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She's not satisfied: Sami Jo Hoelzer perseveres to conquer challenges of UNC rowing

Sami Jo

At first, being a coxswain on the North Carolina rowing team posed a great challenge to Sami Jo Hoelzer, as she struggled to learn the sport. But Hoelzer isn't the type to shy away from something difficult.

Dammit. She waited a year for this. Hours practicing and gathering advice from rowers, coxswains and coaches, breaks cut short to train with the North Carolina rowing team, weekends stuck on campus wishing she could compete. She just wanted to race. Scratch that. She wanted to race well. But her mouth froze in front of the microphone, her knowledge buried behind uncertainty. Her only regatta of the year, and her boat finished last. Everybody blames the coxswain, and she does too. As she steps off the rocking dock and onto the gravelly shore, her inquisitive brown eyes are hollow. A reel of insults is on replay in her head.

My boat deserved better. Better than me.

“I don’t remember her not doing well,” said Anthony Brock, novice coach. It’s not like he was expecting much. The March regatta at Lake Wheeler in Raleigh was her first time competing as the brain behind a 45-foot boat. Coxing is a science — nobody gets it in a year.

That’s not how sophomore Sami Jo Hoelzer sees it. She’s not used to falling short. What happens now? Rowing eats up more than 20 hours a week. If she can’t contribute, she doesn’t want to continue. Is it worth it? The balancing act between sport and school while facing the discouragement of being stuck on the sidelines, failing to satiate her expectations? She doesn’t take quitting lightly. But what if she doesn’t improve next year?

Stop. We’re underestimating her. She’s underestimating her. That happens a lot. It’s a symptom of being the smallest in the room: 5 feet tall. People pass over her brains and drive because of some empty air hovering above her head. Hoelzer may be downtrodden, but someone like this doesn’t balk in the face of a challenge.

She defies it.


Enough preparation. We need to get this story from dead weight to full flight in five strokes. Three-quarter, half, three-quarter, full, full — and we’re off. We won’t sprint like this again until the end, but there’s no time to waste. The baby just woke up, and she’s already screaming.

Everything was fine when the 1-year-old dozed off, exhausted from the previous day’s six-hour bus ride from her orphanage in Changsha, China. But now that she’s awake, she’s covered in sweat, wearing seven layers in an 80-degree hotel room — a winter hat tugged over her shaved head and knotted around her chin. Two strangers are standing over her, trying to strip her stifling layers. Panic and adrenaline flood all at once. What’s going on?

A man and woman look at her funny. There’s a glow in their expressions that she doesn’t recognize. She doesn’t know it's because they’re finally meeting the child whose grainy black-and-white picture arrived in the mail three months ago. They’ve been trying to adopt her longer than she’s been alive. Approval from the FBI; the local sheriff, county officials and the Chinese embassy; verification of their birth certificates and marriage certificates; 10 to 12 interviews. All of that — twice. Because when the Chinese government took over adoption procedures from the previous process, they had to start from scratch. All for her. The most beautiful baby they'd ever laid eyes on.

Everything about them is different. Their looks, their language, even their smell. When her shrieks summon the orphanage’s nanny back into the room, the baby latches on like a barnacle.

“Please have the nanny tell her that we’re her new mommy and daddy, and she doesn’t have to be afraid,” Christie Hoelzer says through an interpreter.

“She won’t understand you,” the nanny replies.

“Whether she thinks she can understand or not, please ask her to tell Samantha that we’re her new mommy and daddy, and that her name is going to be Samantha," Hoelzer says. 

The nanny concedes but doesn’t see the point. Why does this American believe a baby could process that?

There’s no time to think, just keep pushing. Take us three days forward — without any crying from Samantha — to an abandoned building nearby where Christie and Bob Hoelzer must finalize the adoption with paperwork. That’s it. There’s that determination. Time for Samantha, nicknamed Sami Jo, to say goodbye to her nanny forever. But when she approaches, Sami Jo just stares, then turns back to Hoelzer and wraps her arms around her mother’s neck.

“As soon as the nanny told her we were her new mommy and daddy,” Hoelzer said. “That was the bond.”

The Hoelzers spent 11 days in China in a group of seven American families, including Darryl and Gayle Kabins — who adopted a 1-year-old girl named Liana. Unlike Sami Jo, Liana had a full head of dark hair. But there was an overlap in their wide eyes and soft cheeks. Twins?

Hopefully not, for their sake. In China, it was illegal to adopt more than one child. The government wouldn’t separate twins, making them virtually unable to be adopted. But the resemblance between the two baby girls was undeniable. “It would be a good idea to have a DNA test done,” was all the orphanage director would say.

