row2k kicks off our 2019 spring collegiate racing preview with an interview with Michigan senior Daniel Jenkins. We talked with Jenkins about picking up the sport in college and how rowing saved his life after finding out he had a potentially deadly heart condition.
row2k: You started rowing as a walk on at Michigan, what was your athletic background prior to arriving in Ann Arbor?
Daniel Jenkins: Prior to coming to Michigan, I had played both basketball and lacrosse all four years of high school. Lacrosse was my favorite sport and I played almost year-round by the time I was a senior. While I was recruited to play lacrosse at some smaller schools, they didn't provide the same academic opportunities that other schools did, so I knew that my lacrosse career would likely end when high school did.
So, I did have an athletic background but nothing even close to the cardiovascular level that rowing or really any endurance sport competes at. It's funny because I honestly, for reasons I do not know, looked down on endurance sports like rowing, cross country and even track and I can be quoted saying to my parents (adamantly) that I would never in my life take part in a sport like rowing.
row2k: You were diagnosed a heart condition your freshman year, how did that come about?
Jenkins: After being recruited to come down to the boathouse by some seniors on the team at the time I quickly learned that I had a knack for the sport. I think a part of it was how naive and new I was to it all, because our freshman coach (Russell Giacobbe, eds) would just tell me a split to pull and I would pull that split even if it felt like I was dying.
I improved rapidly and was doing well, but as we got a couple months into the school year and were doing longer pieces at max effort, like 10ks, I was noticing that my heart rate would randomly spike, causing me to feel extremely weak and lethargic. I never actually passed out rowing, but my scores were starting to take a hit. This heart rate issue had plagued me throughout high school but I had never thought anything of it because it would always go away since I had the ability to just take a quick break to get my heart rate under control.
I was frustrated, and told my parents about what was going on. While in high school, no one, including my parents, had thought much of it. This time they freaked out and I was dragged to a cardiologist during that winter break. After a quick stress test, it became apparent to the cardiologist that I had what was called a supraventricular tachycardia (SVT) and it was the type of SVT that was a silent killer. Basically, throughout my entire athletic career I could have dropped dead at any moment, I was very lucky to be alive.
row2k: What was the procedure to correct the condition and to what extent did it impact your freshman year?
Jenkins: The procedure to fix things like what I had been diagnosed with is a relatively simple and routine. It's called an ablation which is used to terminate a faulty electrical circuit in the heart. Just two short weeks after my diagnosis I was scheduled for one. I found myself on the operating table speaking to a very friendly nurse who assured me that this was going to be quick and easy and I distinctly remember not having any fear at all.
I woke up from the procedure extremely groggy and unable to move my neck. There were now a bunch of wires going into a vein in my neck which I would later learn is called an external pacemaker which was allowing the top and bottom half of my heart to beat in sync. This had been put in because, due to a mistake in surgery, which no one could control, a healthy nerve circuit in my heart had been destroyed along with the unhealthy one which had originally been causing the issue.
That same day I was back on the operating table and I had a much smaller pacemaker put into my chest. It's roughly the size of a Gatorade cap and juts out from the top of my chest by about a centimeter.
As far as the impact on my freshman year, it was a huge blow. I essentially missed all of our teams' winter training that we do at home, on our own, (about two and a half weeks) and the three days straight I spent in the hospital flat on my back, not moving at all and barely eating pretty much erased any of the muscle I had on my frame. Additionally, I had to take another week off when I got back to school to let my pacemaker settle and secure itself in my chest.
Nevertheless, I hit the ground running when I got back and, while the recovery process was slow, I managed to fight my way back into the top freshman boat with a respectable 2k time that season and win the freshman national championship at ACRA.
row2k: What did you learn from the ordeal to make you a better rower?
Jenkins: I would have to say one of the biggest things that I learned from this whole ordeal was humility. Right before I was diagnosed I felt as if I was indestructible and on top of the world. The surgery really leveled me and gave me some perspective. It took away just about all of the fitness I had gained up until that point, which was overwhelming because it had taken a lot of work to get to there. Crawling my way back up from the bottom taught me a lot about myself and taught me to always stay humble.
Jenkins (center) at World University Games
row2k: You raced for USA this past summer in the World University Games in China, tell us about that experience?
Jenkins: Honestly it was one of the best experiences of my life. The team ended up being almost all guys from other club programs like Michigan and it was really cool to hang out and train with some of the best athletes that club programs in the country had to offer.
It was also definitely the fastest boat that I have ever rowed in and I was one of the smallest guys, rowing bow seat. Coming from my usual four seat, that took some getting used to. I also found myself a long way from home when I was sitting on the starting blocks in China and all around me crews were speaking different languages or had way different accents and you knew that they were all some of the fastest rowers in their country.
It ended up giving me some great racing experience under some of the most intense conditions I have ever dealt with. Most days had a "feels like" temperature of 115 degrees and the humidity was off the charts.
If anyone out there reading this has the opportunity to apply to this program I would 100% say do it. You will get so much better at rowing, get great international racing experience, have a great coach, and meet some great guys.
Jenkins races at the World University Games
row2k: What do you like most about the sport of rowing?
Jenkins: I would have to say what I love most about rowing is the competitive aspect of it. Whenever we race it is when I feel most alive and the thrill of crossing the finish line first never gets old.
row2k: You're now a senior, how is your role with the team different now than in previous seasons?
Jenkins: As most would expect as I transitioned to being one of the older members on the team my role as a leader has become more prominent. The other guys in my class and I lead by example to show the younger members of the team, who will eventually fill our spots, how to be a successful oarsman.
I personally feel as I have become much more of a teacher, especially to the freshman and sophomores on our team. It is easy to forget that over these past four years I have experienced many races and erg tests and what seems natural and intuitive to me regarding these things may not be as obvious or may be completely new to the younger members of the squad. So I laugh because I literally have to tell some of the younger guys that it really is not a good idea to go as hard you possibly can on the first piece of an interval workout or convince them that a 2k test will, in fact, not kill them.
row2k: What are you studying at Michigan, and do you have any plans yet for after college?
Jenkins: This spring I will be graduating from Michigan with a degree in physics. I have plans on attending medical school (god willing I get in) after a gap year. I am not 100% sure on what type of medicine I would like to get into but as of now I am leaning towards emergency medicine.