* Latest in a series of periodic stories on how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted Cal athletes in different sports

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Madison Necochea doesn't expect to change the world. Maybe just her little corner of it.

The Cal junior rower is taking an active role in supporting the Black Lives Matter movement and, tied in with that, is encouraging young people to register to vote.

“I just believe if we want to change things, like maybe how our justice system works or how it does not work, the best way to do it right now, in this moment, is to vote because this election coming up in November is so important to our democracy,” she explained.

For Necochea (rhymes with ricochet), the opportunity to pursue these social agendas came with the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown. But the impetus was George Floyd’s killing by a Minneapolis police officer on May 25.

“For one, I think the Black Lives Matter movement is important just because Black lives do matter. And that is something along with the pandemic that has also threatened our country,” she said.

“It was important to me, not only being a citizen of my broader community, but also being on the rowing team that I made sure we were able to speak out about what happened. Historically, our sport has not been very diverse. I think we need to open it up for more diversity and we need to have maybe a more inclusive environment.”

While her voter registration push has primarily consisted so far of talking with Cal crew teammates and putting up a poll on the team’s Facebook group to gauge their level of political participation, Necochea has gone farther in efforts to boost the BLM cause, as she explains in the video below.

She helped draft a statement from the Cal team, which recognizes Cal’s decades-old legacy of social protest.

“We acknowledge being part of a university that has historically been a catalyst for change, especially in times when justice and civil rights are threatened,” the statement says. “As current athletes on the team, we are committed to honoring our differences, taking action and making space for those who must be heard in the Cal Athletics and the wide Cal community.”

Here is the full statement: 

The Cal women's crew letter to their community

At the same time, Necochea felt the need to do something when the sport’s national governing body issued a statement in response to Floyd’s killing that she felt was inadequate.

“US Rowing put out this extremely tone-deaf and disappointing letter, basically saying, `We don’t know what we’re going to do,’ “ Necochea said. “It was frustrating given that our sport has such a large lack of diversity.”

So she joined with several Cal women’s rowing alums to create a letter for anyone in the sport to sign and send to the organization’s board of directors.

“We had a few demands, basically just saying they hire a more diverse staff, they put money toward diversity initiatives or money toward rowing clubs in socio-economically disadvantaged neighborhoods,” she explained. “A few days after we had sent out those letters en masse, they released a new statement that was much more appropriate.”

US Rowing’s updated, 980-word statement, issued on June 8, noted the organization’s past stated commitments while also conceding, “We got it wrong.”

“A commitment with no follow-through is not leadership. It is not action,” the statement said. “And we recognize that we have gotten it wrong for far too long. The murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and so many others before them, have initiated a long-needed national dialogue and call to action on the subject of race in our country, from which we have been notably and unacceptably absent.”

US Rowing vowed a series of changes, including reviving a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee that would become a standing board committee, reflected in a change of the organization’s by-laws.

The group also announced plans, among others, to make cultural bias and race sensitivity training mandatory for staff and board members, identify ways to provide grants to rowing clubs that are creating their own diversity and inclusion efforts, and to identify and partner with Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) programs in areas of the country that do not have rowing.

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When Necochea and her teammates on the Cal team got the news in mid-March from coach Al Acosta, the room went quiet: The COVID-19 pandemic had shut down spring sports.

"It was just heartbreaking,” Necochea recalled. “We all kind of sat in the coaches’ office and I don’t think there was a dry eye in the room. It was like we had worked all year to get to this point and . . . just like that everything kind of got taken away. It was strange because we were practicing full-force up until that day, and then it was nothing.

“Our way of life just kind of ceased.”

Necochea thinks others do have a sense of understanding what she and teammates experienced.

“Because everybody has had something taken away from them in this experience, whether it be something as horrible as a family member or something as small as a season,” she said. “In the scope of my lifetime, this season is probably going to be a small memory. But still, in the moment and looking at all the work we had done, it was pretty devastating.”

Within a couple days of the Bay Area being locked down, Necochea was back home with her family in San Diego. Her local club loaned her a rowing machine, and she kept in close contact with teammates and coaches through social media and Zoom calls.

Cultivating that closeness, even under strange circumstances was “empowering,” she explained.

Nothing replaces the feeling of actually working together as a group, chasing a goal.

“If I got a call right now from my coach saying we could go row, I would be out the door in a second. I miss it so much. I miss being on the water, I miss my teammates, I miss the feeling of doing all this hard work with all these hard workers,” she said.

“I was actually thinking about this the other day: What does it feel like to sit on a starting line, about to race again? I don’t know exactly when it will happen. But I know it will happen again.”

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Follow Jeff Faraudo of Cal Sports Report on Twitter: @jefffaraudo

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