A life less ordinary: Former cadet, Rhodes scholar pushes limits

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Jarad Denton
  • 501st Combat Support Wing

The oar blades cut through the cold water of the River Thames as the eight-person team drove their boat in perfect synchronization t the Oxford University Boat House, UK.

There was no room for error and time was running out. The Oxford University Women's Boat Club would challenge the University of Cambridge April 2 at the Cancer Research UK Boat Races.

The pressure was mounting, but the team held fast and stayed motivated.

“Out there on the water it’s all about my team,” said 2nd Lt. Rebecca Esselstein, of Kettering, Ohio. “I think rowing is the perfect sport for anyone in the military. It’s both individual and team oriented in that you have to perform at your best so that the entire crew can perform at their best.”

Pushing beyond her limits is not a foreign concept for Esselstein. After graduating the Air Force Academy in 2015 at the top of her class, the astronautical engineering major set her sights on a doctorate in astrophysics though a Rhodes scholarship.

“Coming to Oxford, in general, was a huge switch,” she said. “The Academy is a bubble and Oxford is a bubble, but they’re completely different bubbles. So going from the structure at the Academy to the total flexibility and freedom of a doctorate program at Oxford, was a bit of an adjustment last year.”

The chilled air rushed past Esselstein as she pulled her oar through the water, in time with the coxswain commands.

“I found I really missed some of that structure,” she said. “I really missed competition and athletics, so I tried rowing -- and got addicted to it.”

Originally a runner, Esselstein is the 2014-15 Mountain West Conference Student-Athlete of the Year, the first member of the track and field and cross-country teams to earn the honor. She said the challenge of pushing herself athletically and academically has been with her since she was a child.

“I’ve always wanted to be an astronaut,” she said. “It’s been my dream.”

A dream that was nearly lost during her junior year at the Academy.

“I’m very nearsighted,” Esselstein said. “I was going to get corrective surgery so I could become a pilot. They called me in the middle of finals week and told me my corneas were too thin for the surgery.”

Feeling shattered but not overcome, Esselstein looked at backup plans to pursue her dream of going into space. She explored engineering, as well as the Rhodes scholarship application process.

“I was trying to adjust to the idea that I might not be a pilot,” she said. “It actually helped me apply for the UK scholarships, because I was hopeful that they would develop a surgery in a few years that could correct my vision.”

Fortunately, a year after she was told the surgery was too risky, Esselstein was able to get a waiver to fly due to her vision being correctable. By then, she had been selected as one of 32 Americans to earn a Rhodes scholarship.

“Looking back, it was a time where I just had to pick myself up and keep moving,” she said. “It’s kept me pretty humble.”

Esselstein said her family has played a huge role in her success, as well as her ability to take it all in stride.

“I remember in grade school I started realizing I was good at school, and I started getting cocky about it,” she said laughing. “I still remember, this one night at dinner, I made a stupid comment and my mom said, ‘don’t get a big head.’”

That moment stayed with Esselstein her entire life and is a constant reminder to stay grounded, no matter how much she learns, how fast she goes, or how high she soars.

As she prepared to represent Oxford during the Cancer Research UK Boat Race along the banks of the Tideway, Esselstein feels the familiar drive of wanting to challenge her own limits.

Visit www.usafa.edu to see the story on the Academy's new website.

Editor's note: The Oxford Women caught a crab right at the start of the race and finished 11 lengths behind. The former track star kept Seat Four on Oxford’s Blue Boat during the 72nd-annual women’s race.

Esselstein was the No. 1 ranked graduate in her class at the Academy. She was also the Mountain West Student-Athlete of the Year and the Capital One Academic All-American of the Year for Division I Women’s Track/Field and Cross Country.

A member of the distance medley relay squad that won the MW Championship in 2013, Esselstein ran the 800-meter leg of the DMR that produced the second-fastest time in Academy history (11:49.14, adjusted for altitude) in 2015.

The course of the UK Boat Race, which stretches from Putney to Mortlake on the River Thames in South West London, is just over four miles long. The race was seen live BBC World News.