Standing at 5-foot-2 as a female coxswain, Teevyah Yuva Raju isn’t quite the person that many would picture as a student-athlete on the Cornell men’s heavyweight rowing team.
A self-described overachiever, the junior’s foray into Division I athletics is her latest pursuit in a long and distinguished background.
Born in a rural Malaysian village, Yuva Raju immigrated to the Sacramento area early in her youth. Even from a young age, Yuva Raju found herself involved in a bevy of activities, including a tremendous stint in speech and debate.
“I have been heavily involved in activities, but my biggest activity was speech and debate,” Yuva Raju said. “I was on the national team since I was in high school, and in middle school, I was very competitive … I’ve always been very into evaluating strategy, understanding what I can do when I’m presented with different options, taking risks and also working with a team — I think that’s the biggest thing.”
Speech and debate only represented the tip of the iceberg for Yuva Raju. In addition, she was also an accomplished basketball player and received several medals at the statewide level for Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. But Yuva Raju’s biggest pursuit has garnered acclaim on the national stage and has the potential to revolutionize the field of agriculture.
During her freshman year of high school, Yuva Raju witnessed the devastating 2014 California drought that wreaked havoc on the state’s farms. Through AgCure, she came up with a two-pronged solution for farmers that helped them both analyze soil as well as apply an organic compound to prevent and eradicate diseases in crops.
“I was like, ‘Why aren’t we looking at this problem from the ground up?’” Yuva Raju recalled. “The product started with soil analysis in my garage … and eventually, I began doing research at the University of California, Davis, and the idea took off from there.”
For her innovation, Yuva Raju has earned national recognition in the form of presentations to the United States Department of Agriculture and Google as well as being named National Girl Innovator in 2016. With AgCure’s rapid acceleration, Yuva Raju, a first-generation student, was told that she could drop out of school to continue growing her project, but she never considered that as an option.
“Pursuing an education was not a question,” Yuva Raju explained. “My grandmother has no formal education, and my grandfather dropped out of school when he was in third grade. My dad and my mom came to the United States to give me a better life, and the ultimate goal was this success of college.”
When college application season rolled around, Yuva Raju received the guaranteed transfer option to Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. After attending the University of California, Davis for her freshman year, Yuva Raju prepared to depart for Cornell.
“Cornell was a school that I dreamt of for years,” Yuva Raju said. “When I got in officially, it was the craziest day of my life because I got in that morning at 6 a.m., and I was getting ready to speak to legislators at the Capitol about the University of California budget system.”
At a Cornell send-off event, Yuva Raju’s plans to join the men’s heavyweight rowing team were set into motion. While she was attending the event, she met then-rising freshman Robert James Robinson II, who encouraged her to get involved with crew.
“We were talking, and he noticed my height and was like, ‘Have you ever thought about being a coxswain?’” Yuva Raju recounted. “I always wanted to do it through middle school and through high school. But because I was traveling for sports and for debate, I had never had the opportunity to be in an area long enough.”
As soon as Yuva Raju arrived at Cornell, the opportunity materialized as she reached out to coaches and ended up walking on to the men’s heavyweight team. Even as a newcomer to both the University and the sport, Yuva Raju was welcomed with open arms.
“Not only was I taking on a new school, … I was now taking on an entire sport and rowing at the collegiate level — they’re a D-1 team, and they’re all boys,” Yuva Raju said. “To be a 5’2” coxswain and walk into a room full of 6’4”, 6’5”, 200-lb guys is no easy feat. One of the best things about them was that they were so welcoming and so kind. I say every day that I do it for the boys — quite literally.”
One of the biggest adjustments Yuva Raju made was sharpening her time management. Having to wake up at 5 a.m. and possess the stamina for five to six hours of practice during the week is a very daunting feat, but it was one that Yuva Raju was prepared for.
“Waking up at 5 a.m. just means that I go to sleep at 10:30 p.m.,” Yuva Raju said. “It all just boils down to routine and discipline. You need to make sure you’re taking care of yourself, going to class, eating the correct food, finishing your homework and going to sleep. And you need the discipline to follow that routine.”
