Scholar-Athlete Spotlight - Emily Spiegel

Scholar-Athlete Spotlight - Emily Spiegel

Bryn Mawr College is full of talented and hard-working scholar-athletes who strive each and every day to excel both on and off the field of play. We in Athletics want their stories of leadership, excellence, community service, and opportunity to be heard, so we're starting a regular "Scholar-Athlete Spotlight" feature. Look out for these profiles regularly here at

Last year, Bryn Mawr saw one of its best single-season performances by any team in school history thanks to an incredible performance by the Owls crew team. Rising senior Emily Spiegel was a major part of that impressive performance, and she recently took advantage of an opportunity to combine her love for the sport with some classroom work in Bryn Mawr’s world-class biology department. Here, in this edition of the Scholar-Athlete Spotlight, Spiegel shares her own take on Bryn Mawr, rowing, and her recent publication.

- How did you get into rowing?
“In high school I was fortunate enough to hear about a summer program for youth rowers hosted by a local rowing club (the Central Pennsylvania Rowing Association). The club had received a grant to promote youth rowing for the first time in the area and they organized a couple of amazing coaches to train interested middle schoolers and high schoolers. I actually found out about the program about a week after it started. Everyone else had already spent time in boats and learned the basics, so I was the odd one out. That first practice I felt completely hopeless and once we finished I decided I'd never row again. But somehow I ended up on the docks the next morning and the rest, nearly seven years of rowing and loving this sport, is history.”

- What made you choose to come to Bryn Mawr?
“Definitely the first visit. There wasn't another college I visited that felt so much like home. And when I visited again later, and met so many interesting and welcoming people, I knew I had found the place where I would be able to develop as a person. I wanted an environment that would challenge and support me, and I found that here.”

- The crew team, particularly your Varsity 8 boat, had the best season in program history last year. Can you describe what last season was like? What did it feel like to be part of such a historic season for the program?
“It was exhilarating. Every race seemed like a new chance to show what we, as a boat and as a team, could do. Training is never easy, and races are never relaxing, but doing so in victory made it a whole lot sweeter. I felt really close to my boat and my team, and was so thankful to be surrounded by such a supportive, encouraging, and talented group of athletes. Nobody can succeed in this sport alone, and it was the excellent guidance of our coach, Carol Bower, the mentorship of our wonderful captains, Anna Ferlanti and Ji Yoon Ahn, and the pure grit of this amazing team that made that season possible.

It was also gratifying. I was with this team during a major break-out season my freshman year. I saw the resiliency of my teammates from the first day I joined. That year, the 2014-15 season, really opened a lot of doors for us. We continued to work hard, building on the legacy of those that came before us, and it was this year that we walked through those doors and accomplished what three years ago was still only a fantasy.”

- You're a Biology major - what got you interested in that, and what is the Biology program at Bryn Mawr like?
“Studying biology allows you to study not only that which falls under the domain of that field but so many other fields as well. In order to succeed in biology, you typically also need to complement your study with chemistry, geology, physics, computer science, statistics, or psychology, depending on the branch of biology you're interested in. It integrates an understanding across disciplines, with so many opportunities for exploration into other fields. The Bryn Mawr program, for one of its size, incorporates that attitude so well. It's a relatively small department, compared to the big research institutions, so it's easy to get to know the professors. There's a chance to study biochemistry, microbiology, evolution, developmental biology, physiology, neuroscience, ecology, genetics, computational biology....I'm never bored. Thanks to the relatively small size, I've been able to participate in hands-on, intense labs and develop good relationships with my professors so I never feel uncomfortable asking questions or seeking help. I'm incredibly grateful not only for the excellent instruction I receive, but for the guidance I get from the professors I've gotten close to.”

As part of one of Spiegel’s classes, she had the opportunity to do an exercise physiology experiment. Her topic? Rowing, of course! Spiegel went on to author a report on her results, which you can find here. In fact, her article and work was so impressive, it was accepted for publication in the London-based “Row360” magazine and ran in the July/August issue!

 - What gave you the idea to do a study on your sport like this?
“The physiology of rowing is something I've been very interested in for a while, given my passion for both biology and the sport. I've read extensively on this topic because it gave me a greater appreciation for what my body went through in a race. But the articles and studies I read all focused on the most elite athletes, and mainly on men. The science of the standard 170lb, 6'2" Olympian male these studies revolved around was definitely interesting, but I always wanted to know how it related to what was happening to me. So when the chance came up in my Integrated Organismal Biology class to run an exercise physiology experiment, I jumped at it. My professor, Dr. Peter Brodfuehrer, was really supportive through the whole process, from experimental design to the writing of the final paper.”

- Was there anything that surprised you when you did this study?
One thing that surprised me was how closely my own data resembled data from the studies I had read dealing with elite athletes. Obviously, I am not an elite athlete like the Olympians those studies focused on, whose dedication in training is inspirational to me. But the fact that our bodies reacted in very similar ways, with my heart rate and oxygen consumption closely mimicking theirs, really demonstrates the value of hard work in this sport. I think it also shows how incredible the DIII experience is, because it's only in this type of environment that I would've had the resources and encouragement to pursue this study. Here, my coach and my professors value my academic and athletic contributions, and support me in my pursuit of both. I've been able to succeed as a student and as an athlete here, and this study was the capstone result of my DIII experience.”

