Cal at the Olympics: After Nearly Giving Up Rowing, Kara Kohler is Ready for Tokyo

A 2012 bronze medalist in the quadruple sculls, she made the U.S. team in single sculls.
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Former Cal rower Kara Kohler is in the final phases of preparation for her second trip to the Olympics.

The 30-year-old will begin competition in the heats of the women’s single sculls on Friday, July 23, the same day the Olympics begin at Tokyo.

But five years ago Kohler wasn’t convinced this could happen.

A bronze medalist at the 2012 London Games in the quadruple sculls, Kohler didn’t make the team headed to Rio in 2016. She also hadn’t made a national team either of the two previous years.

“I didn’t know if it was worth it for me to keep trying when I had failed for three years to be named to a world championship team or the Olympic team,” she said this week in our interview. “So I was like, `Whoa, whoa. Something really needs to change. Or maybe my time is up in rowing.’ “

Kohler took three months off from rowing, tried a couple other things and attempted to clear her head. What would her next step be?

Kara Kohler, Olympic rower

Kara Kohler

Kohler changed tracks, moving to single sculls, an event she thought would fit her temperament and willingness to train on her own. Still, she didn’t know where it would lead.

“It seemed like a perfect time to try it after 2016,” she said.

“The small boats can be a bit more challenging than the bigger boats. You need to have really good technique to move them. They say you can’t hide behind anyone when you’re in the single.”

Having moved back home with her parents in the East Bay community of Clayton, Kohler joined the California Rowing Club in Oakland and began working with Bernhard Stomporowski, a veteran German coach who challenged Kohler.

“In his eyes I was very bad,” he said. “I wasn’t that great at it, considering I had rowed in the Olympics in a sculling boat. He was a hard critic. He definitely helped me improve my technique and fitness.”

By 2018 she made it to the World Championships, where she finished fourth. That was her regular placement in a series of World Cup races, she recalled, so she was eager to ascend to the top-3 and the medal podium.

That happened in 2019 at the World Championships in Linz, Austria, where she won a bronze medal. Kohler had confirmation she was headed in the right direction, one year out from the Olympics.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic arrived and the world was turned inside out. Kohler acknowledges that as a single competitor in a boat she had a training advantage during the time of social distancing.

But she had one other obstacle -- a bout of mononucleosis that arrived three weeks before the March 2020 Olympic trials.

Four days before the trials, they were canceled. And so was the notion of the Olympics happening in 2020. They were postponed until this year.

Kohler is fully aware how all of that turned out to be good fortune in her case.

“As difficult as a fifth year of an Olympic cycle is, I really caught a break by getting the extension,” she said. “I still had mono going to trials, but I was recovering. It took a big hit on my fitness.

“I got pretty lucky that things got postponed because it would have been very hard for me to win that race in that condition.”

Fast forward one year and Kohler was healthy and fit for the trials in February at Sarasota, Florida. Earning the lone Olympic bid in her event would require beating Gevvie Stone, the 2016 Olympic silver medalist.

The occasion came with requisite stress.

“Olympics trials, especially, because it’s the culmination of so many years of work, that it’s boiling down to a seven- or eight-minute race . . . so it’s unlike any other 2K race because you have all those emotions riding on you,” she explained.

“You’re thinking about all the ups and downs you’ve had throughout the years. And wanting to have your absolutely best race on that day. It’s a lot to handle. So that week was an emotional roller coaster, trying to stay stable and not obsess about the race too much, knowing that I had put in the work and that part was done.

“At that point I needed to stay as relaxed as I possibly could between each training session until the race. And then use that adrenaline for those seven to eight minutes.”

Kohler pulled it off in decisive fashion, taking charge early and finishing the 2,000-meter, four-woman race in 7 minutes, 23.37 seconds. She beat Stone by 3.8 seconds.

Immediately afterward, Kohler’s emotions bubbled to the surface.

"I put my face in my hands. There were tears,” she said. “It was a relief to know that all that work paid off with an Olympic berth. It was like I made it back.”

Cover photo of Kara Kohler celebrating her victory at the Olympics trials courtesy of US Rowing

Follow Jeff Faraudo of Cal Sports Report on Twitter: @jefffaraudo