When Francesca Bratt came to Oklahoma as an exchange student from England, she came for this time of year: spring.
But in the beginning it wasn’t for rowing’s championship season. It was for storm season.
Bratt began rowing five years ago after the 2012 London Olympics. A native of Sunbury on Thames, England, the junior attended the summer games as a high school student. She wanted to try out a new sport and remembered seeing bits and pieces of rowing coverage on TV, so she decided to give it a try.
“It took me awhile to get into rowing,” Bratt recalls. “I was not initially great at it, but I loved it so much so I just stuck with it because I enjoyed it. There was also a rowing facility very close to where I lived that had about eight Olympians coming out of the one facility. It made me quite motivated and inspired to carry on.”
After high school, Bratt attended the University of Reading just west of London to study meteorology and continue her rowing career. The university is a meteorology hub in the United Kingdom, and rowing is the primary sport at Reading, so Bratt was able to compete in the British University Championships and regattas around England.
"I have always wanted to do meteorology since I was much younger, and the course I have been in at the University of Reading was very interesting. It was enticing that I would get to spend a year abroad, especially because meteorology is much bigger here and much more exciting."
However, because Bratt was receiving her degree in meteorology and climate, she was required to spend the third year of her four-year course studying at the United States’ meteorology hub – The University of Oklahoma.
“I came to OU with eight other British students as part of our degree because the National Weather Center is here,” Bratt said. “I have always wanted to do meteorology since I was much younger, and the course I have been in at the University of Reading was very interesting. It was enticing that I would get to spend a year abroad, especially because meteorology is much bigger here and much more exciting.”
When Bratt first came to Oklahoma, her plan was to take a year off rowing and focus completely on her coursework.
There would be challenges with rowing at OU, the most obvious being that at home in England, she sculled (rowing with two oars), but collegiate rowing in the United States is sweeping (one oar). But when she got to Norman her plans started to change.
“When I arrived at OU I saw some posters on the buses and it reminded me how much I loved to row,” Bratt explained. “I walked past the new rowing training facility and I thought I should maybe ask what rowing is like here. I didn’t really have any idea on what rowing would be like at The University of Oklahoma.
“I reached out to (associate head coach) Robbie (Tenenbaum) by email,” she continued. “He immediately told me to come down for a tour around the facility, so that same day I had a tour and it was amazing. The amount of ergs in the erg room and the indoor tank, it was all much bigger than anything we have back home in England. That same day he said if I was interested I could have my medical and all that. It happened very quickly.”
Bratt attended the first team meeting and began the process of becoming cleared for eligibility through the NCAA. She officially joined the Sooners five weeks into the 2016-17 season.
“She endured every step in the process and seemed very committed to doing everything within her power to become eligible to practice and compete. I was impressed by her diligence,” OU Head Coach Leeanne Crain said. “When we began practices I could see she was talented but couldn’t quite tell where she would fit in on the roster depth chart. I was fairly confident she would make a racing lineup, but it took a while longer to see just how talented she was.”
Bratt began the season in OU’s third varsity eight but steadily improved over her months with the team and received personal bests on every erg test throughout the season. Now Bratt is rowing in the five seat of the Sooner first varsity eight heading into the meat of the team’s championship competition.
“I’ve learned to push myself so much more while I’ve been here,” Bratt said. “The training here, the volume and the intensity, is much harder than it was back home. Everyone pushes themselves more than I ever imagined I could and that inspired me to go harder and push for PRs. I came without any expectation of how I was going to do, so I’ve managed to make a lot of progress from where I was when I came.”
But success isn’t the only thing Bratt has found during her time as a Sooner. She also found a new family.
“I remember the first day she came to practice, I decided she was going to be my friend so I sat by her on the bus and talked to her,” OU senior Stephanie Busse remembered. “The attitude toward her was always very welcoming even though we just met her a couple weeks into the season. She just fits on this team very well. She’s very fun and she’s one of those people you can always count on to be there and have a great attitude.”
Crain agreed and said that having a team probably helped Bratt adapt to life in the U.S.
"Fran seems so proper with her British accent and rather quiet demeanor, but she’s tough as nails and as gritty as they come when it comes to the grind of training and competing.”
“Fran has brought a lot of personality to our team, and her teammates have taken her in as one of their own. It’s a pretty goofy, fun-loving group, and they’ve really enjoyed the mix of international athletes who have joined us in the past couple years. Every one of them brings a little something different to the team culture. Fran seems so proper with her British accent and rather quiet demeanor, but she’s tough as nails and as gritty as they come when it comes to the grind of training and competing.”
Bratt has obvious goals for her final months on the OU rowing team, the biggest being qualifying for the 2017 NCAA Rowing Championships, but she’s excited for a few more things as well.
“Obviously, storm season has just started here in Oklahoma so it is an exciting time for me and everyone in our department. Everyone gets quite excited about it. Back in the U.K. it mostly rains and it is not very interesting, but I really enjoy the excitement around the National Weather Center during storms.”
Bratt came to Norman to learn about severe weather, but she could have never predicted what she would experience during her time as a Sooner.