- Having done this study, is there anything you learned that can help you and your teammates in your upcoming year? Or potentially even a wider group of athletes?
“In gaining a greater appreciation for what my body accomplishes in a race, I developed a deeper trust for my body's response. The entire biology course, which spanned a year and covered anatomy and physiology in depth, showed me just how complex and amazing the human body can be. Seeing on paper what my body did to counteract the almost overwhelming exertion of a 2k made me realize how much I'm capable of. So if I were to give advice to my teammates or to other athletes from this study, I'd say trust the biology; you will make it to the end of that race so push a little harder, dig a little deeper, trust your body.”

- You did a fantastic job in your article describing the grueling effort that goes into a race. Is there a race in your mind that sticks out as one of the hardest ever, physically?
“Head of the Charles this past fall, was the hardest race I've ever had to endure. The day seemed to be working against us. The conditions were terrible, and we raged against cold, 17 mph winds. Sitting at the top of that race, in the open basin of the Charles River where the current is strong and the waves were splashing over the side of the boat, I was terrified for the first time in my rowing career. I wasn't sure if we were going to finish the 5000m race at all, let alone with a good time. Boats were crowded around us, waiting for the start, and I could hear the rowers in the other crews start to scream as they were tossed around the waves. We were in a four-person boat, with Anna, our coxswain, tucked low in the back, no doubt being half-drowned by the turbulent waters. When they called us up to the start, I rowed knowing in my head that it would be the worst race I ever rowed, but that I would give it everything I had because I had my crew with me, depending on me.

We rowed together, letting our anxiety out on the course and throwing our fear out on the oar. Soon we were passing boats and when the last bridge before the finish came, I remember bearing down on that blade, desperately trying to make it a little more painful because the pain means you're going faster. I remember hearing people cheering, and knowing our coach and our teammates were waiting for us at the finish line. I remember the harsh winds and choppy waters, and Anna saying the finish line was in her sights. I remember collapsing when the race was done, and the whole boat laughing because we had just survived and that seemed like the funniest thing in that moment. Once we returned to the dock, and heard we had broken the Bryn Mawr record and taken 8th out of 35 boats, we erupted into cheers mixed with exhaustion and disbelief. Every stroke in that race was a challenge, unlike any race I had been through before. It was the worst race I had ever rowed...and by far the most rewarding.”

- After such an amazing season last year, how do you top that this year? Do you have any particular goals or anything to share regarding the upcoming year?
“We will start training in the fall with the same focus we have always had. We will get up every morning and go to practice with the same dedication we have always had. The team, as I have known it, has always shown grit, and a few medals will only remind us of what we already knew; that together we are capable of anything if we are willing to work for it. As long as we continue to have that attitude, I know we'll continue to succeed.”

- What are you hoping to do after graduation? How has Bryn Mawr, and more specifically BMC Crew/Athletics, prepared you for life after college?
“After graduation I hope to pursue a career in sustainable biotechnology (biofuels, sustainable agriculture, wastewater management, etc..). That's a really big change from the goal I entered Bryn Mawr with, which was to pursue my medical degree. The most valuable thing Bryn Mawr has given me in that regard is the confidence to find and pursue my path. If I had gone to a school which designed my course schedule based on my interests as a freshman, I would never have had the chance to explore other fields. At Bryn Mawr, I was able to join the evolutionary and developmental biology lab of Dr. Gregory Davis and discover my passion for research and branches of biology outside of human medicine. I was able to take the Coasts in Transition 360 with Dr. Thomas Mozdzer and Dr. Pedro Marenco which included a research trip to Belize to study mangroves and coastal ecology. I was able to conduct this study in exercise physiology and complete a narrative final paper integrating my love of science, rowing, and writing. With the help of my training in the biology department and the close relationships I was able to foster with my professors, I was accepted into a competitive research internship at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in biological oceanography funded by the National Science Foundation. I was so fortunate to be able to participate in this diverse range of opportunities, to develop as a student and a scientist, and to gain confidence in myself and my work, so I could find a new path outside what I originally thought possible.

It's impossible to imagine my life at Bryn Mawr without crew, and my experience with the team has complemented my progress through my entire time here. Crew is a demanding sport, requiring physical and mental discipline. This empowered me to study hard and be tough with myself and my time so I could participate in the sport I love. You're so dependent on your crew in this sport because their performance determines your own. It's a team unlike any other, where you push each other to do better each and every day for your mutual benefit. Being on this team has required me to develop better inter-personal skills and leadership skills and to learn how to communicate more efficiently in a group. For better or worse, we succeed or fail together, and I think that's an attitude I'll carry with me throughout my entire career and the rest of my life.”

Emily Spiegel and the rest of the Bryn Mawr crew team will be back in action soon for their fall season, which kicks off with the Navy Day Regatta in Philadelphia on October 14th.