Roche shows them how it’s done

The "knobby-kneed freshman" has grown to lead a program on the rise in the NCAA.

Kent Erdahl

The name of Minnesota’s rowing team’s new Varsity Eight boat is not the Mayflower, yet team member Melissa Roche still jokingly referred to herself as a pilgrim.

Although the senior is not quite an English Puritan, she has certainly spent her share of time on a boat.

In four years, Roche has also helped drive a lost first-year team to become a contender in the Big Ten and the NCAA.

Her leadership is evident in her extensive accomplishments.

During her sophomore and junior years, Roche earned second-team All-American, first-team All-Big Ten and the team’s most valuable rower honors.

“She’s just a big stud,” junior team member Andrea Pierce said.

In such a team sport, it might not be clear how “stud” rowers and accolades are determined, but coach Wendy Davis said Roche leads in many ways.

“Part of it, as on any team, requires a personality that leads others, and Melissa has that,” Davis said. “But another part tests physiology, and she is the fastest on the team by quite a bit.”

The primary way rowers measure their speed is through training on special rowing machines called ergometers.

Roche stands tall during these workouts. Her best time is 7:00.6 in the standard distance of 2,000 meters. The next best time by a Minnesota rower is 7:13.

“Breaking seven (minutes) for women is comparable to a four-minute mile (for runners),” Davis said.

The blistering time is impressive, but in the boat, Roche must still complement the rest of the team.

“It can’t be you,” Roche said. “It’s you maybe in the offseason and what you do, but its not you who pulls all eight girls.”

It’s when Roche needs to work with the team that Davis said her leadership becomes most evident.

“When Melissa is around, she will keep things lighthearted when they need to be, but she also knows how to gear down,” Davis said. “You can count on her to keep the intensity where it needs to be.”

Roche is used to the type of intensity a team needs. She competed in several sports in high school, including cross country, track, hockey and soccer before walking on to the Gophers rowing team.

“At the collegiate level you go through the same issues, you go through the same ups and downs,” Roche said. “You’re just a little bit bigger.”

Roche’s understanding of sports was a valuable asset, Davis said. But the coach was more impressed because Roche brought that knowledge to a new sport with nobody to follow.

“She was the second best on the team (in ergometer time) as a knobby-kneed freshman,” Davis said. “While that’s nice, a program can’t have a freshman be that person.”

Although she did not have anyone to follow, Roche was and remains driven, and she embraces her role on a significantly improved team.

“It’s all about the mindset, and always setting the standard,” Roche said. “I have to make sure that I hit my numbers and I’m doing my reps because I expect that from (the team).”

Roche will continue to set the bar for the remainder of a season that already looks promising for the Gophers.

The team kicked off Big Ten competition by nearly sweeping the races against Iowa last weekend. It will travel to UCLA this weekend for a dual against the Bruins.

Roche said the impressive performances thus far show the team is ready to make a run at the NCAA Tournament at the end of the year.

Although the team leader is focused on finishing off an impressive Gophers career, she is considering pursuing the sport beyond college with the U.S. national team.

“That’s as high as you can go,” she said. “It’s within my grasp, but it’s a dedication and a life choice.”

Whether she continues rowing, Roche said she is glad to be setting sail at the end of the year.

“It’s awesome, because (ergometer) times get lower, girls get better, and we get better recruits and better walk-ons,” she said.

Then she joked: “I’m kind of like, ‘Oh, I’m glad I made my mark, and I’m excited to get out before too much competition comes in.’ “