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Last fall, just before the docks outside the Porter Boathouse were removed from Lake Mendota for the winter, Maddie Wanamaker took one final row.

The water was as still as glass, and the sun was setting as she moved her single scull past Memorial Union toward University Bay. The UW Marching Band was practicing, and “On, Wisconsin!” drifted over the lake. As she reflected on what rowing meant to her, she began to cry — as she did when she recounted the moment — and then she laughed at what she’d been thinking.

“I can’t stop rowing,” Wanamaker told herself. “I have to row.”

The previous summer brought a disappointing finish for the rower from Neenah, Wisconsin. She’d spent weeks undergoing intense training with the U.S. Under 23 national team, but at the world championships in the Netherlands, her boat placed 11th in quadruple sculls.

“I can’t row anymore. I can’t keep getting better. I’m just going to be stuck,” she told herself upon returning to campus for the start of the fall semester.

Wanamaker — the daughter of two former UW rowers — let go of the idea of competing after college. She planned to finish out her career with the Badger women’s team, complete her degree in environmental studies and life sciences communication, and transition to coaching during a fellowship program in Boston.

But her epiphany on the water changed everything. Wanamaker will now spend the next year at an elite training center in Saratoga Springs, New York, hoping to return to international competition by rowing a single or double scull for the U.S. national team. “If it’s clear that I’m in the lower tier,” she says, “I’ll be like, ‘You know what? I tried. No regrets.’ I can move on knowing that I wasn’t good enough, and I can kind of be at peace with that.”

To be available for the Big Ten and NCAA championships this spring, she donned a cap and gown in December and walked in winter commencement. She choked up singing “Varsity,” but quickly remembered, “There’s more.”

Photo by Bryce Richter.

This story was originally published in the Summer 2017 issue of On Wisconsin magazine.

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