Academically, Yuva Raju also experienced a transition. Initially aspiring to double major in International Agriculture and Rural Development in CALS and Industrial and Labor Relations, Yuva Raju was told that she couldn’t simultaneously complete both majors.
Having always had an interest in public policy, Yuva Raju’s goal has been to help workers in the agricultural sector by equipping them with the knowledge of their rights. After pursuing a major in IARD during her sophomore year, Yuva Raju, now a junior, has switched into ILR and taken up a minor in Food and Agricultural Business.
While juggling academics and extracurriculars, Yuva Raju was also learning to become a coxswain. Many people have misconceptions about what coxswains actually do in the boat. But as Yuva Raju explains, the job entails far more than shouting orders at her teammates.
“It requires a lot of trust,” Yuva Raju said. “Think of it as pushing a shopping cart. I’m at the front of the boat — they’re all facing me, so they’re facing backward as they row. There are two rudders, so if I push a rudder forward, the boat turns.”
But unlike a shopping cart, the boat’s movements are delayed and contingent on the number of strokes by the rowers. Plus, the boat is gliding on a frictionless surface, putting the onus on the coxswain to steer and direct the boat. It is also the coxswain’s duty to attain synchronization with the other rowers in the boat, a task that requires a significant amount of team chemistry.
Despite the steep learning curve, it was important for Yuva Raju to stay the course with crew. According to Yuva Raju, the dropout rate among walk-on coxswains is quite high and as a Malaysian woman, she is already underrepresented in a sport that is traditionally dominated by wealthier, white populations on the East Coast.
“If you count the number of people of color that are rowing, there are so, so few,” Yuva Raju said. “As a woman of color, it is so important that we represent diversity and inclusion on the team.”
In the fall, Yuva Raju was still learning the ropes, so she took on a supportive role as competition took place.
“I got to support my teammates in other ways like helping them prepare, talking to them one-on-one before and after races and getting to support them as they were out racing,” Yuva Raju said. “I did other administrative stuff during races. I think I needed those steps … because I truly learned to admire the sport as I now have this appreciation for seeing my teammates in action.”
Before Yuva Raju could even hit the ground running in the spring, the COVID-19 pandemic eliminated any possibility of spring competition and resulted in an exodus of students, including Yuva Raju.
“Personally, it was tough,” Yuva Raju said. “I had eight hours of notice before I was flying home. California’s cases were rising incredibly fast, and we thought the borders were going to close. My parents called me really late at night and told me that I was flying home that morning at 8 a.m. … As someone who is immunocompromised, my family did not take COVID lightly.”
“The spring was when I was finally going to be able to show off the skills that I had been learning,” Yuva Raju added. “My first [reaction] was devastation, not for myself, but purely for my teammates … The seniors were the people who took me under the wing — the senior coxswains really taught me so much. To see them not have a season — along with the senior rowers — it’s devastating because it’s something you work your entire athletic career for. They wanted to go out with a bang.”
While the team could not compete this past season, Yuva Raju’s improvement was evident during one practice in the spring. While her boat was in the middle of Cayuga Lake, it began pouring rain, and with the adrenaline flowing, Yuva Raju successfully navigated the team back to shore with both her and her teammates rowing at their best and putting their complete faith in each other.
“I thought that it was definitely symbolic for me,” Yuva Raju said. “It was just really molding all of the knowledge that I learned.”
In the COVID-19 era, the men’s heavyweight team is unable to partake in athletic competition and is also barred from practicing. Despite the limitations on in-person activities, Yuva Raju and the team remain in touch and are also maintaining their fitness in the hope of a normal spring season. Even in this unexpected off-season, Yuva Raju is still seeking growth as a coxswain.
“We’re always learning,” Yuva Raju said. “Knowledge is something that we’re never going to stop gaining. Practice doesn’t make perfect — I think practice makes progress.”
Not only has Yuva Raju emerged with massive respect for the “student-athlete grind” as well as a heightened sense of discipline, but she has also found a family of 57 teammates whom she loves like brothers.
“They’re my best friends,” Yuva Raju said. “Just the fact that you have these guys who care so much about you and go out of their way for you, it’s something I’m very fond of, and I’m so lucky for that — they’re my role models.”