RR Interview: Megan Kalmoe, UW All-American, 2008 Olympian and 2012 Olympic Hopeful

(Photo courtesy of USRowing)
While you may be familiar with Megan Kalmoe from her successes at UW, where she was an All-American, or from the 2005 U23 World Championships, where she took home the gold medal in the W4-, or from her fifth place finish in Beijing in the W2x, you might not know how much more there is to Megan than meets the eye. In addition to her rowing and training, Megan takes the time to be creative, and has a strong grasp of the sacrifices that she needs to make for her training, both physically and psychologically. Here, Megan catches up with RR about her beginnings in the sport, her experiences rising through the ranks, elation and disappointment in Beijing, and what motivates her as she continues to strive toward further success in London.

RR: How did you get started in the sport? Do you feel that your multi-sport background from high school helped you to develop more quickly as a rower? When did you realize that you could take the sport to the next level?

MK: I love this story.

So what I remember about finding my way to the sport is myself seated in the main room of the old Conibear Shellhouse, happily eating a meatball sub while my college coach, Eleanor McElvaine, told me and all of the other walk-on hopefuls of the 2002-2003 season that rowing was going to change me, get me in the best shape of my life, and make me a champion. I couldn't sign up fast enough after I heard that, as I'd only shown up to the meeting in the first place because I was about 30 pounds overweight and really ready to do something about it. I'd gained the lesser-known but equally-horrifying "Freshman 30" the year prior thanks to lots of partying and eating crappy cafeteria food. At 5'10", I had topped out at 185 pounds (and a size 16). None of my clothes fit, and I hated the way I looked and felt.

I really had no idea what I was getting myself in to when I picked up the sport. My background as a high school athlete did translate, but I don't think I would have been able to survive the training had I not picked up Cross Country as a high school junior. Learning how to train independently of my teammates and push myself through monotonous endurance training was a huge help to beginning to understand my personal physiology, maturing as an athlete and learning how to train for rowing.

I don't know if the path of elite athletics was as much of a realization as it was a decision. My college coach pulled me aside one day and told me that if I wanted to try out for the U-23 team in 2005, I had to break 7:00 on my spring 2k. So I pulled a 6:59.9. I got my invitation, and then went on to win in the W4- that summer at U-23's. That process opened the door for me to move to Princeton after graduation, and out of all the options I had when I graduated, training for the Olympics was the most exciting (and also the most difficult). It took me a while training with the Team in Princeton to think that I would ever get fit or strong enough to "take it to the next level"... probably around the time we had the red light on the start line in Beijing.

RR: What was your experience like at the University of Washington? Clearly, academics were a high priority for you (Pac-10 All Academic Team in 2004, 2005 and 2006) in addition to your athletic career (First-Team All-American in 2006). Did you find that the two aspects
of your daily life helped to balance one another?

MK: Ironically, I sometimes think that I would have done really well at Cal. For some reason, I never thought to apply there when I was looking at undergraduate programs. All of the Cal girls on the National Team now watch me with my scarves, boots, facial piercings and compost and assure me that I would have been a natural at Berkeley. But if I'd been a Golden Bear, then I wouldn't have grown up on Lake Washington -- the best, most maddening and starkly beautiful place to experience rowing as a true novice. The culture and tradition of Washington Rowing and the Conibear ethos of honor, loyalty, hard work and personal integrity have deeply affected my thoughts and ideals on athletics and sportsmanship as I've continued on to the Olympic level. Having experienced the Olympic movement as a young, inexperienced and impressionable athlete, witnessing the nobility and purity of amateur athletics firsthand and on such a huge scale had a profound effect on me while I was in Beijing. I felt that much of what I learned and had become a part of at the University of Washington fit very naturally into the ideals of the Olympic Movement. Moving forward, my adherence to these traditionalist, old-school values in training and competition sometimes makes me terrifying and overbearing to my National Team teammates (especially the Cal girls). I am constantly searching for ways to balance pride, humility, ferocity and compassion.

I want to say that academics and athletics balanced each other while I was a student athlete, but I was actually very annoyed that I couldn't maintain a 4.0 and graduate with honors after I started rowing. Inevitably time management became an art, and I still managed to get pretty good grades -- but between school, rowing and work I was stretched pretty thin, and I always wonder what I could have accomplished academically had I not committed so much of my time to athletics.

RR: Did you find the transition from being a collegiate athlete to a potential Olympian a difficult one?

MK: As with a lot of things, there were parts that were difficult, and parts that were very natural. I struggled and got my ass handed to me day in and day out while I was building my aerobic base and basic strength in 2006, 2007 and 2008. Learning how to scull was extremely challenging, especially trying to get more comfortable in the single let alone finding any sort of competitive speed. I dealt with a number of injuries while my body adjusted to the workload and the sculling motion. I was completely broke and building debt even though I had graduated debt-free and was working really hard outside of the boathouse in order to pay for rent, food, gas and health insurance. I cried more than once.

But on the other hand, I came to the Team at a time when there was a lot of opportunity for new talent to break in to the group. I had awesome role models in Lia Pernell and Liane Malcos to push me really hard to improve my sculling even when I was miserable. My sculling coach at the time, Laurel Korholz, was really patient but tough with me to help me get faster. Girls on the Team who were returning Olympians made everything seem so simple and manageable -- I learned a lot from training with them.

