silver in the women’s 8+ at the 2017 World Rowing Under-23 Championships, earned academic All-Pac-12 honorable mention and won gold in the 2018 NCAA Rowing Championships.
While his daughter has accomplished a lot in athletics, Christopher Thoennes, a Highlands Ranch resident, said he is most proud of the courage it took to stand up and help others dealing with depression and mental-health issues.
Jessica Thoennes said during her sophomore year in college, she attempted suicide twice. She said the only reason she did not go through with it both times was her commitment to the rowing team.
“I knew if I didn’t make it to practice, the girls would not get to row,” she said. “Eventually, I talked to the team doctor and found out I had depression and a chemical in my brain was causing it.”
Now, she said she makes it a priority to help other athletes dealing with depression and self-doubt. She said athletes face a lot of pressure, and admitting to dealing with mental-health issues can sometimes be seen as a weakness.
“It did not dawn on me how much I was struggling until I got to my lowest point,” she said. “I never want anyone to feel how I did in those dark moments. If I can help one person, one teammate, it is worth it.”
She said that when other athletes talk to her about struggling, she always lets them know better days are ahead.
“I always make them aware that even though my brain does not produce a certain chemical the way it should, I can still achieve amazing things,” she said. “I consider it an honor and privilege to be someone other athletes can turn to without judgement.”
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