Ali Watkins did not take a conventional route to the No. 5 seat in the Temple women's varsity eight at this week's Dad Vail Regatta.

"There were a lot of days I didn't know how I was still standing," Watkins said, talking about her campus life coupled with her work in the Washington bureau of McClatchy newspapers. "It was quite a mess. And once the CIA stuff kind of took off . . ."

What's that? CIA stuff? No, this hasn't been a conventional senior year of college for Watkins. Never mind all the trains to and from D.C. at ungodly hours.

"I got changed in way too many Macy's fitting rooms," Watkins said, explaining that the department store was next to McClatchy's office, perfect for her.

How about this call from her boss to her mother?

"I told her that we'd go to jail on her behalf if necessary," said Jim Asher, McClatchy's Washington bureau chief.

Asher also had called Temple women's rowing coach Rebecca Smith Grzybowski to "assure her this wasn't typical" and confirm that Watkins was working on a story that nobody else in Washington had gotten, "and she got it," Asher said. "We would not have had it if it hadn't been for her."

The story, published in March, referred to possible CIA monitoring of computers used by Senate aides to prepare a study about the CIA's secret detention and interrogation program. It got the attention of all sorts of government offices, including the Oval Office.

"She said, 'I'm working on this huge story - I can't tell you anything about it, but it's huge,' " Grzybowski said. "We didn't know how huge. She was still prioritizing rowing. But I realized it had future implications on her career as a journalist. It was really impressive that she was able to do it all, and I know she was doing more than I knew."

Of Watkins' specific reporting role, "I don't want to reveal too much to Mr. Holder," Asher said, referring to Attorney General Eric Holder and a potential Justice Department inquiry.

Watkins had been employed by McClatchy as an intern last summer, working on a video news show, writing about how the Arab Spring protests had left the Middle East unsettled two years later. Another piece was about fraud in Iraqi reconstruction. "She was biting off big stories," Asher said.

David Boardman, dean of Temple's School of Media and Communication, said Watkins was the first student to reach out to him and pick his brain after he took over last year.

"She is incredibly focused and at the same time fun and funny," Boardman said of the journalism major who has a 3.7 grade point average. "She has all the tools to be a great journalist. She's confident but not cocky, and she knows what she doesn't know."

She also was fully invested in rowing. In one sense, the rough winter and late start to spring worked in her favor. Land workouts can be done anywhere and alone, and Watkins clearly pulled her weight, since she's in Temple's top boat and the No. 5 seat is part of the engine room, providing power.

Within this same time period, the rowing team had been cut, with the last season scheduled for the spring. Then it was brought back. Watkins said the team is tighter than ever, including alumni.

"It's been a more emotional season than I think any of us planned on," Watkins said.

Watkins had never rowed before her sophomore year at Temple. There was no access to the sport where she grew up in Fleetwood, Pa., near Reading.

"I knew rowing was difficult and mentally draining, and I knew Boathouse Row was pretty, and that's about it," she explained.

Watkins began training for a triathlon, and a Temple rower, Kara Carson, kept seeing her at Temple's track. Carson put the thought of rowing in Watkins' head. Now Carson is next to her in the boat, in the No. 6 seat.

"It was a bit of a rough year for the novices, but she stuck around," Grzybowski said of Watkins' first year in the program.

Of her crazy senior year, which included work for the Temple News, the campus newspaper, Watkins credited her coach for "her encouragement and flexibility" and her teammates for supporting her work.

"This is a real sport of accountability," Watkins said. "It's all about chemistry and being with your teammates. It was easy to be the black sheep."

When the ice finally broke and Temple's boats hit the water, Watkins understood it was time to step up to the team. Their goal for Dad Vails is simple, she said: to row their best-ever race.

After the season is over, Watkins will begin her full-time job as a reporter in the McClatchy Washington bureau. She hopes to continue rowing on the Potomac, but probably won't have to use Macy's for quite the same purpose.

"It's hilarious," her Temple coach said of using the store in the nation's capital as a locker room. "She would walk through, she would spray herself with perfume from the perfume department, and go to work."

As for her time management over the last year, Watkins said, "I don't know that it existed, to be honest."

mjensen@phillynews.com

@jensenoffcampus