Powering Through


Board games, horseshoes, grades … the sisters competed at everything.

“If I was ever beating her at anything, that was the end of the game,” recalls USD rower Uche Anyanwu, the younger sister.

“I was the emotional one. I’d toss the board game aside,” says older sister Nneka. “Competition was love, and we loved each other very much.”

Nneka sampled rowing first, dipping her toe in the water late in high school after a family friend invited her to watch the San Diego Crew Classic. Uche watched from the shore for a while.

“Then I did what little sisters do,” said Uche. “I joined in.”

The sisters, whose parents were born and raised in Nigeria, proved skilled with an oar in hand. Nneka earned second team All-America honors during her senior season at USD in 2015. Uche one-upped her sister, earning first team All-America honors in 2016 as a junior.

Pronounced Oo-chay On-YA-wu, her athletic story is fascinating. Uche played soccer and basketball in her youth. As a freshman at San Diego’s Westview High, she played junior varsity basketball, suffered a knee injury and never played basketball again. She did not play any sport at the high school varsity level.

Now she’s a collegiate All-America rower, powerful enough, her coach thinks, to one day compete for the national team.

“It just goes to show that working hard can give you the success you thrive on,” says Uche. “I never once thought this would happen to me.”

Her relationship with the sport was not love at first sight. “Rowing is a difficult sport, so at first I butted heads with it,” she recalls. “It requires a mentality I didn’t have at the time.”

That mentality? “A toughness that requires you to embrace an endurance sport with sprinting elements. There were moments I loved it, and there were moments I truly hated it.”

Her rowing route proved circuitous. Initially, she attended USC for one semester before transferring to Alcalá Park. While she enjoyed the academic setting at USC, something was amiss. The environment on the team didn’t feel right. Also, as one of five siblings — there are two younger brothers and a younger sister — she longed for her family.

Reminded that Los Angeles is only two hours away, Uche says, “Even that two hours was difficult for me. My siblings are my best friends.”

She had to work her way up the USD ladder, rowing in the Toreros’ No. 2 varsity eight boat as a freshman.

“She had a lot of strength but the stroke didn’t come easy for her,” said USD coach Kim Cupini. “USC didn’t give her time to learn that. She could easily have quit. But she stuck with it.”

There are few sports more physically taxing than rowing. For the spring season, the women typically row for three hours, four days a week, beginning at 6:30 a.m. on Mission Bay. The rowers make sure to soak up the little things in life, often stopping to watch the sun rise.

“We remind ourselves to be grateful for the experience,” says Uche.

The team lifts weights twice a week for an hour, plus trains on the ergometer rowing machine for 90 minutes, twice a week. The women are often tested on the ergometer, seeing how long it would take to row 2,000 meters.

Her best time is 6 minutes, 44 seconds, the fastest by a USD woman since 2001.

A business administration major, she’s not afraid to take the path less traveled. While she’s been encouraged to compete for the national team when her rowing career is complete at USD, she almost certainly will pass. Why? She’s ready to go to work. She’s thinking something in the software industry.

“It’s what I’ve dreamt of as a little girl,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to wear the pantsuit, go to work at 7 a.m., the whole shebang. I’m ready to follow my next passion.” — Don Norcoss   

Watch a video about Uche and three other game-changing student-athletes below:

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