Rowing, strong mentors helped Withycombe believe in herself

by University Communications,

Sociology professor Linda Heuser will never forget the day she met Jenny (Schaecher) Withycombe ’02, MAT’03.

“Jenny came into my office, sat down and asked, ‘What does sociology offer me as a discipline?’” Heuser says. “In my 23 years of teaching, she’s the only student to ask me to prove why she should be a major.”

As a Willamette student athlete — and throughout her career — Withycombe has continued to display the determination Heuser recognized in their first meeting: earning All-American honors twice as a collegiate rower, completing a master’s in teaching and a doctorate in sports psychology, and landing a competitive contract as the advanced diversity educator for the NCAA.

Withycombe says the empowerment she gained from rowing, and her close relationship with professor Heuser, will stay with her forever.

“Any time I questioned my abilities, rowing gave me the confidence to keep trying,” Withycombe says. “Linda Heuser is like rowing for me. She is my mentor and my rock.”

Striving for Success

As a first-generation college student from Sacramento, Calif., Withycombe says she sometimes questioned her ability to succeed at Willamette — until she discovered the rowing team.

“Rowing helped everything fall into place,” Withycombe says. “When we would have a good race or I would beat an old time, I would come back thinking, ‘I’m great, I’m fabulous, I’m wonderful, I can do it.’”

Great is an understatement. In addition to earning All-American honors twice, Withycombe led the women’s varsity 8+ to a top 20 national ranking and fifth place finish at the 2003 Western Intercollegiate Rowing Association Championships. She was selected as a national scholar athlete four times, and she received the Jean Williams Award as Willamette’s 2003 Female Athlete of the Year.

Withycombe’s success was far from just natural talent — she put in the work.

“I would run to the boat house, work out, and then run home. I even went to the men’s practices, just in case they needed an extra rower,” she says. “I was kind of like a DI athlete at a DIII school, in terms of my mentality.”

Sports gave Withycombe something to strive for and commit to — a mindset that she carried over into the classroom.

“Athletics in no way took away from her academic performance; in fact, it probably enhanced it,” Heuser says. “Rowing allowed her to reach her maximum potential and develop herself as a person, holistically.”

Withycombe — a psychology major and sociology minor — says Willamette fostered in her a love of learning that she wouldn’t have found at a larger university.

“I loved that my professors cared whether I came to class or not, and I loved that the students cared about the topics we discussed,” she says.

A Rich Career Path

Withycombe went to Heuser for advice on her career path and life in general, and when it came time to graduate, Withycombe knew what she wanted to do.

“I thought about Linda and how amazing she was in the classroom, and I decided I wanted to learn to teach like her,” she says.

Though becoming a professor was her ultimate goal, Withycombe wanted to become a great teacher first. She enrolled in Willamette’s Graduate School of Education, where she completed a degree in early elementary and elementary education. After graduating from the GSE, she married Adam Withycombe ’98, MAT’01 — also a former member of Willamette’s rowing team — and moved to Walla Walla, Wash. to teach fifth grade.

During her summers off from teaching, Withycombe continued to row competitively — attending a national team development camp in Tennessee. When she discovered a graduate program in sports psychology at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Withycombe realized it was time to choose between her passions for racing and teaching.

“I thought, what will be more important when I look back on my life — the ultimate goal of standing on a podium with a gold medal, or looking back and thinking about all of my students?” she says. “I realized it was the teaching.”

Three years later — armed with a doctorate in sports psychology and a graduate certificate in women’s studies — Withycombe was ready to empower others through sports.

"I contacted Ira Childress (the NCAA’s assistant director for student athlete affairs) out of the blue, and I said, ‘I just want you to know that I’m the next best thing and you want me,’” she says.

Though the call caught Childress off guard, Withycombe’s persistence paid off. When the NCAA opened a contract bid for a diversity educator, she created her own company — Withycombe Consulting — and won the contract.

Withycombe attributes her success to the training she received at Willamette — particularly the teaching skills she gained at the Graduate School of Education.

“I knew about best practices, I knew how to make lessons dynamic and interesting and engaging, I knew how to check for understanding and differentiate my instruction,” she says.

“All of those things have been critical in being a diversity educator, because not everybody is in the same spot with diversity and not everybody learns in the same way about critical topics like that.”

Empowering Others

As the advanced diversity educator for the NCAA, Withycombe traveled more than 100 days per year — providing workshops across the country on gender, race, sexual orientation and culture within intercollegiate athletics. She also earned additional contracts with U.S. Rowing, USA Swimming and the U.S Olympic Committee.

“I try to make diversity something people can touch and relate to,” she says. “Rather than making people feel bad that they are not further along in the sense of diversity, I meet people where they are at.”

Today Withycombe is a critical sport and ethnic studies professor at the University of Colorado. She continues to be a competitive rower — earning first in the mixed quad at the 2013 Head of the Charles Regatta in Boston and third, overall, in the Open Weight Women’s Single for the 2013 USRowing Masters National Head Race.

She also continues to work as a diversity consultant in her spare time.

“It’s important to understand how sport enforces racism, sexism and homophobia — but also to see that sport has the potential to change those things,” says Withycombe, who has two young daughters, Kennedy and Sarah.

“If we can use sport to promote social justice, maybe we can make society a reflection of sport.”

• Story by Katie Huber ’13, politics major