Heidi Robbins ’13, left, at the 2015 World Championships
Heidi Robbins ’13, left, at the 2015 World Championships
Erik Dresser/row2k.com

When Heidi Robbins ’13 was in fifth grade, she was asked to describe her “dreams, hopes, and aspirations” in a note to herself. She wrote that she wanted to represent the United States on the Olympic equestrian team. 

As Robbins grew older, however, she found that she liked — and excelled at — many things. In addition to horseback riding, there were lacrosse and Nordic skiing, science and the humanities. Deciding what to pursue became confusing.

After arriving at Princeton in the fall of 2009, Robbins felt like just another well-rounded minnow in a sea of talent. The science classes seemed intimidating, the dining halls unwelcoming, and the professors distant. She desperately wanted someone to take an interest in her development and show her how to make the most of her talents. And then she found rowing.

Princeton’s coaches pulled her aside at the freshman activities fair in Dillon Gym, where they were scouting for talent, and told the tall, athletic Robbins that she was destined to row. She soon discovered that rowing was, in some ways, the perfect blend of lacrosse and horseback riding. From lacrosse, she had learned to communicate visually with her teammates, and from horseback riding, she had learned to intuit the movements of her horse. Now on the boat, Robbins found her teammates spoke with their backs and shoulders and stayed in sync by sensing each other’s oar strokes.

Robbins became “a terror behind the oar,” said Lori Dauphiny, head coach of women’s open rowing. By 2011, the sophomore star was sitting “engine room” in the middle of the Princeton varsity women’s eight when the Tigers upset California to win the main event at the NCAA Championships. “Heidi was a force in that boat,” Dauphiny said, adding that her intensity “kept that crew honest.”

As Robbins’ commitment to rowing increased, so too did her confidence in other areas of her life. She said that science classes, for example, no longer seemed so intimidating. She chose to major in ecology and evolutionary biology, with an eye toward attending medical school.

Since graduation, Robbins has trained with the U.S. National Team, and last September she stroked the women’s eight to an unprecedented 10th consecutive world championship. At the beginning, she was careful to avoid saying she was training for the 2016 Olympics, which seemed far away. Only recently, now that she’s so close, has Robbins started acknowledging her fifth-grade dream again.