Winter 2024 Issue

Making Waves

Grit, tenacity and passion have carried Sophia Luwis ’20 from W&M’s Club Rowing to the World Rowing Championships

By Mary Beth Bauermann ’24

ROWING FOR GOLD: Sophia Luwis ’20 won a gold medal in lightweight women’s single sculls at the World Rowing Cup III event on July 8, 2023, in Lucerne, Switzerland. Photo: Freshfocus via Zuma Press

When a young Sophia Luwis ’20 finished a weeklong rowing summer camp in Washington, D.C., she told her parents, “I’m never rowing ever again,” saying she found it monotonous. It turns out that Luwis would row again, and very successfully at that, even overcoming serious injuries sustained in a car crash in 2022 to win the bronze medal in the lightweight women’s single sculls at the 2023 World Rowing Championships. Her success has opened the door for her to potentially compete in the 2024 Paris Olympics, which would make her the first William & Mary sport club athlete to compete at the Olympic level. Editor's note: In March 2024, Luwis was selected as a backup for the U.S. lightweight double boat team at the 2024 Olympics.

Many years after her summer camp stint, Luwis was reintroduced to rowing through the Club Rowing program when she arrived at William & Mary. “At the club fair during orientation, I was walking by all the tables and my goal was to just sign up for a running club — something to keep active,” she says. “I passed by the Club Rowing table and they were saying no experience necessary. I thought, well, I have one week of experience.” She signed up and forgot about it until a hallmate mentioned she was going to practice, Luwis recalls: “I joined her one day and didn’t stop going.”

Drawn to William & Mary for international relations, Luwis had no idea that she would fall in love with rowing. “I came here for academics and then this whole other part of my life developed,” she says. “Now it is my life.”

As a member of W&M Club Rowing, one of the many sport clubs sponsored by the university’s Department of Campus Recreation, Luwis found a community that welcomes rowers with different levels of experience. She says that she found herself among “multiple groups of people doing the same thing, with some working at an intense level and others rowing just to be outside or relieve stress.” Luwis chose to train intensely, practicing with the group, but also working with a coach at CrossFit 1607 in Williamsburg and competing independently during her time at William & Mary, most notably as an American Collegiate Rowing Association second-team All-Academic team member in 2019.

W&M Campus Recreation has one of the largest sport club programs of any school in Virginia, reaching 80% of the student body, with about 1,650 sport club athletes.

Linda Knight, executive director of health and wellness at William & Mary and director of W&M Campus Recreation, emphasizes that every student can participate in a sport club. Luwis, she says, “took that opportunity and ran with it.” An Olympic run for Luwis “would show that the value of campus recreation on a university campus is huge,” Knight says.

A linguistics major with a minor in Chinese language and culture during her time at W&M, Luwis is deeply curious. “I love looking at things in new ways or being shown a different perspective,” she says. She names “Revisionist History,” award-winning author Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast that re-examines events, people, ideas and more from the past, as one of her favorite podcasts “because it takes something that you think you know and makes you realize you actually know nothing about it. Linguistics functions in the same way because it strips everything down to the building blocks and you realize that you know nothing about this thing that you use all day, every day. I just kept taking the classes and decided to switch my major to that.”

Balancing a rigorous academic schedule with rowing practices and competitions required some multitasking, Luwis remembers: “I did a number of workouts where I’d be biking and reading my linguistics papers. It became about finding pockets of time where it could get a bunch of stuff done and then go practice for however many hours.”

During her senior year, in spring 2020, the campus transitioned to remote learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic and Luwis was unsure of when she would row again. Still living in Williamsburg that spring, Luwis was surprised by a phone call.

“A coach that I had rowed with for a weekend up in Boston called me and asked if I was still interested in their club’s high-performance group,” she recalls. “I hadn’t thought too much about rowing at the elite level in the midst of COVID because nobody knew if we would be open tomorrow or if this was going to continue for years. Should I be looking for a job? Sure. Is anybody hiring? No. So, I decided, all right, I’ll move to Boston.”

She said yes and started competing in races across the country. She says, “My teammates and I decided in 2022 that we wanted to put together a lightweight women’s quad to try to develop for the Olympics.”

In September 2022, a car crash put everything on hold. Despite being badly injured in the crash with a collapsed lung, broken ribs and nerve damage, which required 22 total days in the ICU and rehabilitation, Luwis made a comeback for the 2023 season. “To get back to working out,” she remembers, “it started with a five-minute and then a 10-minute walk. Very, very slowly getting back into rowing again started with a very light 5K on the water, then a 10K on the water, and then trying to add in some harder pieces. It was very step-by-step and sometimes it would be three steps forward, two steps back.”

Persevering through a difficult recovery process, Luwis competed as a lightweight single for the United States, racing internationally. Approved to represent the U.S. in World Cup events, she earned a silver medal at World Cup II and gold at World Cup III. One year to the day after her car crash, Luwis earned bronze for the U.S. at the World Championships, the most competitive rowing event next to the Olympics. “It was the best thing I’ve ever done in my life, and I can’t believe it happened,” she says.

For Luwis, it’s all about perspective. She points to self-doubt as her biggest obstacle, recalling, “I had a lot of confidence coming off the first trip to Europe after World Cup III. It’s a back-and-forth with myself, and I think it needs to be that way. You need to have the confidence at the right times and the self-doubt at the right times to keep you motivated. When I’m in the starting box, I know exactly what I need to do, and that’s when my confidence will kick in.”

Because there is no lightweight single for rowing at the Olympics, Luwis’ goal is to be invited to the lightweight double selection camp in hopes of being selected to be one of the two people in the U.S. Olympic boat. “I’ve told myself that if I make the Olympics, I’m going to take time to do some soul searching after and decide if I want to continue being competitive nationally or if I say my elite rowing career is done and move on to other things,” she says. “I think I will be in sports for the rest of my life, but I can see that taking on a different look.”

In October, Luwis was named the 2023 Carie Graves Female Athlete of the Year, which is “awarded to the athlete(s) who displayed during the past year the most compelling combination of character, leadership, and performance, while driving forward a positive team culture,” by USRowing.

Luwis recently received a master’s degree in sports industry management from Georgetown University and she works in sports administration at a youth rowing program. Additionally, she coaches part time for a high school in Pennsylvania and runs the social media for her rowing club, Black Sheep Racing at Whitemarsh Boat Club. In all these positions, her W&M degree comes in handy. “I’m not doing phonetics and syntax,” she says, “but the concept of looking at something that you think you know from a different perspective is a brain pathway I developed by studying linguistics.”

Reflecting on her time with W&M Club Rowing, Luwis says, “I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing without club sports at W&M. I’ve gone back and forth about wishing William & Mary had a division program, but there was something really great about it being a club program because it gave so much freedom. I could race with the team at practice, but then I could also go do this whole other independent, competitive side of it.”