Kara Kohler is one of the newer faces on the U.S. national rowing team, but has made a noticeable impact early on. She was part of the gold medal-winning eight at the Under-23 world championships in 2010, and she won gold in the four at the 2011 world championships. Now, Kohler has taken the year off from school and rowing at Cal-Berkeley to train full time with the national team in Princeton, N.J. with hopes of qualifying for the Olympic team.
However, unlike most recent world champion rowers, Kohler didn't start rowing until she arrived for her freshman year at Cal-Berkeley in 2009. Kohler was technically still a novice, or a rower in his or her first year of rowing, when she won her first international medal -- gold, of course.
Now, Kohler is beginning the extensive process to secure a spot on the 2012 U.S. Olympic team, starting with the first National Selection Regatta on March 15-17. To win a spot in a small boat already qualified for the Olympics (Men's single, men's pair, women's pair, lightweight women's double), a rower must win at a National Selection Regatta then place in the top four at a World Cup regatta. The U.S. has to qualify the other small boats in the Final Qualification Regatta, and rowers in the larger boats will be named by the coaching staff.
SI.com sat down with Kohler to discuss her decision to switch sport before colleges, living and training with Team USA in Princeton, N.J. and what is still to come for this fresh-faced rower.
SI.com: You just recently got into rowing after swimming in high school. How did Cal-Berkeley rowing head coach Dave O'Neill find and recruit you if you were not a rower?
Kara Kohler: It's funny because I actually approached them first -- they didn't find me at all. I was looking to swim in college, and I had all of my recruiting trips set up to go look at schools just for swimming; rowing never even crossed my mind. However, I had a family friend suggest rowing to me, and the more I thought about it, the more I thought this might be a good fit for me. I wasn't exactly where I wanted to be swimming-wise, and I couldn't get into the schools I wanted. I couldn't get into Cal-Berkeley to swim, which is where I wanted to go. So I thought about rowing, and I thought about Cal rowing, and I called them up and went on a recruiting trip. When I was there, it seemed awesome, just the idea of never having done a sport and going into it and being super successful. I've heard the stories of rowers who started in college and went on to be super successful. That really inspired me and sold me.
I did not train at all before I got to college, because I was still swimming at that point. I asked [Cal-Berkeley head coach] Dave [O'Neill] if I should start "training rowing" or whatever, since I didn't know what the routine or regimen was, and he just told me to keep doing what I'm doing. He just wanted me to keep my fitness and not develop any bad habits so he could take me and mold me.
SI.com: Was your family supportive of your switch in sports?
Kohler: Oh, totally -- I wouldn't have switched from swimming to rowing if they weren't supportive. It happened so quickly, because I did a lot of the initial research on my own and didn't tell my parents right away, but when I did, they told me to keep my options open. A week later, after I knew they were OK with it, I made my final decision to row collegiately at Cal. It was confusing telling my family because they didn't quite get the connection between the two sports or the reason behind the switch. Now, it's pretty obvious.
SI.com: What are some of the similarities and differences between swimming and rowing?
Kohler: They're very similar sports because they're both very monotonous sports. When you're training, you're doing the same thing over and over, looking at the same spot over and over. However, in rowing, there's a much greater team aspect because swimming, when it comes down to it, is very much an individual sport, aside from relays. You set your goals for yourself and you only have yourself to hold accountable. In rowing, you have seven other girls working for the same thing, so it makes it a lot more valuable when you attain a goal.
SI.com: Did you feel out of place when you first rowed at Cal?
Kohler: There was definitely a period of time when I was very much wanted to find my place on the team. It was hard not knowing anything about the sport; I literally knew nothing, but the other girls made it easy. I came in with a goal in mind - I wanted to be in that top boat by the end of the season. I knew I was as fit or fitter as the other girls on the team, so I set my goals from the top girls on the team.
SI.com: What do you remember from your first race?
Kohler: My first race was in the spring of 2010 -- spring of my freshman year - and we were at Redwood Shores in California racing Stanford. I was in the varsity boat for the first race of the regatta then the JV (2V) boat for the second race of the regatta, and I was so nervous. The first five strokes, I just kept thinking "Don't catch a crab!" I think I took an air stroke in there somewhere, which really threw me off, but I just thought "Get back to it, keep racing!"
SI.com: At what point did you realize you were an Olympic-caliber rower?
Kohler: I never thought about it until our first 2000 meter [ergometer] test, which was in spring of 2010. At the time, this girl Iva Obradovic from Serbia was on the team, and she was just a beast on the erg. I went as fast as her for the first one and beat her on the second one, but that gave me some perspective and helped me realize how much I could make a statement in the rowing world.
SI.com: Tell me about the process of qualifying for the national teams.
Kohler: For the Under-23 team, rowers attend an identification camp, which brings the rower into a pool of athletes. From there, the coaches select rowers based on their erg scores for further consideration. From there, they look at rowing skill and coach recommendations, and set the boats based on that. National team selection is similar, but it happens over a much longer period of time because there is more time to train. Most rowers in consideration for the national team are training together every day out in Princeton, like I am now, so it's a very friendly but ruthless atmosphere.
SI.com: What was your first foray into training camps to qualify for Team USA?
Kohler: In November 2009 -- I had barely been rowing a month -- Dave [O'Neill] suggested I go to an identification camp in Oakland, which was a testing camp for the national team. He said we would be erging and doing what we do every day, so I said "Sure, no problem, what's the big deal?" I eventually qualified for the U23 team that summer.
SI.com: What is it like being a part of the national team?
Kohler: Overall, I am enjoying it. I put a lot of pressure on myself, so I have to remind myself a lot that I'm the one who chose to come here and I can't think that other people pushed me to come here. The only pressure on myself is from me. We move around so much -- I'm open to rowing wherever I can make a boat go fast! I have to adapt pretty quickly because these girls are at such a high level that if I want to make it, I just have to do it. It's survival of the fittest, literally. I realize that this is a great opportunity, whether I qualify for the Olympics or not. I'll take the experience from it to become a better rower.
SI.com: You seem to have a very laid-back personality about all of this? Do the seasoned veterans get frustrated with you because you're so new?
Kohler: I think coming into it, people were unsure with me. They knew I had the erg scores of the national team, but weren't sure how I was otherwise.
SI.com: Do you think you have an advantage over seasoned rowers because you've only been rowing for two years?
Kohler: I definitely do, because every day I'm learning something new. I think it's incredible that I get to come here not having rowed for that long and learn from the best of the best. Then, I'll get to go back to school and take my experiences from here. I do see these people who have been rowing for so long and they know how to work with their body to reach their potential, which is something I'm still working on, but each day I get new insight.
SI.com: Have you been out to London yet?
Kohler: I went to Henley so I got to see a little bit of London then, but I haven't seen the course yet. I get goose bumps thinking that I could potentially be there if I buckle down and do what I need to do.