When Michael Bentz approached Gia Doonan at Tabor Academy eight years ago, she had no idea the conversation might lead to her being named the NCAA Woman of the Year, and she certainly didn’t expect it to potentially land her in the Olympics.
Doonan was born in Wareham and grew up in Fairhaven, and was a Blue Devil her freshman year, playing basketball and earning Standard-Times Super Team honors in track as a triple jumper, high jumper and 400 runner, before transferring to Tabor.
That’s when Bentz, the school’s crew coach since 1999, spotted the lanky 6-footer.
“He picked me out and said, ‘You’d probably do well at rowing, you’re tall,’” she recalled recently while home for a Fourth of July holiday.
Her first rowing experience came during a spring training camp in Austin, Texas, following her first year at Tabor. She immediately took to it.
“It was something so different,” she said. “It’s a sport unlike any other. As soon as I started rowing, I was like ‘This is cool.’”
Just like that, the road to a world record, an NCAA Woman of the year nomination, two gold medals in the Under-23 World Rowing Championships and a spot on the U.S. National Team was paved.
Doonan is one of 544 nominees for the NCAA Woman of the Year award, which sounds like a lot — and is, in fact, a 27-year record — but includes all graduating female student-athletes from all sports and all three divisions. The winner will be announced Oct. 22 in Indianapolis after being whittled down to a Top 30.
“Oh, I was surprised,” Doonan said of opening up the email that informed her she was nominated. “I read what it takes and thought ‘This is cool.’ I was pretty flattered.”
Doonan’s qualifications are plentiful. She is a two-time Big 12 Rower of the Year, a three-time All-American, a three-time Big 12 champion, a four-time All-Big 12 First Team member and a two-time Academic All-Big 12 member.
And to think it wasn’t until her sophomore year of high school that she started considering rowing in college over playing basketball.
While at Tabor, Doonan helped the Seawolves to a pair of fifth-place finishes at the All-New England Championships. She also led the Tabor girls basketball team to a pair of Class A New England Prep School titles.
“I loved (basketball) but I probably wouldn’t get into as good a school as I wanted to go to,” she said. “I was a little better at rowing and it gave me the opportunity to look at big, public schools.”
Doonan chose Texas in large part because of its renowned kinesiology program. She quickly made her way onto the Varsity 8 boat.
“It was pretty sweet, I wasn’t expecting to do that,” she said. “It was a good experience. It was pretty exciting.”
She finished the season by being named All-Big 12 First Team and placing fourth at the Big 12 Championship with her Varsity 8 crew.
It was a solid start to a successful collegiate career, but things really took off for Doonan when a new coach arrived the following season to help launch her career to new heights.
The new coach was Dave O’Neill and he arrived with a championship pedigree, winning NCAA titles with California in 2005 and 2006, plus a pair of runner-up showings in 2013 and 2014, giving him 12 top-four finishes in 16 seasons with the Bears.
“We took off as a program,” Doonan said. “It was unreal. We went from being unranked and finishing fourth at Big 12s to being ranked 12th in the country and going to NCAAs.”
The Longhorns finished that season fourth at the NCAA championships, the best finish in program history, and Doonan was named the Big 12’s Rower of the Year.
“That was pretty sweet,” she said. “With rowing, it’s all about the team. It’s not about one person. Everyone crosses the finish line together. It was kind of surprising I was picked. I saw it as we all did well.”
Doonan rows in the sixth seat, which is the third spot back from the coxswain and a spot historically considered the “engine room” where teams would put their strongest rower, similar to the cleanup spot in baseball. She credited O’Neill’s high standards for her early successes.
“He never changed his standard of what good was,” she said. “He wanted us to be good not just for Texas, but for the nation. If we ever did well, he was like ‘That was pretty good.’ All season we would try to reach that.”
After a seventh-place finish at the NCAA Championships as a junior — losing in the semifinals by .09 seconds — the Longhorns were back in the finals this spring, with the Varsity 8 boat placing fourth to help Texas take fourth as a team — including the Second 8 and Varsity 4 — marking the first time the Longhorns had reached the podium.
“The senior class wanted it to be the best year yet, so we knew we needed everyone on board,” Doonan said. “I think as a senior class we were just all in. Everyone on the team had to do their own job, their own part. It was good because the whole year it was always about the team. We won as a team.”
While the championship was team-wide, Doonan was once again flooded with individuals awards, including her second Big 12 Rower of the Year honor.
The summer before her senior year, Doonan joined the U.S. Women’s Straight 8 and Straight 4 (similar to Varsity 8 and Varsity 4) boats at the 2016 World Rowing Under-23 Championships in the Netherlands, where she won gold in both events, breaking a world record in the Straight Four.
“We were really fast,” she said. “We were really far ahead, even by 1,000 (meters, the halfway mark). But we didn’t know we broke a world record.”
That performance earned Doonan an invitation to start training with the U.S. Women’s National Team this summer. She joined the team in New Jersey to train two or three times a day and live with a host family.
“I’m surrounded by the best rowers in the world,” she said. “I’ve just been quiet and asking questions if I need to. Just small, everyday things. Where do you do this? How do you do this? It’s amazing to be rowing alongside them and practicing next to them. I’m not really there yet. I realized how much work I have to do.”
The National Team is training for the World Championships this fall, around the same time Doonan could be named the NCAA’s Woman of the Year.
It’s a good thing Bentz said something.
Follow Brendan Kurie on Twitter @BrendanKurieSCT