Taking up rowing in March, KateLynne Steinke will row for Team USA at the world championships this week.
KateLynne Steinke grew up on Cape Cod, yet never had an interest in water sports.
Swimming in the ocean, sailing and surfing were for others. She preferred to stay on land.
“I get sick on ferries going to the Vineyard,” she said. “And I don’t sail or go to the beach or anything water-related of any kind.”
Yet Steinke, 27, suddenly finds herself in the Netherlands this week, preparing to compete in the World Rowing Championships in Amsterdam that began Sunday— a strange twist given that until March, she’d never touched an oar or rowed a single stroke.
What happened? She gave a ride to a friend.
In late March, Steinke’s friend decided he wanted to go to the Gateway to Gold talent identification event in Boston, hosted by Community Rowing, Inc.. Gateway to Gold events, part of a talent identification initiative introduced last year by U.S. Paralympics, are held across the United States to help men and women with disabilities try various sports to determine if they have the desire or aptitude to get involved.
Steinke lost her left leg above the knee in 2010 as a result of a motor vehicle accident. Then, in 2013, she became paralyzed from the waist down because of a major infection. Though she’d been very athletic in high school, she believed her days of athletic competition were behind her. She intended to always keep moving, and loved recreation, but she had no goals of anything more.
So, when she gave her friend a ride to the event, driving up from her home in East Falmouth, Massachusetts, she had no intention of taking part.
“I know the guy that was running the hand-cycle station, and he kind of put me up to a challenge because he knows I’m a stitch competitive,” she recalled. “So I actually did all of the stations, but I refused to get on the rower because I hate water sports. But eventually I did get on the rower and, as history tells it, here I am.”
Steinke, it turns out, is herself a bit of a rowing machine.
When she did her first stint on the machine, she was told she was two seconds over the elite standard, and was asked to try it again. She then beat the standard by a second and a half.
That’s when Tom Darling, the director of para-rowing for the U.S. Rowing Association, and some of the coaches at CRI asked if Steinke would like to do some training on the water to see where it might lead.
By April, Steinke was learning to row a single scull, using a boat fashioned for an athlete in the arms and shoulders classification.
By June, she was entered in her first competition, the 2014 Para-Rowing World Championship Trials on Mercer Lake in West Windsor, New Jersey.
Steinke didn’t know what to expect in the 1,000-meter single sculls arms and shoulders race. She believed she could be competitive, but that was it.
Yet Steinke was strong, winning by nearly 34 seconds and edging out Dana Fink, who finished ninth at the World Rowing Championships in 2013. With the win, Steinke qualified for the U.S. national team and a trip to Amsterdam for the world championships.
Despite the fact she rowed a great race, finishing in 6:03.84, Steinke actually didn’t know she’d won.
Because of the angle she had, she couldn’t see one of the other competitors and just assumed she was behind, so — with her competitive nature — she never let up, even though she actually had a good lead.
Afterward, she said she was shocked.
“I came here to row with no expectations,” she told a reporter. “I was more preoccupied with getting my boat and my equipment in order.”
Last week, while packing for the trip to Amsterdam, Steinke said it still seems strange that she’s a member of the para-rowing team, headed for the world championships — her first trip overseas.
“I can’t even come up with the words I’m looking for,” she said. “It’s surreal. I haven’t even honestly realized where I’m going and what I’m doing quite yet.”
She hopes just to get some international experience, then continue to make progress in 2015. The possibility that she could compete in the Paralympic Games of 2016 in Rio de Janeiro now exists, but she knows she needs to work on her technique and gain some speed before she can think about that. She said she doesn’t want to “skip to 2016 before we get through 2015.”
To Darling of U.S. Rowing, who was at that Gateway to Gold event in March, Steinke’s sessions on the rowing machine were eye opening.
“She looked very comfortable with the rowing ergonometer the first time rowing on one,” he said.
He believes she has barely tapped into her potential.
“She is an amazing athlete and possesses the right attitude and intensity to make the boat move fast,” he said. “Although she has only been rowing for five months, her understanding of the time and commitment, balance and power required to be a high-performing athlete, is clear to her.
“We all look forward to KateLynne’s race on the international stage and her ongoing development as a sculler.”
Before flying to Europe, Steinke said she was more stressed than excited. She was worried about packing, worried about making preparations for her service dog, Delilah, while she’s gone and concerned about ensuring the safety of her wheelchair while traveling.
But considering what she’s endured the past four-plus years, she says the fact she’s going to an international event as a rower is crazy.
And it’s all because she gave a ride to a friend.
“Yeah, yeah,” she says, laughing. “I tell him it’s all his fault on a weekly basis.”
Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has written for TeamUSA.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.