How Colombian Sirena Rowe Went from Lightly Recruited to N.C. State Leader

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Sirena Rowe at the 2019 ACC Championships Photo Courtesy: NC State Athletics

How Colombian Sirena Rowe Went from Lightly Recruited to N.C. State Leader

Sirena Rowe strides to the block at the Triangle Athletic Center, not entirely sure of her swimming future.

It’s the 2016 North Carolina High School Athletic Association Class 4A championships. Rowe has just one finals swim, the girls 100 freestyle. She’s surrounded by blue-chip recruits in the meet, the kind of talents that would seem to be, based on their college offers, out of Rowe’s league. The top seed in her final, Jessica Merritt, is bound for Auburn; second seed Laurel Kiselis is headed for Cornell. Erika Brown, Julia Menkhaus, Julia Poole, Kate Moore, Grace Countie – the deck abounds with a bumper crop of Carolina talent bound for power conferences.

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Sirena Rowe at the 2019 ACC Championships Photo Courtesy: Chris Baird/NC State Athletics

And then there’s Rowe. She fielded two concrete offers for her services and jumped at the first, committing to Marshall. As she readies for the race, one in which she is the fourth seed from prelims but would finish eighth, she’s under no illusion as to the unspoken dividing line between echelons.

Fast forward four and a half years, and Rowe gets emotional reflecting on the distance she’s covered. Poole and Moore are now teammates of hers at North Carolina State. Menkhaus and Countie are opponents in the ACC. From the Conference USA Freshman of the Year for the Thundering Herd, Rowe transferred to the Wolfpack, a valuable cog in relays contending for national championships and a leader for one of the nation’s top programs. Thanks to the Colombian heritage on her mother’s side, Rowe has swum at the World Championships and Pan American Games.

It’s the kind of career that the high school senior in Cary had hoped for but didn’t yet dare dream of.

“If you had asked me in high school where I saw myself swimming, I would not say anything close to this,” Rowe told Swimming World last week. “I catch myself realizing that I’ve gotten used to being at NC State and I do reflect on my journey, and it is kind of wild that I’m here. I just feel so grateful for all the support that I’ve had. It’s definitely been a wild ride and nothing that I would’ve predicted on my own.”

‘The most improved swimmer in the NCAA’

Sirena Rowe opts for an aquatic metaphor, which seems appropriate: Even as she’s grown from being a small fish to a big fish, she’s used to doing so in smaller ponds.

It applies to her club upbringing, the Charlotte native swimming at North Mecklenburg Aquatics since age nine, not the region’s presiding club power, SwimMac.

“I get asked all the time, ‘what team did you swim on? Oh, SwimMac I assume?’,” she said. “And that’s not the case. And a lot of people don’t know my team.”

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Sirena Rowe Photo Courtesy: NC State

At that 2016 state meet, Rowe was the only individual swimmer for East Mecklenburg High; South Mecklenburg is the more dominant school. From there, she was off to Marshall, with its intimate training group of about 20, with only a women’s varsity team.

Rowe admits she wasn’t the savviest when it came to recruiting. She grew up wanting to attend Duke University but realized that swimming for the Blue Devils out of high school was beyond her reach. Two schools, Marshall and George Washington, showed serious interest. She set up visits, but after a trip to West Virginia, she committed to the Thundering Herd and cancelled the GW trip.

Rowe was an instant star at Marshall in 2016-17. She set three individual school records and three relay marks, becoming the first Marshall swimmer in more than a decade to qualify for NCAAs, doing so in three events. She finished as high as 35th in the 50 free, on track to be a legitimate NCAA sprinter.

Marshall was the first time Rowe did any weight training. With strength-building and shoring up technique – her underwater dolphin kick, for instance, was powerful but underutilized – the time drops were massive. Much of her training was overseen by assistant Brandt Nigro, who headed the sprint group. To Nigro, Rowe was a perfect confluence of traits: Talent, fixable weaknesses and work ethic.

“I just saw a kind of potential in her from the moment I met her but also saw some things that we needed to work on, and given the pool space and the size of the team, we were able to dive into those things pretty intensely,” Nigro said. “She bought in, she worked her butt off and she was patient and she just swam out of her mind, crazy fast that year. She dropped all kinds of time in pretty much every event.

“There’s no statistics to back this up, but I like to call her the most improved swimmer in the NCAA that year just by her time drops. I don’t think there’s any girls that can say they went from a 23.2 to a 22.0 (in the 50) in one year.”

When Rowe took stock, with the insight she’d lacked as a high schooler, she started to assess the size of the ponds she found herself in. Now a big fish, she needed a big pond to test herself.

An international adventure

Though Sirena Rowe was born in the United States, she was raised in a Colombian family. She became a Colombian citizen at age 10, traveled to the country often in her youth and was raised in a household that spoke Spanish and kept up Colombian traditions, especially in the kitchen.

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Sirena Rowe, left, representing Colombia at the 2018 Central American and Caribbean Games Photo Courtesy: NC State Athletics

Rowe dreamt of representing Colombia in the pool from her early teenage years. But it wasn’t until she was in high school that she had any idea how to make that happen. Rowe became friends with Natalia Rincon, a Colombian swimmer who trained with SwimMac during a gap year. Through Rincon, Rowe connected with the national federation to determine what it would take to swim internationally. So during spring break her junior year of high school, Rowe went to Colombia to stay with family and join a swim club, making her eligible for national team selection.

