When Christina Bruner arrived on the campus of Humbolt State in the fall of 2012, she made a discovery that would not only change the course of her collegiate career, but alter her life completely.
Like plenty of freshmen, she walked around the Arcata campus during orientation, perusing through the displays and looking at the various booths that highlighted a wide variety of interests.
"It was orientation week and I was just kind of walking around campus and something kind of caught my eye," said Bruner, a 2012 Burbank High graduate who was on the Bulldogs swim team. "I saw this little table in the corner with a woman standing behind it. The lady was tall and thin and she looked like she was in very good shape.
"Behind her was a crew poster that read 'Humboldt State: 2012 national champions.' I had never had any experience with rowing before and I talked to her and got information about the team."
That initial contact was Bruner's introduction to collegiate rowing. Over the course of her first two years at Humbolt State, she endured hours of grueling workouts, some that would begin at 4 a.m., as she poured herself into her adopted sport and changed her life to accommodate her new-found passion.
After walking on as a freshman, Bruner was awarded a scholarship this past season for the Lumberjacks. It didn't take long for Bruner to take to the sport, as well as make an impact with Humbolt in women's rowing, culminating with a 2014 campaign to remember.
Bruner was a member of a Lumberjacks team that captured the 2014 NCAA Division II Rowing National Championship on Sunday at Eagle Creek Park in Indianapolis. It was the program's second title in three years.
In a Grand Final that turned into a tight three-team field, the Lumberjacks claimed the championship by a single point, 16-15, over defending champion Nova Southeastern and two points better than third-place Western Washington, Humboldt's West Region rival.
"At the beginning of the year, our coach told us that it was going to be a rebuilding year for us," Bruner said. "So we were just going to do our work and hope for the best. I thought that maybe our team could make nationals, but I never imagined that I personally would be able to make it. It was quite a surprise for me.
"When we did win it, I'll tell you it was very hard to digest at first. There were just so many emotions and it was really overwhelming. But it was also so rewarding for all of the work that we put in to get there."
The NCAA rowing championships include a first varsity eight (with the number being the amount of rowers in a boat), a second varsity eight and a varsity four. Most teams also field novice eights for first-time rowers who are new to college rowing. Points are awarded for the overall championship based on the performance of the varsity boats.
Bruner was a member of the Lumberjacks' varsity four team, which included coxswain Krista Smith and rowers Bruner, Katie Lamke, Sarah Johnson and Marina Hagen. After the four boat won its Saturday Repechage race, the Lumberjacks had a three-way battle for the team title in the Sunday Grand Finals against Nova Southeastern and Western Washington. In the tight battle, the title came down to the final 500 meters of the eight race.
On Sunday, the four boat posted a time three seconds faster than its winning Saturday Repechage time, but was unable to challenge the other two boats in the race's stretch drive. In the four Grand Finals, Western Washington's favored boat took the lead midway into the race and never relinquished it. Western Washington went on to take the victory over Nova Southeastern by a little more than two seconds, 7 minutes 59.304 seconds to 8:01.597, while Humbolt State was third (8:23.496).
"At the beginning of the year, I didn't think this was the year this was going to happen. We overcame some adversity, but we started to focus and just trained extremely hard," coach Robin Meiggs stated on the university's website. "Everyone continued to point toward the goal of getting back to nationals, but to win the national championship is just unbelievable.
"It took the entire team pushing each other and a lot of hard work by my staff … and all the time everyone put in. This is just the culmination of that hard work. Nova Southeastern inspired me from what they did last year [by winning the national championship]."
Bruner said she was not prepared for the arduous work and dedication the sport requires when she first joined the team. She added that the hours of work in the gym and six days a week training in the boats were difficult.
"It is especially tough on the legs," Bruner said. "When you're in the boat everything moves but your feet, which are tied in. So you have to push with every part of your legs against the footboards to move your blades through the water. And then you have all the muscles in the arms, the back and the shoulders that you have to put into it. It takes a lot of muscle to do it the right way."
Arriving back home in Burbank this week, Bruner, who is majoring in forensic-based anthropology, said she is going to relax a little after a taxing, but fulfilling season. And although it's been almost a week since she and her Humbolt State team brought home a national championship, she is still trying to process the accomplishment.
"I haven't really taken the time to let it sink in with me because I've been going and going," she said. "But it is just wonderful to know all the hard work has paid off and it's unbelievable to say that I'm part of a national championship. That's really special."
Follow Jeff Tully on Twitter: @jefftsports.