By Caroline Kleiner
Teevyah Yuva Raju is not one to sit back and let others dictate her fate. A self-described “adrenaline junkie,” Yuva Raju seeks out challenges across all walks of life and conquers them.
Yuva Raju is a student-athlete at Cornell University, but she’s more than just an athlete. She’s an agricultural innovator, a nationally ranked debater, a former Global Teen Leader, a woman of color, an immigrant, and an advocate for food security and diversity in sports. After transferring from UC Davis to Cornell for her sophomore year, she decided to try her hand at something new: men’s heavyweight rowing.
GoodSport caught up with Teevyah to discuss her journey as a walk-on coxswain for the Cornell men’s heavyweight rowing team, her internationally recognized agriculture research, and increasing opportunities for more people of color in rowing.
What was it like joining the men’s heavyweight rowing team at Cornell? How did you come across this opportunity?
I met one of my teammates the summer before going to Cornell and he had noticed my height, the way that I spoke, and my interest in being a coxswain, and he told me to just go for it. I’m not afraid of challenges and I love taking on risks. So when I heard, “Oh, you’re taking on this challenge of going to a new school but also at the same time figuring out if you can be on the rowing team?” I thought, “Oh, why not? Why not take on a new challenge?”
I decided two weeks after we had talked that I would send an email out to the coaches. I didn’t really expect anything back because I knew that there were already recruited coxswains on the team. But, when I got an email back, I reached out to my teammate and said, “No way, the coaches emailed me!”
What is your job as a coxswain?
There’s a common misconception that all coxswains do is yell, “Row!” at their rowers. We’re in charge of race strategy and during practices we’re in charge of practice strategy. We call out the proper improvements for each of our rowers’ techniques on the water and when they’re on the erg, which is what a majority of our practices have been this season because of COVID. Being a coxswain is also about being their biggest motivator on the water and strategist. The role entails a lot, and you have to be very enthusiastic and really self-driven.
Why did you join the men’s team?
For me, it wasn’t really a choice. The teammate I had met was on the men’s team, and I said, “Okay, why not reach out to the men’s coaches?” There wasn’t really a distinction of being more comfortable with women. It was just a matter of, “I don’t mind.” I knew that I would be successful using my voice on either team. It just so happened that I joined the men’s team. I have older brothers that are very protective now, which I enjoy and like. But breaking into it was not easy.
What were your first impressions of the team, and what was it like getting to know everyone?
I walked into the boat house not knowing what to expect. I had never seen a group of rowers row on the erg before. Right in front of me, there were over 50 guys, just pulling, super strong. My first practice was at 6 a.m., and it was a 5K. So they were all going really hard to get their best time on the erg. That’s what really drew me in. The amount of strength, the power that they had, the endurance; I could sense that the room was a very strong one and powerful in terms of the guys knowing what they were doing.
I never felt like an outsider, even though it was my first day. My job was to get to know everyone and it was time to make myself known. My biggest challenge wasn’t fitting in, it was figuring out everyone’s names and how to not mix them up! There wasn’t really a barrier, although I’m sure that it was different for everyone, having a walk-on. I never felt that way— it was just about how am I going to keep going, how am I going to learn how to do this, how am I going to ensure that I can be the best coxswain for them?
Though I felt welcomed, it was definitely intimidating at first to walk into a room full of huge guys who already knew each other from the previous seasons. There was a learning curve, but I think that learning curve comes with anything new you take on. For me, it’s just been about putting in that extra effort to make sure I understand the sport, but also understanding my teammates’ needs and how much they want to succeed.
There was another coxswain on the team when I joined named Katherine Hintlian. She was the only other female coxswain on the team when I walked on. I definitely looked up to her as a role model. The guys trusted her and everything she said, they would do. She’s the reason I could walk onto the team and knew it wouldn’t be any different if I was a guy or a girl coxswain.
Do you work with the same athletes on a daily basis or do you rotate throughout the whole team?
