By Sara Wells
Big 12 Campus Correspondent
It’s an age-old story. A high school senior signs a letter of intent to a collegiate athletic program. The next year, she continues her career in a sport of her choice.
When this story doesn’t go as planned, it gets interesting. It got interesting for graduate student and West Virginia University rowing team member Rachel Cokeley.
A track and field, cross country and basketball participant at Ritchie County High, the Harrisville, West Virginia, native came to WVU as a non-signed athlete who’d never attempted to row. When she was approached during her sophomore year and told about rowing, she wasn’t sold.
“I told the girl I didn’t want to play a club sport,” said Rachel. “She said it was Division I, and I thought I might try it. I went to a meeting and fell in love with it.”
Rachel made the novice team her sophomore year and continued to pursue veterinary school while dedicating the sufficient amount of time to rowing – a sport that challenges her every day.
When she finished her undergraduate degree last year, she decided to earn her master’s degree at WVU so she could finish her NCAA eligibility for what may be her most impressive season yet.
According to WVU rowing coach Jimmy King, Rachel’s a natural. While she had no prior experience rowing, her athleticism and work ethic allowed her to excel at the sport in her first year on the novice squad.
However, Rachel’s full potential has never been reached, as she’s been ailed with chronic illnesses since her arrival on the rowing team.
“Excruciating abdominal pain landed me in the hospital for weeks at a time,” Rachel said. “Things would pick back up to normal, and the pain would hit again. Then I was diagnosed with anemia last summer, which is hard to recover from as a Division I athlete.”
Finally, after a long recovery, Rachel’s the healthiest she’s been since she joined the team. She’s been cleared to participate fully, and wants to make the A team as soon as possible.
“I want to make that boat go as fast as I can,” Rachel stated. “I want to have a successful season. This is it. I can never be a Division I athlete again, so I have to make the most of it.”
Coach King, along with the rest of the team, looks for Rachel to come back better-than-ever, and he has no doubts that now healthy, she will succeed in her final season as a Mountaineer.
“I think the first time Rachel did a week of the same training as part of the team was in early March,” King explained. “My main role in her recovery was to hold her back because Rachel is a workhorse, always wanting to do more, especially while watching her teammates do more. It made her feel guilty at times.”
Rachel’s injuries didn’t stop her from being an integral part of the team. A leader whether participating or not, she consistently made an impact on the team - specifically on her sister, freshman Anna Cokeley.
The duo has become even closer since Anna’s joined the team. Anna feels as if she has a sister, teammate, mentor and friend all in one. The sisters feed off each other’s energy while competing in practice or at a competition.
“When I am feeling discouraged or unsure of myself, Rachel is always there to set me straight,” Anna said. “Being one of the oldest members of the team, I find myself frequently seeking Rachel's advice.”
Anna notes that Rachel is the reason she’s involved with the team, as she didn’t know about the opportunity to join beforehand. However, while Anna looks up to Rachel, the senior depends on her younger sibling for encouragement.
“It's three in one: you get to have your sister, best friend and teammate,” Rachel said. “It's awesome to look up and see her there. When I think that I don't have anything left to give, I look at her and know I can keep going.”
While Rachel plans to compete this season, she will see a doctor in California to make sure her health is at 100 percent before she heads to veterinary school in the fall.
“At one point, we thought that she would have to stop rowing for the sake of her health,” Anna stated. “Even during this especially trying time, she persevered and set her mind to making a full recovery, and I’m so proud of her.”
Rachel set her mind to a full recovery, and now she’s there, and ready to row.
“Being on this team is the best thing that's ever happened to me,” Rachel explained.
“With a bit of luck and with great persistence by Rachel, she is poised to have her best season yet,” King stated. “The resilience Rachel has demonstrated over such a long period of time is quite remarkable. Most would have given up long ago.”