When the families returned to the States, Liana’s parents paid for the DNA test. It was a 99.999 percent match.

“I think the orphanage director did know,” Christie said. “He just couldn’t say it because of the law. They probably would have not survived if they knew they were twins.”

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The start sequence is over, and you’re left in a disoriented daze. But you can’t stop now — it’s just getting started. Let’s lengthen the stroke and find a rhythm. Looooong jump. Glide through the cafeteria for a quick bite to eat and cross the hallway to the center of Indian Land Middle School. Through the doors you’ll find tables that hug the library’s cream-colored wall. There she is.

Growing up in New Jersey, lunch meant pizza, ice cream with her friends. But now that Sam has outgrown her nickname and moved to Fort Mill, South Carolina, she spends lunch alone.

Don’t forget the books. Sami Jo started reading before she finished learning English. Sitting on the green and red carpet listening to Christie Hoelzer read aloud, she saw a kid’s book commercial flashing on the television. “Mom,” she said. “I want to learn how to read.”

She was 2 years old.

Sam has been captivated by novels ever since. From "The Count of Monte Cristo" to "City of Bones," Sam dove into wild and exciting stories with heroes in faraway worlds — everything she lacked in South Carolina. At her school in New Jersey, almost a third of the students were Asian, but in South Carolina, Sam is one of maybe five Asian students in the entire school. And she’s the New Kid. So much for fitting in.

The hole Liana is supposed to fill feels wider. The two weren’t terribly close until Liana moved from Indiana to Kansas in fifth grade and felt unwelcome too. As more time passed, the pair’s restlessness brought them together. Pretty soon, they went from annual visits in elementary school to hours on the phone venting about high school and sharing their dreams. Sam struggled to connect with some of her high school friends who didn’t relate to her lofty goals. But Liana understood.

Escaping the doldrums of South Carolina couldn’t come soon enough. Technique will help. Back the blade. A rotation in your torso will plunge your oar into the water and we can blast through this part, where Sam is poring over SAT words and reviewing college essays with Liana. She’s waitlisted at first-choice Princeton, but UNC-Chapel Hill still fits her main goal.

Getting out.


“You have to be a leader,” his voice echoed over 150 pairs of ears. “You have to be in charge. You have to be smart. I have to trust you with a $40,000 boat and eight other lives.”

Hoelzer was sold.

We’re at the meat of it now, cruising through five minutes inside the Eddie Smith Field House in 2014. Hoelzer is up, at a top public university, but she’s not satisfied. Drop those splits. Let’s try something athletic. She floated the coxswain idea by Kabins their senior year — a leadership position for someone small and ambitious. Perfect. Brock spent most of the interest meeting explaining the rower’s role, and Hoelzer sat in the second row of bleachers bored. But when he started delivering a five-minute spiel about what it means to be a coxswain, she was intrigued.

But wait, did he say a timed two-mile run at tryouts? You’re nervous thinking about it, but don’t forget technique. Sit up tall. Focus every stroke. She’s leaving, walking up cement stairs toward her dorm when she shares her fears.

“Well, I mean you are panting,” another prospective rower remarks. “You should start practicing.”

I guess you’re right. Maybe I shouldn’t try out.

Sixty novices walk on while Sami Jo Hoelzer, resurrecting her childhood nickname because she has a suitemate named Sam, joins a lab in the biochemistry and biophysics department and starts taking Chinese classes. She wants to study abroad. Grades up. Lock it in. She’s Hong Kong-bound, but something’s missing.

The Case Western men’s team has plenty of rowers and no one to lead them. But rower Phil Smith knows whom to ask: his friend Liana Kabins.

“I don’t think she would have considered it had I not told her that I had considered it,” Hoelzer said.

Kabins loved it, and she shared tales with her sister. Hoelzer couldn’t ignore the appeal. She kept asking Kabins and her rowing suitemate, Jackie Kenny, about the sport. The allure began to outweigh self-doubt. By the time sophomore year rolled around, Hoelzer showed up to the interest meeting in Carmichael Arena fresh off of two-mile training during her summer in China. She was ready.

“He was saying the same exact stuff, only I wasn’t really listening,” she said. “I already knew I was going to do it no matter what. It didn’t matter what he said anymore.”


You’ve reached the hardest part — past halfway. Every crevice of your body and mind has banded together to form a chorus of stop. You’re too exhausted to think. Thank goodness you don’t have to. You have a coxswain. Commit to this boat. Focus on Hoelzer.

That’s what she’s doing — well, she’s trying to. She can see her reflection in the mirror straight ahead, but she has to crane her torso to the side if she wants to see the reflection of her body extending on the erg.

