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Grace Gibbons on the water with the St. Mark's rowing team.

Grace Gibbons left St. Mark’s School with the top athletic award in her class and a ticket to an unexpected future.

The South Kingstown resident, who will join the rowing team at UMass after starting the sport just three years ago, won the Daniel B. Fearing Prize earlier this month, an award that recognizes the top male and female athletes at the school.

“It was definitely one of the biggest accomplishments of my life,” Gibbons said. “I couldn’t believe it at first. My adviser and my hockey coach at school both won the Fearing Prize in their day. I look up to them so much. All of the people who have won it before are just extraordinary athletes and they exemplify great people too. It’s really a hard thing to accomplish. The fact that I won it – I was really honored, excited and humbled to be part of that crowd.”

Gibbons was shocked to find out that she was the winner, fitting for an athletic journey that took a surprise twist at St. Mark’s. She grew up playing hockey and soccer and had two good years in those sports at South Kingstown High School, winning a state championship in hockey with the South County Storm. She headed to the prep school ranks in part to pursue the goal of playing one of her sports at the collegiate level, likely soccer. And then rowing came along.

“It’s a sport that’s so hard and I know that I still have a lot to learn, but I’m excited to see where I can take it the next four years,” Gibbons said.

The idea of rowing in college was way off the radar when Gibbons first got into the water. She was repeating her sophomore year at St. Mark’s and was readying to try out for lacrosse in the spring, following her first soccer and hockey seasons at the Southborough, Massachusetts, school. The Lions lacrosse team is a powerhouse, and Gibbons knew she’d be in an uphill battle for playing time.

“I knew I wasn’t going to play that much and I’m the kind of athlete who really likes to be on the field,” Gibbons said. “My dorm head was the varsity girls crew coach, and she said, ‘If you don’t like lacrosse, promise me you’ll try crew.’”

Sure enough, Gibbons moved on from lacrosse to crew and liked it immediately, but there were more twists and turns to come. She’d been on the water just a few times when a back injury sidelined her for the rest of the spring season.

The next year, Gibbons planned to devote the spring season to training for soccer and hockey, but had a sudden change of heart.

“At the last minute, I called my parents and had meetings with trainer and my physical therapist and said I would do intense PT, heating and icing, stretching all that stuff and try out for crew again,” Gibbons said. “I loved the coach, a lot of my friends were on the team. It’s just so different from being on the field and the ice rink, like I had been my entire life. Being on the water was just a new opportunity. It’s something that’s really challenging.”

Gibbons got an early taste of the joy of conquering the challenge when her boat won the gold medal at the New England Interscholastic Rowing Association championship. She was hooked, and her coach saw potential.

“My dream had been college soccer my whole entire life,” Gibbons said. “But my crew coach told me not to put all my eggs in one basket. She encouraged me to reach out to college coaches and I heard back instantly from almost all of them.”

The path still wasn’t direct. Gibbons had fielded interest from soccer programs during her sophomore and junior year but admits she was stressed about the process and let some chances slip. Soccer remained a possibility into her senior year, and she was readying to visit St. Lawrence University with one of her teammates when one last twist of fate completed the push to rowing. Gibbons and her teammate were set to leave straight from a game for the college visit, but an injury suffered in that game meant her teammate couldn’t go.

“Believe it or not, when we decided we weren’t going to go on the visit, I called the UMass rowing coach like 20 minutes later and ended up committing that night,” Gibbons said.

With her plans set, Gibbons finished out successful soccer and hockey seasons. She was looking forward to gaining more rowing experience and working on her skills this spring, but the coronavirus pandemic wiped out the season.

The Fearing Prize provided a more appropriate ending for the three-sport standout. The Gibbons family watched the online award presentation from their living room. Grace’s brother, Brendan, is a standout hockey player at St. Mark’s and was also up for an award, so the show was appointment viewing for the family. Brendan won the Parker Prize for the best underclass male athlete, and Grace took top honors in the class of 2020.

“I literally jumped up and started screaming in front of all my family,” Gibbons said. “There are a lot of great athletes and competitors in my grade especially that could have won it. I was really not expecting it to be me. I was so overwhelmed with joy and pride. That’s definitely a moment I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”

Now Gibbons is looking forward to making some memories on the water. She loves the UMass program and felt comfortable with head coach Eric Carcich, who she compared to a mix of former South County Storm coach Dave Cannon and her crew coach at St. Mark’s, Liz Cavanaugh.

“Always looking out for your best interest and always trying to make you better,” Gibbons said.

It’ll be strange this fall when Gibbons isn’t breaking out her soccer cleats. She won’t spend the winter in ice rinks. But the water will provide a new adventure.

“It sounds silly, but having all four people in sync, moving the boat as fast as it’s going, it’s a feeling you can’t describe,” Gibbons said. “It’s so satisfying and you feel so accomplished in the moment. It’s different from soccer or hockey, where you’re all working together but it’s not really one motion. When you’re at the end of a race, it hurts so bad, but after, you feel so good.”

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