The Remaking Of Kara Kohler
This is a long-form version of a feature that originally appeared in the 2021 Summer edition of the Cal Sports Quarterly. The Cal Athletics flagship magazine features long-form sports journalism at its finest and provides in-depth coverage of the scholar-athlete experience in Berkeley. Printed copies are mailed four times a year to Bear Backers who give annually at the Bear Club level (currently $600 or more). For more information on how you can receive a printed version of the Cal Sports Quarterly at home, send an email to CalAthleticsFund@berkeley.edu or call (510) 642-2427.
Former Cal women's rowing coach Dave O'Neill was serving on the U.S. staff at the 2009 World Championships in Poland and was riding his bike back from the racecourse at Lake Malta to his hotel with colleagues Laurel Korholz and Tom Terhaar when he made a proclamation.
"I said, 'I am going to say a name that's going to become very important to your future – Kara Kohler'," O'Neill said.
No, Kohler hadn't won her Olympic bronze medal yet or registered any of her other impressive line of international accomplishments. In fact, she had only rowed a few times in her life, period.
But when O'Neill called back to Berkeley to get an update on the first few trainings of the fall semester from assistant coach Sara Nevin, the talk was of Kohler.
"Sara said, 'Kara is the real deal'," O'Neill said.
The deal was that Kohler, who decided to walk on to the team that year as a freshman on the suggestion of a family friend, didn't want to row just to row. A junior swimmer whose times weren't fast enough to attract attention from major colleges, Kohler had her sights set on being great in something else.
Three years later, she won an Olympic bronze medal in the quadruple sculls at the 2012 Summer Games in London.
"Cal literally changed my life," Kohler said. "I am very fortunate that I crossed paths with Cal rowing and the coaches saw the potential in me."
Now in Tokyo as a member of her second Olympic team, Kohler is looking to medal again – this time in the single scull. Kohler failed to qualify for the quad in 2016 and decided to try something different. After three years of a new type of training in the single, Kohler landed a spot in the Tokyo games by finishing first at the U.S. Olympic Trials in February.
"It's been a lot of work," Kohler said. "It started after my disappointment of failing to make the Rio team. I told the coaches in a short meeting after being cut that I think I might want to try the single. Obviously, I had to go home and reflect on things on whether I should keep rowing or not. But I wanted to at least give the single a try."
Growing up in Clayton, which is about 25 miles east of Berkeley, Kohler always had her eye on attending Cal. When it became apparent she wouldn't be able to swim for the Golden Bears, she pursued her family friend's recommendation and contacted O'Neill. Kohler had zero rowing experience, but her natural athleticism and strength allowed her to excel on the erg machine immediately.
"I knew nothing about rowing," Kohler said. "I had visions of a kayak."
While her initial erg scores were impressive, there was still the not-so-trivial detail of actually learning how to row. Kohler worked hard on her technique from the outset, and it became apparent to Cal's coaches she needed to be expedited to the Bears' varsity eight immediately.
"We made the decision in the first month to fast track her and get her to learn the technique as quickly as possible," said O'Neill, now the head coach at Texas who led the Longhorns to the 2021 NCAA championship. "Within the first month, we had her start rowing with the best people. The earlier she could start rowing with good people, the better she was going to be. So she made an immediate impact on the team that first year."
Kohler was named the Pac-10 Newcomer of the Year as a freshman and a second-team All-American. She was a first-team All-American as a sophomore.
Despite Kohler's relative inexperience, O'Neill encouraged her to pursue a spot on the Olympic team after just two years of rowing. She ended up earning a seat in the quadruple sculls and winning a bronze medal at the 2012 Summer Games in London.
"We knew right away that Kara could be really, really good if she really went for it," O'Neill said. "The initial impact when she came on her official visit – we were impressed with her right away. Her physical makeup – she's strong, she's tall. And then what struck us as a person was her humility and sort of quiet demeanor. But it was clear she wanted to work. She wanted to be a really good athlete."
Kohler returned to Cal in 2013 and led the varsity eight to the NCAA championship. Along the way, her infectious work ethic rubbed off on teammates. The team had every Wednesday off, but Kohler used it as an opportunity to get in an extra erg session. She invited the team to join her, and there were many takers.
