RR Friday Interview: U.S. Olympian Kate Maloney, Head Coach of Williams College Women's Crew

Williams College on the NCAA Podium in 2011 (Photo: B. Kitch)
Like all great athletes, Williams College women’s rowing head coach, Kate Maloney, is driven by a competitive fire that is difficult to define. Often, athletes and coaches speak of finding an outward expression for this urge, but, despite the commonly accepted idea that great athletes should make great coaches, few manage to achieve at the highest level in both capacities. In this respect, Maloney is a rare example, having made a successful transition from athlete to coach following an appearance at the Sydney Olympics that both capped off her competitive career, and kindled a new flame. In Part I of our interview, Maloney speaks with RR about her beginnings in the sport, her growth as an athlete, and the new life in rowing she discovered through her first coaching position.

RR: You started rowing as a senior in high school, and, evidently, you were good at it right away. What was it that grabbed you about the sport?

KM: [Laughs] Well, I think if you talk to my first coach, Alice Henderson (now Alice Johns), she wouldn’t agree that I was good right off the bat! I can’t remember the name of the rower who sat in front of me the first time I went out in an eight, but I believe I kidney punched her about seven times. But what I found was an outlet for my competitiveness. As a kid, I had tried everything–I’d done gymnastics, track and field, etc., and was moderate to fair at all of them; in high school I got very into soccer and ski racing (downhill), but I found that by my junior year that I was pretty burnt on both those sports. I wasn’t content to be a couch potato, so my mom recommended that I go down to the local rowing club, Mt. Baker, and give it a try.

I’d done a summer learn-to-row session between my junior and senior year. After a disastrous stint on the basketball team at my high school, I decided that I would show up at the boathouse at the end of March and shop my wares. I found a really enthusiastic coach, and a great group of girls, and I just knew. I was hooked. Rowing is one of those pursuits that either grabs you right away, or you find something else to do. I loved it–just the feeling of placing the oar in the water and pulling really, really hard (albeit not all that effectively at first!).

RR: After that season you moved on to the University of Washington. How did you find the transition and when was it that you began to understand your full potential in the sport?

KM: I don’t think I understood my full potential in rowing until well into my college career, but the summer before college, Mt. Baker put together a top four, and I somehow managed to make my way into that boat–I think just by sheer desire. We went to what was US Nationals at that time, and won the youth four. It struck me that I had found a sport where I was not precluded [from the highest level] by my aversion to getting hurt (which is common in ski racing), and that I’d enjoy exploring what options were out there for me. I had applied to other schools for other sports, and none of them had strong rowing programs. It was really fortuitous that Washington was in my backyard. I applied and got in on rolling admissions.

I had a fantastic novice coach, Eleanor McElvaine, who really fostered my love of the sport, and refined my abilities. I think I knew really quickly that it was something that would allow me to push myself as far as I wanted to go. There weren’t any height constraints or fear of injury or anything like that–basically, it was going to be about how much I could push myself. Having the University of Washington right there was amazing, with fantastic coaches and great equipment–so there was nothing holding me back from pursuing it as far as I wanted to go, and I was supported all the way.

RR: Your first international experience was at the Nations Cup [now Under 23 Worlds], is that right?

KM: Yes, it was known as the Nations Cup, back in the day. It was in Groningen, The Netherlands, and it was a great experience. I went my junior year in the pair, with someone who is now one of my long-standing best friends, Sarah Jones, and we placed third. It really just turned up the intensity with which I approached the sport. I came back to the University of Washington in the fall, with a renewed vigor, thinking, ‘okay, now I’ve had a little taste of international competition, and we managed to do all right picking up a bronze medal, ‘ but in order to move up, I was going to have to come back and really commit myself to the training to start to make some national selectors pay attention to me.

RR: Apparently, the hard work paid off, as you moved up to the next level, making your first senior team was 1997, in the W4-.

KM: We finished fourth, just a hair out of third, which again revved my engines. I realized that I would really have to step it up another notch to make the priority boat, and, having done that, make the priority boat go fast.

RR: Over the next two years, you took home some hardware from the world championships. What was the feeling, going from just off the podium to winning medals at the world level?

KM: It was exhilarating. It was great to be able to see the payoff from all the hard work we had put in. Every senior team athlete trains really, really hard, and has goals of getting on the podium, so executing a race that allowed us to do that, and to only be a ‘pip’ off the Romanians, who were then in the midst of their dominance from 1996 through 2000 provided that much more fuel for the fire. We knew that we were going to be heading back into Hartmut [Buschbacher]’s training system, which was very erg focused and involved lots of miles. We had a renewed sense that this was what we had to do–there was a core group of us training at Arco at that time, and we were really feeding off one another, going out in pairs and singles, and trying to push ourselves to find that second and a half that we were lacking in Cologne.

It was great because my family was there [in Cologne] for the regatta, and I had some European relatives come and watch. It was really a moment when I realized just how far I had come since that first practice at Mt. Baker.

RR: After racing in the W8+ at the Sydney Olympics, and taking sixth place overall, what made you decide to move on to other pursuits? Did you feel that you had realized your dream as an athlete?

KM: No, not at all. I was very torn about what I wanted to do after Sydney, because I felt very unfulfilled. Obviously, I was happy to have represented my country at the Olympics, but I didn’t feel that I had represented myself to the best of my abilities. I was also very mentally drained, and wasn’t sure what direction I was going to be heading at that point. I knew that there were going to be some coaching changes, and some location changes, and I wanted to take things one step at a time.

There was no real sense after Sydney that I was done–I took some time away, went back to school and earned my degrees, and then started training in earnest on the East Coast to see if it would rekindle any feeling about what I wanted to do. In the end, I realized that I was not mentally ready to do it again. Every elite athlete that you talk to will tell you that it’s a very mentally trying process, and some people are able to manage that better than others; some decide that it’s not the thing that is important to them anymore. For me it was a slow realization that I wasn’t going to be able to put my best foot forward again as an athlete.

At that time, I had an opportunity to get into coaching. I was living in Boston in 2002-2003 and began coaching at Northeastern–it was then that I realized I had a real passion for that. I started this slow evolution, continuing my involvement in the sport in a different capacity. I wasn’t ready to walk away from the sport, but I wasn’t ready to commit myself to the full extent necessary to be a national team athlete. I think what I realized right off the bat was that I greatly enjoyed working with these young women, and helping them to achieve their potential, be it wanting to make the second boat, or make the varsity, or think about training at a higher level. But I think what hooked me one it was being around a group of really focused, hard-working individuals, and being able to bring my own experiences to help them.

Part II of our interview, on Maloney’s growth and experience as a coach, to be posted next Friday.


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