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A nine year wait ends for 2012 Olympic medalist Kara Kohler

Jul 22, 2021
US Rowing

TOKYO – Kara Kohler could have hung it up five years ago when she didn’t make the Rio Olympic team.

But here she is, on Friday, on the start line in Tokyo, competing in single sculls nine full years after her Olympic debut in London. That summer, she earned a bronze medal in quad sculls as a 21-year-old rising junior at Cal, just two years after being introduced to the sport and merely six months of training in that boat.

Despite Kohler’s rocket-like rise, it’s usually hard enough to make one Olympic team. Just ask any of the 300+ Pac-12 athletes who will be competing in Tokyo over the next few weeks. But it’s far tougher to be an Olympic medalist who misses the cut on a subsequent try. Self-doubt can spiral.

“I’m grateful” she came back, said U.S. coach and fellow Cal grad, Laurel Korholz.

After London, Kohler immediately returned to Cal to compete. After graduating, she failed to make the U.S. national team for three consecutive years.  How did she find the strength – not only to return – but to race in Tokyo with a legitimate shot at becoming the first American woman to win Olympic gold in the single? In a one-on-one interview, she explained:

First of all, how did you go from being a high school swimmer to rowing at Cal?

I went on a recruiting trip to Fresno State for swimming when teammate's dad mentioned rowing to me. I was 6-foot-2, athletic, and he thought I could do well. I thought he was crazy. There's no way I can just go and compete collegiately in a sport that I've never done. I did some research and learned that it’s actually pretty common. So I sent Cal my high school swimming resume. They said: we're interested, come visit. I did, and I raced in the varsity eight my freshman year. My ticket was really my erg score. My very first 2K time was 6:48. Another girl, Iva [Obradovic], rowed for Serbia at the 2008 Olympics, so I was like: pull what Iva's pulling. I was able to get to her speed pretty quickly. I went to the London Olympics between my sophomore and junior year. It definitely turned heads. ‘Whoa, novice rower is on national team.’ I was thrilled. My coach, Dave O’Neill, was definitely instilling the belief that I could make the national team.

What happened after you graduated from Cal with an Olympic bronze medal?

The level of competition rose and I was scrambling. I graduated in ‘14, so I had 2015 and 2016 to train full time – more than I had leading up to London, but I didn't take time off after the Olympics to decompress. Juggling academics and athletics was very hard my junior and senior year. In 2014, 2015, or 2016, I didn't make a national team.

Then what?

Post-2016, I didn't row for three months. I lost all the calluses on my hands. I was pretty depressed, I'd say. I was 25, and I moved back in with my parents with zero money. I taught yoga, erg classes. I did private coaching. I needed to know that I was going to be okay without being a full-time athlete.

What ultimately pulled you back to rowing?

It was all internal motivation. No one was pushing me. I have three older sisters. None of them pursued athletics beyond high school. My parents were like, ‘You’re more than an athlete. You’ll be great at other things.’ I think it was hard for them to watch. I didn't want to believe that my peak in rowing was three years after learning how to do the sport. I needed a new experience away from the training center and the autonomy to build confidence in myself. It took a good six months to commit again – realizing that I still had a lot of room to grow. I also knew that if I was going to continue, I wanted to spend time in the single. In the single, there's no one to hide behind. In the bigger boats, you can get away with some inefficiencies. I decided to commit to that year. I rowed single with the goal of racing at team trials, winning that, and racing at the World Championships. I ended up second at team trials behind Felice Mueller who raced in the 2016 Olympics pair. I knew it was going to take a lot to beat her. I didn't have what it took that year. But I made the quad boat for 2017 and we were fifth at the 2017 world championships in Sarasota.

By 2018, you went back to single scull. Why?

The single takes a lot of time to develop. I'd only been rowing it consistently for a year. I wanted to try one more year to win the single and race at the 2018 world championships. I needed to place top-six in the World Cup to qualify. At the first World Cup, I came in 7th. It was my first international race in the single. Next, I went to a World Cup in Lucerne, Switzerland, and placed fourth, so I was officially named to the [world championship] team after my second attempt. [At those 2018 world championships, Kohler placed fourth in single sculls.]

Did things go smoothly leading up to 2019 world championships where you took bronze?

Gevvie Stone was making a comeback. She was the Olympic silver medalist from Rio, and she was the one I needed to have my eyes on. Preparation went pretty smoothly and my goal was the podium because I’d had a lot of fourth places: at the World Cup 2018, the World Championships that year, World Cup 2019. I was really gunning for the 2019 world championship – and finally got third.

No American woman has ever won Olympic gold in single sculls. There have been five silvers by five different women, including Stone. Do you think about that?

I'm training to win. I visualize what I need to do to get my bow ball in front. I don't fixate on gold. I fixate on all the details that go into putting together my best race. And that will hopefully get me what I want, which is a gold medal.

Is Paris 2024 a long-term goal? The next Olympics are now three years away.

After Tokyo, I'll definitely take quite a bit of time off. I'm 30. I think I still have some room to grow in the single. A lot of singles athletes medal in their mid-30s. Sanita Puspure, [the 2018 and 2019 world champ in single sculls] is one of the favorites in Tokyo. She’s 39, she’s Irish, and in this quadrennium, she’s been crushing it. It would be hard to say goodbye.