When she first met her coach nearly five years ago, Olivia Robinson made it clear to him that she was a novice when it came to sports.
Let’s just say Jeff Warner didn’t need much convincing.
"She didn’t look like an athlete," the longtime Western Reserve Academy head girls cross country coach said.
It’s a safe bet Warner doesn’t feel the same way now. As for his former pupil, she seems to have this athlete thing down pat.
Once an athlete, always an athlete, right? Absolutely says the two-sport standout.
Robinson recently signed to continue her academic and athletic careers at Eastern Michigan University, a public university located in Ypsilanti, Michigan.
Just like she did when she first entered high school, the former Pioneers’ distance star will be trying something new.
Robinson was recruited to be a member of the Eagles’ women’s rowing team, which is led by head coach Kemp Savage. In case you’re wondering, Robinson has never steered any kind of ship during her young life.
Sounds strikingly familiar, doesn’t it?
"I knew I wanted to play a sport in college," Robinson said. "[Eastern Michigan assistant rowing] Coach [Beatrice] Korte contacted me through email. It’s an amazing opportunity. I was stunned when it happened."
Robinson didn’t make a particularly stunning first impression on her now former coach. Not in terms of appearance, at least.
That changed rather rapidly.
"She trained like it was nobody’s business," said Warner, who started the WRA girls cross country team 34 years ago. "She transformed herself into a runner."
She did so quickly too.
By the time her freshman year came to an end, Robinson ran the fourth fastest time in school history.
She didn’t look back.
Robinson was the Pioneers’ top runner throughout her stellar career. Interestingly enough, the 5K race may have seemed more like a cross-country skiing experience in Antarctica for Robinson.
That’s because getting from Point A to Point B was a brutally slow and painful journey.
Running 5,000 meters? Forget about it.
For Robinson, 1,500 meters felt more like hiking across the entire length of the Sahara Desert.
"I ran a 13-minute mile when I first decided to run cross country," she said. "I told myself, ‘This isn’t going to do.’ I trained throughout the summer and I cut my time in half. I was running a 6:30 mile by the end of the season."
Her breakthrough helped her on the track too.
Robinson excelled in the 1,500-meter race and as a member of some distance relay teams. Unfortunately, Robinson’s senior season on the track was harshly erased because of a global pandemic. Due to a deadly respiratory tract infection known as COVID-19, the entire spring season was canceled due to mandatory lockdown orders from the government.
Eugene Thomas was heartbroken not to see his star distance runner post electrifying times during her swan song. Nevertheless, working with the steely-focused Robinson was an everlasting treat for the longtime Reserve head girls track and field coach.
"Olivia has given me ample reason to suspect that she will face the challenges of life after high school with the same determination and clear-headedness that have endeared her to so many of us who have worked with her over the years,’ Thomas said.
"What makes Olivia’s athletic trajectory so gratifying to those of us who have worked with her is the fact that she has imbued all of her success with a humility and willingness to help teammates that are refreshingly genuine.
"She is an amazing young person, one whom I recommend readily, enthusiastically and without reservation."
Although her days of working with Warner and Thomas are over, Robinson will cherish her experiences with both of those men for the rest of her life.
Thanks to these two WRA icons, Robinson can confidently label herself a certain term that was nonexistent prior to high school.
"They have been so supportive," Robinson said. "They are the best coaches anyone could ever ask for."
Just because Robinson is trying a new sport doesn’t mean she will row her boat gently down the stream. She plans to continue her rigorous training tactics for the next four years.
Robinson, who plans to major in arts and entertainment, can lean on a friend and former mentor when it comes to paddling on the lake. Former teammate Elizabeth Downing, a 2017 WRA graduate, is a member of the United States Naval Academy women’s rowing team in Annapolis, Maryland.
"She had never rowed before," Robinson said. "She is super-duper happy that I’m taking this path."
The Eagles’ rowing team, which competes in the Colonial Athletic Association, participates in a number of competitions in the fall, winter and spring.
"I think cross country and track trained me to be disciplined in terms of how I work and manage my time," Robinson said. "I’m someone who likes new challenges. It’s a perfect fit for me."
Thanks to her fierce determination, Robinson taught her former coach a valuable lesson. Perhaps a former Olympic-champion sprinter may have said it best.
"Never underestimate the power of dreams and the influence of the spirit," the late Wilma Rudolph once said.
"I took one look at her and made a snap judgement," Warner said. "I thought I knew what I was going to get. She proved me wrong every step of the way."
Reporter Frank Aceto can be reached at 330-541-9444, email@example.com or @Faceto_Gannett.