It would take a couple more years for the calendars to align and Rowe to find a meet that would work for her training schedule, but the match has worked out well.

“I love Colombia so much,” Rowe said. “My heritage is a very big part of me, a very important part of me. So it’s been more than anything an honor to swim for them. I love all my teammates. I like getting to train with them in different places. I think it definitely has increased my ties to the country. It’s been what’s given me the opportunity to visit different places more than anything else.

“I definitely sometimes still feel like an outsider because I’m a lot taller than a lot of people there, I’m a lot lighter-skinned than a lot of people there. But I think the pride that everybody takes in me representing the country, they don’t even care that I’m not necessarily born there, and that makes me feel more welcome than anything else. I think that’s a special part.”

Rowe swam at both the World Championships and Pan Ams last year. She finished 45th in the 100 free and 31st in the 50 butterfly at Worlds, then 11th in the 100 free at Pan Ams and 14th in the 50 free prelims before withdrawing from the B final.

Rowe is closest to an Olympic cut in the 50 free, having been 25.49 (the B cut is 25.51) in 2018. She’s about a second slower than the B cut in the 100 free. Before COVID-19 derailed the 2020 season, Rowe had planned to follow up NCAAs with a trip to Canadian Olympic Trials in March.

Into the big pond

Sirena Rowe cops to feeling imposter syndrome that, in retrospect, seems wholly understandable. After her fabulous freshman campaign at Marshall, Rowe gained entry to the NCAA’s upper crust. When she looked into transferring to a bigger program, NC State became a match.

Rowe’s transition into the bigger pond was an adjustment, a natural consequence of going from the fastest swimmer at Marshall to just one of the group in NC State’s loaded sprint ranks. It took time to get over that sensation, that someone might realize the girl with offers from George Washington and Marshall didn’t belong at NC State. But with time, of which Rowe had plenty thanks to her transfer redshirt year, those qualms quieted. Being part of the collective mindset at NC State, where head coach Braden Holloway emphasizes being elite and dreaming big, was a big part.

“The team when I got here was so cool, the energy was so cool, and it was so unreal that I was surrounded by such great swimmers,” Rowe said. “And I think it was probably better for me that I redshirt that I didn’t instantly feel that pressure to have to set goals compared to the other goals and have them compete with me when I haven’t been in a big program for that long.”

It didn’t hurt that Nigro followed soon after. Now the head coach at Army, Nigro left Marshall for NC State, spending two seasons as a sprint coach there, a consistent voice in training.

The results have followed. Rowe finaled in all three events at the ACC Championships as a sophomore, finishing as high as seventh in the 50 free. She swam at NCAAs in the 200 medley and 200 free relays, both of which set ACC records. Rowe was part of Wolfpack medley relays that were seeded first and third at last spring’s cancelled NCAAs, earning All-American status.

“As good as she’s gotten and as far as she’s come, there’s no doubt that there’s more in her,” Nigro said. “I’ve gotten to know her very well and I’ve gotten to know her family very well, and who knows what’s going to happen this year, but she definitely has more upside left in the short pool and the long pool.”

Rowe’s nuanced journey is particularly valuable in uncertain times. She’ll turn 23 next spring, having seen plenty of the swimming world. The way she’s internalized so many portions of her journey turns them into wisdom she can share, a leader not just in the pool but a resource for younger teammates navigating the COVID-19 pandemic. The Wolfpack are back in training on campus, but what the season may look like is unknown.

Through the pandemic, Rowe has adopted what she calls her “24-hour zone.” The long-term goals – NCAAs, Olympics – remain on the horizon. But with so much out of anyone’s control, she’s worked hard to narrow her short-term focus on what she can control.

“I’ve been very productive not thinking too much about the future,” she said. “I have my hopes and I don’t want to change those, but I think I’m investing most of my energy in staying in the moment and staying present and making myself available for any teammates that need it. I’m there to remind them that everyone’s going through this right now, we’re not alone, our experiences are valid and that it’s OK to be upset, it’s OK to be frustrated but to not let that take away from the fact that we’re as a team all back on campus and we’re training, even if it’s not at the level we want to be … and we’re going to make the most of it.”

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Russell Rowe
1 year ago

Awesome!

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CJ Knight
1 year ago
Reply to  Russell Rowe

Bravo Sirena! You represent well.

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Paige Bower

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Claudia Herrera
1 year ago

Way to go Sirena! Making us proud with every dive! ❤️

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Sweet T
1 year ago

Fantastic young lady and fantastic swimmer much more ahead of her

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1 year ago

Aden Boozell

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Mía Hirsch Family
1 year ago

The Sky’s the Limit Sirenita…We are INCREDIBLY PROUD OF YOU!!

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Anonymous
1 year ago

Awesomeness!!!Wonderful Family!!!❤️

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Coach Tim
1 year ago

Rowe you make us proud! Great to share a little time on deck with you.