Jess Thoennes And Azja Czajkowski Hope To Inspire The Next Generation Of Female Rowers

by Lisa Costantini

(l-r) Jess Thoennes And Azja Czajkowski celebrate after winning the women's pair during the 2024 U.S. Olympic Team Trials - Rowing on Apr. 07, 2024 in Sarasota, Fla. (Photo by row2k)

Jess Thoennes is not a newbie to the Olympics. The 28-year-old was in the bow seat of the U.S. women’s eight at the Tokyo Olympics 2020. Her boat finished two seconds behind the bronze medalists to land in fourth.

Now that she’s qualified for her second Games — alongside her pair’s partner, Azja Czajkowski — she’s beginning to think about how she can potentially inspire the next generation of female rowers.

“I’d like to leave a legacy that’s even better for the women who come after me,” she shared. But “rowing is not a game of an instant. This is a long haul — a marathon kind of deal.”

Thoennes, 28, and Czajkowski, 23, thought they were nearing the finish line in March before they were both cut from the eight boat at selection camp.

“I left myself have a good cry — I think that’s important,” Thoennes said after she got the news. “But I always bet on myself and I am going to give every ounce that I can as a human being.”

And that’s exactly what the two did at the 2024 U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Team Trials — Rowing in Sarasota, FL.

The duo was tied for first at the 500-meter split before making a huge move in the second quarter of the race to take a five-second lead at the midway point — ultimately winning by seven seconds.

“Jess and I talked a lot about having a really strong middle so a lot of the last 500 meters was being borderline blackout and just trying to make sure I was putting my blade in the water at the same time as her,” Czajkowski said. “We wanted to make sure that we got a lot of clearance and then just had a clean race.”

New to the senior team — having only served as an alternate at the 2023 World Rowing Championships — Czajkowski will make her Olympic debut this summer.

Even though the pair had only been training together for less than two weeks, they felt prepared heading into trials.

“I said to myself, I have the prep and I have all the things that I need to do and if I execute and somebody beats me then they’re going to be incredibly fast. I just had to do my best and race my race,” Thoennes shared. “The whole time we kept our mindset really positive and had so much trust in each other and what we could do together.”

(l-r) Jess Thoennes And Azja Czajkowski compete in the women's pair during the 2024 U.S. Olympic Team Trials - Rowing on Apr. 07, 2024 in Sarasota, Fla. (Photo by row2k)

Going straight into trials after getting cut from selection camp, she admitted that the hardest part was the mental aspect of it all.

“The mental fortitude that it takes and the sheer grit that Azja and everybody else who did not make the eight or the four came and showed up and threw down, it cannot be understated how incredibly impressive everyone’s mentality has been,” she said.

“The thing about rowing, and the thing about being tough is that you have to take all the hard with the positive. You have to let yourself mourn for what you don’t necessarily get with your first goal. And then it was I’m choosing to do something and I’m going to go all in.”

With Czajkowski as her partner, Thoennes thinks their chances in Paris are good.

“Azja is tough. She is somebody who acknowledges the challenge and then says, alright. She has a long career ahead of her if she wants it.”

She hopes that career includes a top-three finish in Paris for both of them. If Thoennes and Czajkowski make the podium, it would mark the first medal for the U.S. in women’s pair ever. Especially meaningful considering this is the first Games to have full gender parity with equal representation for both men and women on the field of play.

“Having the privilege to pour myself into this sport for the last eight years it’s been beyond special,” said Czajkowski. “I hope that girls see us doing our thing and see us pouring ourselves into what we’re passionate about and feel confident doing the same thing.”

For Thoennes, who will be competing at an Olympics for the first time in the pairs, she is used to making history.

Three years after walking on to the University of Washington women’s rowing team, in 2017 Thoennes and her team not only won the NCAA national championship for the first time in 16 years, but the Huskies swept all three grand events for the first time in the 21-year history of the regatta.

“I came late to the game and I’m still so in love with this,” she gushed. “I’m having fun, so if I’m having fun then hell yeah, I’m going to keep going.”