We rotate throughout the whole team. Usually when we walk into the boat house, in a pre-COVID season, we have our line-ups listed with the coxswains at the top and the rowers they will be working with. More likely than not, you’ll always have a different group of rowers. That gets you used to who you’re working with within the boat, and it forces you to have a familiarity for their senses because then you know exactly which teammate needs to improve what and how you’re going to get them there. You have to have a very large memory in terms of knowing who needs what help, where they can improve, and how you can strategize for them. I like that system; it allows you to get to know your teammates’ different techniques better as well.
Have you competed yet?
I actually haven’t competed because the season was canceled, which was really devastating for all of us. Also, practices were canceled. Being a walk-on coxswain meant that I didn’t have as much time on the water, which is something that I was looking forward to. We didn’t get a chance to row in the nice, warmer conditions, though we did row in the freezing cold. So, I have not competed yet, but it just lights a fire in me that when we’re able to get on the water, I’m going to do everything I can to prove to my guys that we’re going to be able to win races once we start again.
Did you face any administrative obstacles in joining the men’s team?
There was generally no confusion, but sometimes getting gear for the team, there could be some questions, or with the locker rooms. But these issues are really minor. The confusion mostly comes from people at school, those not in the athletic community who ask, “You can do that?” There are a lot of judgements and thoughts that are made immediately, such as, “How do you deal with that many guys on a daily basis for so many hours a day?” Everyone always spits that out because they’re so in shock. But I honestly enjoy it, and I think that working with the guys is such a privilege and an honor because they’re so talented.
Given your limited time on the water, how did you build up trust with the rowers as a coxswain?
When you’re off the water, you have time to do necessary team-building and skill improvement. Also, we’re always doing everything together. After practice, we all go to have breakfast, and then at lunch, I’ll run into my teammates and sit with them. After second practice, we all have dinner together. These are perfect moments to talk to my teammates one-on-one, to get to know what their academic schedules look like and learn about the kind of pressures they’re facing so I can know if they’re having a harder week. That can translate onto the water. I have to figure out how to ensure that on the water we have focus and a clean slate. Getting to know my teammates and getting to know their backgrounds can perfectly segway into understanding what they want to do within the next week, what their goals are for the next month, what time they might want to hit on their 5K or 2K. Those conversations just all flow naturally, and I think that’s how you build trust.
It’s also about demonstrating in my actions that I’m all about them. I make sure to come to practice on time— that I carry my notebook with me and jot down notes so that they can see that not only am I talking about it, but I’m making an effort to dedicate myself to this sport and ensure that they see my commitment as well.
What is it like being a woman of color on the men’s rowing team?
Minorities are historically underrepresented in rowing. When I walk into spaces within the rowing community, sometimes no one looks like me. I’m an immigrant (from Malaysia). I am also from a lower socioeconomic background, whereas rowers are often very affluent and had different upbringings than I did. It’s important for me to have those discussions with my coaches, in terms of what we can do to break these barriers for people within my community and in other communities to get people into rowing. What can we do, as an elite institution, to go into communities and begin setting up funds for these students? Can we possibly set up a bus system that goes and picks students up from their houses, takes them to practice, and brings them back because their parents are probably working? Can we set up a scholarship fund so that these students have access to be able to buy gear, to support their clubs and their rowing teams? These are ideas that we’ve brainstormed, and I want to ensure that I can see more people like me and that kids are able to look up to me and say, “If she can do it, I can do it too.”
I’m very lucky that my coaches have been active in that discussion, questioning what we can do to make these spaces more equitable, diverse, and inclusive. I always say it has to be more of a bottom-up effect because we have to start younger. We’ve got to be able to go into these communities and start shifting things there so that when they grow older, my coaches can pick from a diverse class of recruits, rather than a class of recruits that all look the same.
Drawing on your other experiences competing in speech and debate and Brazilian jiu-jitsu, did these activities help prepare you for joining the men’s heavyweight rowing team?
These experiences are the reason I wanted to be a competitive athlete in college. I realized I wanted to apply my debate skills outside of debate. I learned about perseverance, motivation, and analytical skills. Debate gave me the courage to step into any room and know that I provide value and can speak intelligently.
My background in jiu-jitsu and basketball, in addition to synchronized swimming when I was in elementary and middle school, have taught me how to work on a team, to understand and be empathetic of my teammates’ needs, and how to be hardworking. It has taught me to be a teammate in every single sense.
