WWU Vikings

Jenny and Shadow: Border Collie helps Western sophomore rower cope with panic disorder

As long as Western Washington University rower Jenny Chang has Shadow, her 6-year-old Border Collie, by her side, all seems right.

Chang is at peace. She’s happy, her mood tranquil as the undisturbed lake waters awaiting her and her women’s crew team for an early-morning practice session.

From the time the Viking sophomore, who self-identifies as half Taiwanese, half American, was born, she’s lived in Washington, Illinois, Michigan, Beijing, China, from age 8 to 18 and has now returned to the states for college.

She labels Sammamish her hometown, living there for a number of years during her youth, but she puts her own spin on where she feels home is.

“I definitely want to go back to China,” Chang said. “I wouldn’t say it’s my home. I wouldn’t say Washington is my home, either. Now I just say home is where the dog is. So Bellingham is home since (Shadow) is here with me.”

Looking at the women’s crew team photo, one member in particular catches the eye. No, not Chang. Shadow.

Yes, there’s Shadow, all alone in the front row, looking straight into the camera with her long, flowing black and white fur.

There’s a reason Shadow, who’s listed on WWU’s roster as team mascot, worked her way into the team photo: Chang and her are inseparable.

From the casual observer’s perspective, the duo’s bond is the same as any dog lover’s affinity for their animal pal, but the truth is Chang might not be emotionally and physically in the great place she is today if it weren’t for her close companion.

Chang’s path to Western is one with many pit stops, but she’s always had a passion for athletics.

Before she decided to move back to the U.S. for college, Chang was a volleyball and basketball standout in Beijing. Part of her desire to attend college in the U.S. was her preference to include athletics in her learning experience.

“I never had rowing in high school,” Chang said. “There was really nowhere to row. And one of my old teachers rowed D1, and she said that I would be a good rower because I am tall and I’d done the sports like basketball and volleyball, and those require a lot of endurance.”

So when a mass email on the brink of Chang’s freshman year arrived in her WWU account from coach John Fuchs imploring any interested students to come out for the Vikings’ Division II powerhouse crew team, she went for it.

Not before long, Chang, who stands 6-feet tall with a muscular build, became a fixture on WWU’s varsity four boat.

But while the Vikings’ V4 went on to a first-place finish at the Division II National Championships Grand Final and was perfect against DII schools the entire spring, complex psychological issues clouded Chang’s freshman season.

Chang struggled with anxiety and panic issues throughout her youth, but the rising episodes became too much to handle when she came to Western. She radiates outward an upbeat, bubbly personality but, internally, underlying problems exists.

“I have a panic disorder, and it really restricts me when I have a panic attack,” Chang said. “It never really hit me until last year when I started at least having two to three a day for a whole month, and then they said that this is pretty serious.”

Chang described her episodes as “pretty scary.” They include hyperventilating, uncontrolled breathing, profuse sweating, shaking and even thrashing.

“Basically, for me it’s fighting against myself to stay calm,” Chang said. “They can range from 10 minutes to an hour. If they are an hour long, it’s very exhausting. I can never properly walk. I usually have people carry me I’m so tired, physically and mentally exhausted.”

Chang at first was prescribed medication, but her panic attacks persisted.

So doctors turned to something that’s maybe a bit unorthodox for modern medicine but is certainly known to bring heaps of happiness.

“They thought that instead of just medication that a dog would help, because they always have a positive effect on you,” Chang said. “We brought her up here and things instantly got better, but I like to keep her by my side just in case, because you never know when it can happen again. ... She just makes me so happy. I thrive on happiness, and every time I’m mad I know she’ll be happy.”

Chang said her psychiatrists signed papers allowing her to use Shadow as a service dog. Now Shadow’s there walking with Chang at all times.

The sophomore brought Shadow home as a puppy six years ago while living in Beijing, and after talking to her parents about letting Shadow leave their Sammamish home to join her at Western, Chang’s parents agreed in an effort to help their daughter cope with her panic disorder.

Shadow joined Chang, who lives in the dorms, last fall, and since having the Border Collie around, her episodes have drastically decreased, she said.

“I can obviously tell it,” Chang said of the difference having Shadow around. “When she came I basically starting having one (attack) every three months, so I thought it was a really big difference. I’d rather have one every three months than one every day.”

Chang attributed stress and the pressures of being a student-athlete as the clearest culprit behind her panic attacks.

“I’ll only panic if the stress is so high, like it just keeps piling up,” Chang said. “‘There is that project and that paper and that homework assignment, and don’t forget that reading, and then you got to go to practice, and don’t forget to go to bed on time, don’t forget to eat. You don’t want to starve yourself. Don’t forget to feed the dog.’ Then when it all piles up, you start to panic.”

Chang is the type that harbors negative feelings, she said, but when her mindset begins turning for the worse, Shadow’s there to right her emotions.

“I stay with me as much as possible, and then I go to her,” she said. “Hopefully she’ll make me smile. I’ll throw her a ball and watch her chase it. ... Basically we spend every single hour together, except for practice.”

Shadow also has to stay behind when Chang leaves for roadtrips.

Chang’s myriad phone pictures combined with Shadow’s Instagram account (shadow_chang) keep her upbeat, though, and even during a race Shadow is brought to mind courtesy of varsity eight coxswain Maeghan Callegari.

“Sometimes when we’re racing, our coxswain will be like, ‘Pull five for Shadow,’” Chang said, “and then I’m thinking of her, and I’m a little happier and stronger.”

“Pull five,” meaning pull five, hard strokes to refocus everyone in the boat and bring back a rowing aggression. The coxswain call is a motivator, intended to strike an inner nerve in an individual or a team. A call for Shadow certainly inspires Chang.

This year Chang is a key member of Western’s varsity eight team. She sits in seat No. 4, a spot on the boat known as the engine room.

She helps guide the back half of the boat to follow the front half. She’s serves as the connection between the front and the back. Joining Chang in the middle four is Katya Hewitt, Kia Parrish-Hiam and Nicole Vanderzanden.

“We are there to provide an amount of power to make the boat go faster,” Chang explained.

Western has one more event remaining on its schedule — the Pacific Coast Rowing Championships on May 16. Chang is hoping her team again will qualify for the NCAA Division II National Championships, which take place May 29-31, and with her panic disorder now in a more manageable state, thanks to Shadow, the international business major can spend more time focusing on the joys of her athletic career rather than the stress of being a student-athlete.