Taking the World Stage

By the time Gemma Wollenschlaeger reached high school, she had given up her love for sports. She tried every sport imaginable, but ultimately lost interest or was cut, resulting in her deciding to quit entirely.

She spent the next year watching Netflix and feeling sorry for herself, but her passion never faded. 

Simultaneously, Wollenschlaeger discovered a local rowing club. She gave it a try, and quickly fell in love. Five years later, she’s preparing to compete in the 2024 Paris Paralympic Games. 

“I realized all these people were giving it their all, and they were my kind of people,” Wollenschlaeger said. “The next day, I got in the boat, and the feeling of using my body to move the boat in synchronization with the people in the boat was an amazing experience.”

Before she was born, Wollenschlaeger was diagnosed with a left clubfoot, a condition where the foot is twisted out of place. She went through multiple surgeries and hours of physical therapy just to be able to walk.

Wollenschlaeger’ can’t walk for more than 15 minutes, which affects her athletic abilities, but she could row with no limits. Wollenschlaeger was a natural and earned national recruiting recognition. 

When she brought Wollenshlaeger in, Temple head coach Rebecca Grzybowski was more intrigued by her attitude than skills.

“She was definitely not the fastest recruit in the class, and she did not have a ton of race experience,” Grzybowski said. “What stuck out to me was her attitude. She was so invested in the idea of high performance and wanting to get better.”

Grzybowski was unaware of Wollenschlaeger’s clubfoot, but Wollenschlaeger was upfront about it. She offered alternatives to keep up with the team, like riding her bike while they ran. She convinced Grzybowski she was fit for the Owls, and Wollenschlaeger committed to Temple in 2020.

The junior has excelled at Temple. She was named first-team all-American Athletic Conference in 2023 and led the varsity eight to a third-place finish in the conference championships. 

“She just keeps improving, there is never any doubt of how well she’s going to perform,” said teammate Amarna Milne. “She shows up, gives 100 percent and that’s what has led to her success.”

Wollenschlaeger’s success earned her a spot on the US Paralympic Rowing roster, and she has competed in both Serbia and France. She didn’t stop there, earning a silver medal at the World Championships and gaining experience before joining the Paralympic roster.

Earning a spot on the Paralympic Rowing roster was once unfathomable to Wollenschlaeger. She entered the selection camp on Jan. 4, and her dream became a reality when she was selected at the end of camp. 

“As a kid,” Wollenschlaeger said. “I always watched the Olympics and think, ‘I wish I could be like them, and I wish I was good at sports.’ After going through every sport, finding rowing and getting to that level is an awesome achievement. It means the world to me, and it’s something I will never forget.”

Wollenschlaeger will be competing in the PR3 mixed four with coxswain and has her eyes set on a gold medal, but she also wants to use the Paralympics to bring awareness to disabilities.

The paralympian hid her clubfoot initially but began seeing it as a gift after discovering rowing. She hopes to be a role model to others with disabilities and help them develop that same confidence.

“Embrace it,” Wollenschlaeger said. “You were given this awesome challenge and you should make that challenge into this amazing opportunity to run to the stars with.”

Mackenzie Miller
Mackenzie Miller
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