Probably the biggest thing I have taken away from that first year is an appreciation for, and understanding of, experience and maturity in the sport. I absolutely hated being told as a new athlete that I lacked the experience to be successful at something. I thought somehow that I could make up for the gaps between my experience and skill level with being scrappy and working really hard, as that had worked to a certain extent in college. But, much as I hate to admit it now, experience plays a critical role in many athletes' ability to be successful at this level, no matter how feisty or naturally talented they are. Maybe maturity is a better word, but whatever the X factor is that allows athletes to make good decisions about nutrition, rest, training, injuries, rehabilitation, communication and the lifestyle in general is something that you have to earn by logging hours and miles. There's no way around it. Admitting that, and then admitting that I'm never going to know it all has been one of the biggest challenges I've faced as an elite athlete.

RR: What was your experience of Beijing? You and Ellen Tomek posted a great result, but were just outside the medals -- has that further motivated you to train for 2012? How satisfying was it to take home two pieces of hardware from Lucerne in 2009?

MK: I don't know that I would call 10 seconds off of bronze "just outside the medals" but ok. Honestly, no one expected Ellen and me to do much of anything as a double in 2008. We were young, inexperienced, a little cocky, and a little stupid to think that we could race the Evers-Swindell sisters with any real chance of beating them. But did losing in Beijing motivate me to get faster? Hell yes it did. Making the final in Beijing was really something -- but so was getting my ass kicked on a world stage. I can tell you that the overwhelming sense of guilt, humiliation and sense of just... letting down everyone that had been reaching out and getting in touch with me and well-wishing for the past several weeks and months... it was crushing. But actually, I came back in to the 2009 season really refreshed and invigorated. I remember sitting down and writing this really focused journal entry before I started training again about how much faith I had in myself and my teammates that we could come back for 2012 stronger than ever. Whenever I hit low points now, I go back to that entry and remember how much hope I had for the USA sculling team coming in to this quadrennium.

I think it was something that was almost realized in the 2009 season when Ellen and I got back in to the double together. We trained really hard that winter as some of the only returning Olympians around the Princeton boathouse for a lot of the year. The speed was still there in the spring so we gave it a shot in Lucerne. There was a lot of personal stuff going on at that time, and there was potential for that race to have been my last senior team appearance. With that in mind, I remember racing a really pure race. I felt like I had nothing to lose. It was great to come away with gold that day, and then to have a really fun race in the quad later that afternoon. The quad was a really last minute thing, and Ellen and I only hopped in because of illness elsewhere on the Team. Winning the double really meant everything to Ellen and me; but also made it that much harder to watch our World Championship hopes slip away when she broke a rib later that summer.

I struggled with my own injury setbacks last year which made it seem like I was never going to get on pace with the goals I had set for myself back in early 2009. But I am still looking to get USA scullers on the podium this year and next year however we can. I still believe we can do it.

RR: How has the atmosphere around Princeton changed since the move(s) of the US men's squads this past winter? Has there been a greater amount of travel involved in your training this year, as the team moves between satellite training centers?

MK: It's a little lonely. But the locker rooms smell significantly better.

Seriously though -- I am entering a bit of an unknown space moving forward without a men's team in Princeton. I've never not trained with men around, and even though they are smelly and wake us out all the time, I do enjoy training with them. It's nice to have a support system in the form of other athletes who understand the lifestyle, but who are also not necessarily in the boat with you all the time.

Aside from missing them, the men's relocation has not really affected the status quo at PTC too much. We had our camps in San Diego and Oklahoma City this winter as per our normal schedule, and don't anticipate traveling much more this year except for the 2011 racing schedule in Europe.

RR: How are lineups shaping up with a view toward summer racing? Have things been established at all at this point? Or will there be a whole new set of lineups as new talent continues to be welcomed by the National Team, as with last season?

MK: Right now we're focused on moving singles for NSR 1, and another 6k test later this month. After those are over, we can talk about double combinations.

RR: In addition to training full-time for a shot at a second Olympics, you also take the time to be creative with your writing, and maintain a website at www.megankalmoe.com. How important is this creative outlet for you?

MK: I love my blog. I have always loved writing, and the blog has been such a great way to connect with the rowing community and share thoughts, laughs, and multimedia along the way. I never have enough time to write as much as I would like to -- especially now that I'm back in Princeton and working more with the YMCA doing their social media, but the monotony of Winter training tends to create a creative lull anyway. Usually things pick up in the Spring. Getting feedback on the videos I've posted of the Team has been really rewarding. And of course the most popular post of all time: "The Top 20 Hottest Male Rowing Athletes of 2010" still gets hits all the time, which is just awesome. I love to see people getting excited about stuff that the National Team is doing... even if it is just stalking hot male rowers at Worlds.

RR: Clearly, one of your goals for the next 500 or so days is to stand on the podium in London. This takes a singular focus, and outside the university environment it can be more difficult to find a balance. How do you maintain perspective as you train toward such a goal?

MK: Interestingly, I think that being a full time athlete makes it easier to maintain balance than it ever was as a collegiate student athlete. Mostly because there isn't much on the other side of the scale, so you can toss the scale entirely. Tom [Terhaar] told me once, "this is the one time in your life that you only have to focus on one thing. Just one thing." And he's right. It's an incredibly selfish time -- training always comes before anything else. It has to. But choosing this lifestyle allows you to give yourself permission to do that, and to just focus on yourself and your training without feeling guilty about it. If people come in to your life during this time, whether personally or professionally, they do so with the understanding that training is your priority and they are not (and don't stand a chance to be until you retire). We have to ask a lot of the people around us... friends, families, host families, employers... and for me that's the hardest part a lot of the time. Taking all the time without the means to give back. Yet.

Thanks very much to Megan for taking the time. For More on Megan's experience training and racing with the US National Team, check out her blog at www.megankalmoe.com.


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