July 16, 2012
By Tim Miguel
From the moment she stepped foot on the Cal campus, Kara Kohler already had her sights set on something bigger.
The East Bay native came to Berkeley from Clayton Valley High School seeking success on the international and Olympic levels. And just two years after taking up rowing, the 20-year-old Kohler has earned one of the ultimate rewards in the sport - a position on the U.S. Olympic team that will compete in London this summer.
Although Kohler, the 2010 Pac-10 Newcomer of the Year, does not have age or experience on her side (the average age of a female Olympic rower is 28), it is her drive and unending commitment that has gotten her to this point. Only two days after winning a gold medal at the 2010 Under-23 World Championships in Belarus, Kohler was back in Oakland at the Cal boathouse learning how to scull. One objective achieved, another to tackle.
In an attempt to reach her Olympic goal sooner than later, Kohler took a year off from school to train with national-caliber rowers. Despite the difference in age and experience between her and her U.S. teammates, Kohler knew the knowledge and understanding she gained away from Cal would only benefit her rowing career later.
"Coming in, I expected my greatest disadvantage would be my lack of experience in small boats," Kohler said. "Yet I believe this has turned into a huge advantage for my future in the sport. This quadrennial has undoubtedly seen the strongest, most competitive group of U.S. women rowers yet. Knowing that I am gaining this experience from the top sweep group in the world is quite rewarding because in nearly one year, I have been able to gain a ton of ground."
Cal head coach Dave O'Neill had a feeling special things were in store for Kohler when she first arrived in Berkeley as a freshman in the summer of 2009. O'Neill was overseas in Poland when Kohler and the rest of the new Bears arrived for their first training session. After getting the report from his assistant coaches, he turned to current U.S. Olympic head coach Tom Terhaar and U.S. assistant coach and former Cal rower Laurel Korholz and told them to remember the name Kara Kohler.
Just three years later, the rowing world is becoming familiar with this rising superstar.
Kohler, who had never rowed before enrolling at Cal, achieved a tremendous amount of athletic success prior to college. As a swimmer in high school, she was named the Clayton Valley HS MVP in 2008 and 2009 and was nominated for Athlete of Year as a senior.
"When we recruited Kara, we could tell that she was a serious athlete," O'Neill said. "She had been a very successful swimmer. It seemed like she was very serious about it and wanted to become as good at rowing as she could be. It certainly seems like Kara is going to follow through with what she said she wanted to do. She's had a quick rise and it's all credit to her. She's worked really hard and she's super motivated."
O'Neill said he knew Kohler had her sights set on reaching the highest echelon of the sport, including the Olympics, when she first came to Cal. Therefore, it seemed like spending a year off from school and away from her Cal team was a risk worth taking.
"I have gained so much experience this year that I can hardly wait to bring all of it back to Cal," Kohler said. "It is going to be fun to help raise the new talent, just like many of my teammates here have done for me. I'll go from being the young, fresh talent to the seasoned veteran. I'm looking forward to the shift and ready to make the most of my second half [of my collegiate career] with the Bears."
O'Neill has had others return from a year away for international training in the past, most notably former Golden Bear Iva Obradovic, who brought back her Olympic experience after she competed in the 2008 Games for her native Serbia. In fact, it was Obradovic's leadership that helped motivate Kohler to go after her own Olympic dreams. Kohler said getting to know Obradovic during her freshman year had a lot to do with inspiring her to go above and beyond.
Even with her valuable relationship with Obradovic, Kohler has still had to learn firsthand the sense of urgency that comes with trying to make an Olympic team.
"Most Olympic hopefuls have had their sights on London at least since the last Olympics in Beijing," Kohler said. "For me, training for the Olympics didn't become a part of the plan until 2010. Coming onto the team a year out from the Games, I figured was plenty of time to work my way into the top of the group because I had managed to work my way up the rankings quickly at Cal. I soon realized that it can take years longer to work your way to the top of the best, especially in the lead-up year when the level of competition is at its peak."
Considering how much she has achieved so quickly, the road to victory has not been as easy as it would appear for Kohler. She has often had phone conversations and traded text messages with O'Neill to help keep her spirits up at challenging times.
"We tell our team, `Don't let the lows get too low and don't let the highs get too high,' and she's had to learn that through this," O'Neill said. "She's had to keep a steady head and do the best that she can. I'm sure this first winter on the East Coast was a bit of a shock for her, but every challenge that we've thrown at her she has met. She's young, but she's not immature. She's got a good head on her shoulders. Hopefully, the lessons she's learned with our team have helped her prepare for what she's going through now."
The good news for Kohler arrived on June 22 with the announcement of the final lineups for the Olympics by US Rowing. There, listed next to veterans Adrienne Martelli, Megan Kalmoe and Natalie Dell for the women's quadruple sculls was the name of a relative newcomer: Kara Kohler.
Another goal reached with others certainly on the way.