Coxswains are supposed to correct rowers’ technique, but how can she do that if she doesn’t know how the stroke feels? Hoelzer wants to master that — one item on the list of things she must learn: steering, monitoring pace and remaining meters, motivating rowers through the cardio of two NBA games condensed into seven minutes. Brock tells all his novices on day one to not be afraid of failure. But unlike the rowers, all of Hoelzer’s mistakes are blasted through a microphone for the whole boat to hear.

“Coxswains are easily blamed when things go wrong, and they’re not really praised when things go right,” Kenny said. “If you have a boat of rowers that think that they’re really good, and they’re like, ‘Why aren’t we doing well?’ It’s very easy to blame the coxswain.”

Pressure’s on. Time to crank up the work. A power ten: Strenuous strokes in synchronization will help Sami Jo bust ahead. Focus in right here. It won’t be easy, but that’s not why she became a coxswain.

One: Tips from Brock that she will write down and memorize. Two: A Google Doc where she can compare notes with Kabins. Three. Four: YouTube videos over winter break to learn more race calls. Five: Hours on the erg with Madelyn Krebs teaching her the stroke. Six: The same thing, this time with Maddie Omeltchenko. Seven: Phone calls with Kabins for motivation. Eight. Nine: Pages in her notebook filled with notes on lineups and warm-ups. Ten: Two kilometers sliding on an erg with Kenny as her coxswain.

After all that, she’s still behind. The best way to learn is by doing, and Hoelzer lacks that experience because of UNC’s abundance of coxswains. She’s too new to stand out, but she wants to make an impact. Worth another shot?

“I stayed because I thought I had more to give,” she said.

This time, she’s taking control. Fight for it. No more spending practices running or watching rowers with her coaches. No more fearing taking command. The mistakes during that race in Raleigh wouldn’t happen again.

“That’s my vision of Sami Jo at probably just her saddest as a coxswain,” Kenny said. “But since then, I haven’t seen that Sami Jo again.”


Can you see her?

No. Not really. Christie Hoelzer needs to squint to see the boat. Clemson’s lake is smaller than Lake Wheeler in Raleigh, but the only sign of her daughter is a little dot at the edge of UNC’s 3V8 boat.

Hoelzer’s voice — loud, low and commanding — is just as unrecognizable. When she zips up her rain jacket and turns on her microphone, she shifts from friend to boss. Her boat is neck-and-neck with Duke, but her rowers' pace is lagging, and Clemson is looming behind. This is unacceptable. Bring that split down. She unleashed her aggression in the final 800 meters. Duke still edged past them by a boat length, but they claimed second place. It was the first time Kenny, who rowed in Hoelzer’s boat during that race, could remember beating Clemson. It’s a long way from Hoelzer’s first time racing. She returned to rowing her junior year ready to show the fruits of her determination. Since then, she’s raced in almost every regatta — and she’s earned it.

“We put (the rowers) through hell on a daily basis, we really do,” Brock said. “And she just makes it fun because she’s lighthearted… She takes it seriously, but I think she knows when to push them, and when to maybe take a step back.”

Varsity is an even greater time commitment than novice, and Hoelzer has struggled to balance the sport with taking biology and Chinese classes, working in her research lab, spending time with her roommate and other friends, studying for the MCAT and learning Chinese.

Is it worth it? Just watch Hoelzer’s face illuminate when she talks about rowing. Her favorite part comes when practice ends — when a rower thanks her for her work. “Hey, you did a great job today. You really helped me get through this part.” The offhand comments remind her why she’s here.

“It’s not that I really like recognition for what I do,” Hoelzer said. “It’s that I like hearing that I actually made an impact on someone’s workout, on someone’s 2k, on someone’s something."

“I really like knowing that I made a difference.”


You won’t know this — all you can see is the ponytail of the rower in front of you — but Hoelzer will announce it through the microphone pulled down over her cap: You’re almost done.

That means hold nothing back. Command right here. Commitment right here. Breach those physical limits you never knew existed so you walk out of here with nothing left. Power every stroke. Accelerate every stroke.

The wind is picking up, and we’re plowing ahead with Hoelzer at the helm. If she can get you through this, imagine where she’ll take herself. Medical school. A job in China. You can’t rule anything out. Next season’s goal? Get better. Anything too specific wouldn’t be true to the gradual nature of improving as a coxswain. Hoelzer gets that now. It’s a grind of grit. You won’t realize how far you’ve come until you’ve reached the end.

The four rowers battle on to the hum of her ambition. The urgency rises in her voice as we draw near, the tracing of trees on the shoreline a green blur. We’re not satisfied. Motivated by her words and sheer will, the boat strains forward. Closer… Closer…

She’s crossing the finish line, but don’t be fooled.