Chelsea Harpool had never rowed competitively before college but soon found herself competing for one of the nation's best programs. Following her career, she has departed for Puerto Rico, where she will minister to student-athletes for one year.
For Chelsea Harpool, the adventures that life has thrown at her in recent years all feel like a case of doors opening unexpectedly.
There was the move her family made to Florida when she was a sophomore in high school, finding the perfect church and the athletic career she had at Olympia High.
She took up rowing in collage on a whim and — in what felt like the blink of an eye — went from competing for the club team at Florida State to the varsity team for national powerhouse Ohio State.
There was the unexpected joy and fulfillment she discovered through mission trips — and then there was the organization she found at Ohio State that merged it all together.
“From my perspective — all of this wasn’t at all possible without the will of God,” Harpool said. “It was just doors that were opened for me that logically shouldn’t have been opened.”
And so, as she readied herself for her next adventure — a yearlong mission trip to Puerto Rico that she left for this past Saturday — the former Olympia Titan couldn’t help but feel that she is doing exactly what she is supposed to be.
Harpool’s rowing career at Ohio State was highlighted by being a part of four Big Ten Championship boats, placing third at nationals this past season and being a member of the Buckeyes team that won an overall Division I National Championship in 2015.
It’s important to note, though, that she never rowed before college.
Harpool arrived in Florida from Virginia as a sophomore and, at Olympia, she continued competing as a swimmer. She picked up water polo along the way, but mostly she specialized in the 500-yard freestyle and the 100-yard backstroke for the Titans.
She didn’t start her collegiate career at OSU, either.
"I didn’t necessarily love rowing at first, but I loved having a group of people to work out with — that’s why I kept going back."
Harpool began her studies at Florida State in the fall of 2013. That’s where she went to an information night for club sports on campus and was impressed by the pitch that the rowing club made. She gave it a shot, and Harpool remembers that — early on — it was more about being a part of a team than the sport itself.
“I didn’t necessarily love rowing at first, but I loved having a group of people to work out with — that’s why I kept going back,” Harpool said.
Of course, that changed.
Around spring of her freshman year, something clicked for Harpool. She was doing well and began to love the sport. Her freshman club season was highlighted by the Dad Vail Regatta in Philadelphia, where her boat placed fourth.
Harpool had improved so much that a friend encouraged her to put herself out there as a potential recruit by varsity college programs. She expected nothing to come of it, but when she filled out a recruitment application for the University of Virginia in August 2014 and the coaches contacted her within a day, she began to wonder who else might be interested.
Opportunity in Ohio
As it turns out, a program that had just won consecutive national championships was interested.
“I Googled the rankings and Ohio State had just won the national championship, so I was like, ‘What the heck?’” Harpool said. “About two weeks later, I heard back and everything happened so quickly — I didn’t get to look at any other schools.”
By January 2015, Harpool was enrolled at Ohio State as a varsity athlete for a team en route to its third consecutive national championship.
"From my perspective — all of this wasn’t at all possible without the will of God. It was just doors that were opened for me that logically shouldn’t have been opened."
“It was unreal — I had no idea what I was getting myself into,” she said. “I was in so far over my head, but the culture of the team is incredible. It’s the greatest group of women that encourage and push each other. … They’re the ones that got me through it.”
Over time, Harpool became one of the team’s stronger competitors, eventually making the cut to go to the NCAA Championships as a senior. She has a national championship ring from that first season with the Buckeyes, and eventually she got used to being a part of one of the nation’s best programs in the sport.
“It’s funny, because that becomes normal,” Harpool said. “But I also just had these random moments of, ‘This is crazy!’”
A couple years before the rowing door opened in Harpool’s life, another opened that may be even more important.
While at Olympia, she had begun attending High Point Church, where she felt like the faith of her family became her own. Through High Point, she went on a mission trip to Mexico when she was 16.
“I fell in love with international missions,” Harpool said. “On that trip, I felt like God put it on my heart to be in the mission field, long-term, eventually. Connecting with people from different cultures and who don’t speak the same language as me … being able to build relationships and share the Gospel is an unreal experience.”
In the following years, she completed mission trips to Haiti (twice), back to Mexico, the Dominican Republic and also did a service trip through Ohio State to Bolivia.
On campus, she got involved with Athletes in Action — an organization that specializes in ministering to college athletes. Through that organization, Harpool — who graduated from OSU this spring with a degree in social work and a minor in non-profits — departed Aug. 4 for Puerto Rico, where she will spend a year ministering to college athletes at three different universities.
It’s the latest door to open in her life, and she hopes it is a sign of what’s to come. Harpool hopes to work full time in ministry as a career, and if it should involve helping college athletes — as it will in Puerto Rico for the next 12 months — then all the better.
“It’s my wildest dreams coming true, because it is the two things I love most in life and have been most passionate about — all wrapped up in one,” she says, adding, “And I get to call it my job.”