"She would go down to the boathouse every Wednesday and do an extra 20k, and invite everyone else to join her," said former Cal teammate and close friend Maggie Simpson, who was also in the NCAA-winning varsity eight in 2013. "She made it a fun, collaborative event for all of us to get better."
While many of her peers were partaking in more common college activities, Kohler spent much of her free time at Cal focusing on improving as an athlete – whether it be training, diet, lifestyle or otherwise. She was particularly focused on nutrition, as her teammates regularly discovered.
"She always brought snacks in the boat with her because she thought she would perform better," Simpson said. "Sometimes you'd be rowing along and a little banana peel would work its way back to you. I remember distinctly one time she brought anchovies in the boat. They are full of protein and help you recover. It's a really good snack but probably not when you're in a boat with eight other people trying to not throw up while you are rowing so hard."
A New Chapter
Kohler was a first-team All-American again in each of her final two seasons in Berkeley. When she left Cal after the 2014 season, she focused on making a return trip to the Olympics. But her name wasn't called when the final selections were made for the 2016 team.
"It was pretty depressing," Kohler said. "I needed to really have a good chat with myself. Why am I doing this? I've always put a lot of pressure on myself, so I wasn't sure I wanted to keep going. I've always been an athlete, and I think I may have only been doing it at that point because that's what I have always known. So when I finally took some time to step away, it was very refreshing. It gave me new perspectives on what I was doing."
Kohler returned to Clayton and dabbled in coaching and consulting. The time away convinced her to return, this time in the single scull.
"I had only rowed the single a handful of times while training at Cal, but I like the idea of just dealing with myself," Kohler said. "Not that I don't enjoy rowing with other people, but I feel like I have always naturally gravitated to more individual sports. I enjoy the team very much but I enjoy doing work on my own, too."
One of Kohler's first tasks was to reconcile her naturally social, team-oriented approach with the independence of the single. Many single scullers do so because they aren't a good fit in a team environment or are introverted by nature. But while Kohler enjoyed individual sports, she also valued the team dynamic.
"Single scullers tend to be introverts who like to be on their own," said Peter Mansfield, who initially coached Kohler when she made the transition to the single scull. "But Kara came from the U.S. National Team camp. She doesn't mind training on her own now, but she definitely thrives in a team environment. She likes the social aspect of team sport."
Indeed, when Kohler was voted as the 2019 Female Athlete of the Year by US Rowing, the first thing she did was thank her teammates – even though she didn't really have any.
"Kara is just a great person and I'm just so happy for her," said current Cal assistant coach Adrienne Martelli, who rowed with Kohler in the quadruple sculls in London. "She's truly a selfless person in her training and cares a lot about her teammates and her family and friends. I'm just excited to see what she does."
Kohler said the only previous experience she had rowing the single scull were a couple of intrasquad races at Cal, but it was something she had always been interested in doing. Her first order of business was to work with Mansfield, who helped refine her skills and abilities to make them best suited for the single.
"It's very different," Mansfield said. "Every boat has a different way it needs to move and how you have to apply power to make it run the best. The transition is not always easy. But Kara was really able to get the transition done to utilize her athletic skills. She really technically mastered the details."
One of Kohler's pupils while she was coaching was Jack Woll, a good friend of Simpson's younger brother, Andrew. Kohler began working with Woll while he was still in high school and now rows for Princeton.
Woll was so inspired by Kohler's tutelage that he became a pseudo-groupie, creating "Kara Kohler Fan Club" hats out of old baseball caps and cheering her on as she did erg workouts at the T. Gary Rogers Boathouse in Oakland.
"I think just how resilient she is and how she approaches stuff is really inspiring," Woll said. "She recognizes when a situation is difficult, but she always finds a way to approach it on her own terms to come back from the setback. That's what is most inspirational about her aside from her dedication. It's really incredible how versatile she is and how strong she is to respond to setbacks. I think very few people have the will to do what she does, and always ends up on top."
Kohler is in the mix to end up on top next week in Tokyo. She won the bronze medal at the 2019 World Championships and the silver at the World Rowing Cup II earlier this year.
"I'm impressed, but not at all surprised," Simpson said. "I think I would have thought there was something wrong with the universe if she didn't make it because of who she is and how she has led her life up until this point. I can't imagine anyone else doing that or even coming close to comparing who she is as a person and what she's done. I'm not only beyond proud, I'm more like in awe. She inspires me every single day to work harder and go for it and live my life as excellently as she does."