Tokyo marked U.S. rower Kara Kohler's second trip to the Olympics.
Learning a new sport is tough. To qualify for an Olympic event is even tougher. For Kara Kohler (UC Berkeley, rowing), it took her less than three years to become an Olympic rower.
Now here she is in Tokyo, her second trip to the Olympics after earning bronze at the 2012 Games in the quadruple sculls event. Although this trip didn’t produce a medal, the story of her journey to success is no less impressive.
Born and raised in Clayton, California, Kohler was a competitive swimmer throughout high school. Following a suggestion from a family friend, Kohler decided to pick up rowing. Her coach at UC Berkeley, Dave O’Neill, understands why.
“First and foremost, Kara had the right body type to be a really good rower,” O’Neill said. “She’s tall, she had an endurance background with swimming, so we knew she could put in the work.”
Kohler’s physical advantages for rowing – she is 6 feet 2 inches – could not be denied. But her success came more from her mental approach than her physical prowess, O’Neill said.
“A credit to Kara. She would look at the strongest person on our team and is like, ‘I want to do that. I’m going to be that strong,’” he said. “I think that’s one of the things that really stands out about Kara. She sets really, really high and lofty goals for herself, and puts in the work to achieve them.”
One of those strong rowers was former Serbian Olympian and former college teammate Iva Obradović (UC Berkeley, rowing). After competing in the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, Obradović returned to Berkeley to complete her undergraduate degree. When she met Kohler, a freshman at the time, she saw the potential that O’Neill saw.
“She is just built to be an athlete, by her stature, how she looked, how she behaved,” Obradović said. “She had a demeanor about herself as a successful athlete and she was very serious (about) picking up this new skill.”
When Obradović saw her on an erg – an exercise machine to track fitness – for the first time, it was obvious to her that Kohler “was going to be someone, if she wanted to, someone who can be really good at this sport.”
This desire to be great is what helped her qualify for the 2012 Summer Olympics in London and win bronze in the quadruple sculls. As Kohler described during the Tokyo 2020 Media Summit, it was quite the start to an athletic career.
“It was a whirlwind to the podium, going from a (novice) to an Olympic medalist in just under three years,” Kohler said.
But after her self-admitted struggles upon her return to Berkeley, Kohler missed the cut for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio. She learned the harsh lesson of regression, but was not deterred in her quest to compete on the Olympic stage again.
“Didn’t make a team for three years,” she said. “That really has been my primary driver the past couple of years, to make the Tokyo team.”
Interestingly, the path that Kohler took to qualify for the Tokyo team was to leave teams competition completely and train for single sculls. She essentially started from scratch, having received little experience racing the single during her collegiate career. But another former teammate at UC Berkeley, Agatha Dolan (UC Berkeley, rower), pointed out the individual aspects of rowing within a team.
“Because you do have to train on the rowing machine and the ergometer, it’s very obvious where you sit the pack,” Dolan said. “So while it is a team sport, there is a very strong individual component to that.”
This component is something that many rowers must learn to balance in their collegiate careers, otherwise their competitive edge will turn them against their teammates. O’Neill said for many rowers, this was something that could push them to the single scull.
“Some people decide to row the single because being alone is probably best suited for them,” O’Neill said. “Kara is not that person at all.”
Kohler’s teammates agree that her sense of camaraderie came naturally to her.
“Kara was never like that, at all. She was such an awesome team player, so much fun to row a boat with as well,” Dolan said.
In Tokyo, Kohler topped her heat to qualify for the quarterfinals. She placed second in the quarterfinal race, sending her to the semifinal. But a bad start to the semifinal race saw her miss qualification for the final. Needing a top three finish, Kohler’s comeback attempt fell short, placing fourth behind Austria’s Magdalena Lobnig by .51 seconds. In the consolation final, Kohler narrowly finished third in her round and sixth overall in the single sculls event.
Although her journey to Tokyo will end without a physical reward, she has gained invaluable experience and knowledge of what it takes to qualify for the Olympics in single sculls.
Because as one journey ends, the next one begins. Kohler’s next comeback story begins now.