Playing sports always has been more than just fun and games for Taylor Branstool.
It also has helped the 2012 Johnstown-Monroe High School graduate build relationships outside the realm of competition.
Branstool, who played softball for the Johnnies, figured her days as an athlete in a team sport were over after high school and, before heading off to Ohio State as a pre-med major, she wasn't sure how she would build friendships without playing a sport. But during freshman orientation, she found her social network -- the women's rowing team.
"Why rowing and not something like fencing?" said Branstool, who had no previous experience in rowing. "The fencing team never asked me to join. During orientation, I saw a flier about the (rowing) team looking for new rowers. I went to the 'Involvement Fair' and I thought I would give it a shot.
"Going to such a big college after going to a school the size of Johnstown, I wanted to keep some consistency. I had been on teams my entire life and I had no idea whether I would even have any friends. I thought here's a way to keep some consistency in my life and also help out with school because it would help me to prioritize my free time and keep a daily schedule."
Branstool worked her way into a boat and helped Ohio State win its fourth consecutive Big Ten Conference title May 19 at Eagle Creek Park in Indianapolis. On June 2, the Buckeyes won their first national title at the same venue.
"It was great to be a part of the Big Ten championship because they take five varsity boats and two novice boats to the meet," Branstool said. "They don't take novice (boats) to the national championships. That's something I can work toward for next year."
Hard work was a key component in Branstool working her way into a novice boat. The novice status is given to non-scholarship athletes, normally freshmen, and novice rowers don't have their names listed on the team's roster.
"It's not only my job to recruit athletic-minded people, but to get them ready to move up (as second-year rowers) with the juniors and seniors on the varsity team," said Chuck Rodosky, an Ohio State assistant rowing coach who works with novice rowers. "It will be another step up to get to varsity from novice. I'm all about earning things and not just giving things away. (The novice rowers) have to earn their way into boats and, by the time they get to varsity, they aren't expecting things. They know they have to earn things."
Rodosky said there is more to rowing than just getting in a boat and sculling an oar through the water.
"(To be a rower), it takes someone with an athletic background who wants to represent the university as a varsity athlete," he said. "Height can be helpful, but it's not a means to an end. Given the choice of a (6-foot-2) girl who is lazy and someone who is 5-8 and works hard, I'll take the hard worker every time. It takes determination.
"(Branstool) works hard and has an athletic background. She took advantage of the opportunity that she was given."
Rodosky said he prepares novice rowers by starting with dry-land workouts such as working on technique in rowing machines and performing exercises to build an athlete's core.
"After that, they work up to learn rowing techniques on the water in a barge before working up to single boats and then (multi-rower) boats," he said. "I try to teach the techniques of rowing."
Branstool, who is 5-10, competed this spring in an eight-person boat and said the act of rowing is more about the legs than the arms.
"Because of the weight of the boat and the water resistance, it's like squatting 600 pounds every one-and-a-half seconds," she said. "There's a lot of legwork.
"In the boat, the seats are on wheels and your feet are strapped in. Our legs do most of the work, but our arms finish it off. It's mostly leg drive."
Branstool completed her freshman year with a 3.4 GPA and was named an Ohio State scholar-athlete.
"Being involved in college athletics is different because you have to balance athletics and your social life," Rodosky said. "You might not be able to go out and party on a Friday night because you have practice early Saturday morning or you might have to spend Christmas working out in Miami instead of spending it with your family. There are a lot of sacrifices you make to be a part of college athletics."
Branstool is working toward moving up from the novice level.
"Coach Rodosky and (head) coach (Andy) Teitelbaum sent out an offseason workout of things to do to get ready for next year," she said. "I've been doing a lot of work on the rowing machine and working to get better for next season.
"But the best thing about being a rower is the team atmosphere and realizing how far I can push my body. I really like the payoff. It's a pretty harsh sport and I like going and proving to the world that I can do it."