How do you balance being a student and an athlete?
Academics have always been important to me. Even my coaches make sure to highlight academics first, then family, then team. It’s really about finding that balance and knowing how to time manage. From the first week of practice, it was a question of how to balance practice in the morning, school, practice in the evening, and the 3-4 hours of downtime at the end of the day. I have three separate planners, and Apple Reminders is my best friend. After I schedule my academic planner, my athletic planner, and my freetime planner, I look all of them over and make sure that I have time to schedule for my friends and family. Because I’m an immigrant, I always say my friends are my family, because I have no one else here in the United States but my immediate family. Ensuring that my community feels supported is something that is important to me.
I had always been someone who could operate on a really low amount of sleep. But now, I’m really feeling the effects of needing to get six to eight hours of sleep. I have to make that change from sleeping four to five hours a day to ensuring that I get six to eight hours. That means looking at my schedule and breaking it down— how can I make sure to get enough sleep and spend time with everyone?
My motto is, “it’s a grind.” I wouldn’t have these opportunities if I was back in Malaysia. So many systemic injustices are in place that would have prevented me from succeeding within Malaysia that my family had to leave. My mom left her job to come to the United States to raise me and she knew no one but my father. We had no community here, no support. That experience teaches you to chase after the American Dream and that’s why I’m getting the opportunities I am now. It’s just about that one door that opens— you have to be shamelessly persistent.
You witnessed the devastating drought and wildfires of 2015 in California. How did that affect you and can you tell us about AgCure?
In 2015, California was in the middle of the most severe drought the state had undergone. The state was losing billions of dollars, and as the world’s seventh largest economy, farmers, companies, and the government soon became worried. On the radio, I heard farmers stating that they were getting outsourced water from states drier than ours such as Arizona and Nevada; yet no matter the amount of water they used their plants were still dying in mass quantities. So, I thought to myself, ‘Why is no one thinking about this problem from the ground up?’
As a freshman in high school I had basic knowledge of soil properties; thus, I visited farms and museums with soil exhibits, so I could get hands on experiences in a way that was fundamental to the beginning of my project. This crucial knowledge allowed me to begin conducting various soil tests on 6 soils that were representative of California’s soils. I determined soil structure, compaction, and water retention using tools I had at home. I grew over 50+ tomato plants in my backyard imitating drought conditions and found concrete results that would affect the way farmers would handle this drought. Thus, with droughts affecting farmers worldwide, famine was only getting worse.
With 795 million people suffering from hunger, food security has always been my biggest goal. I knew that my project would be aimed to create an organic formula that would eradicate disease, support farmers, and keep everyone nourished. After 3 years of testing hundreds of plants, researching soil composition, water retention, and disease at UC Davis. I found a flaw in the soil classification technique farmers use and created a digital system that displays which soil components farmers should use and cut water usage by half.
AgCure has won numerous local, national, and international awards. After presenting my research at The USDA Headquarters in Washington, DC I used my platform to connect with farmers not only in the US, but in regions such as Africa, India, and Malaysia. For my efforts I was named the National Girl Innovator in 2017, a Global Teen Leader in 2019, and I presented on AgCure and agricultural technologies at Google. I also just had a Micro-Documentary about my research released by Make a Change World and IBM.
What advice might you have for other students, rising female athletes, or rising female athletes of color who are entering uncharted waters like you have?
Don’t be afraid to be headstrong. Very often, women are told that they’re over confident. When I was in middle school, I was told that I was overconfident and I saw a confidence change within myself, and I’ve worked hard to build that back up. Just because people are scared of your voice, or they think you’re too bossy does not mean that you are. Believe in yourself because once you do, others will believe in you. Remember your worth and your value.
When I was growing up, there was no one like me in the media that I could look up to. There was no one Malaysian, in the United States, breaking barriers. I hope that I can be that kind of person to younger girls. I just want to be that pillar that they can always come to no matter what.
Photo Credit: Photos by Kevin McCarthy, courtesy of Teevyah Yuva Raju
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