Maybe while you were tuned into the Olympics this weekend, you saw the rowers racing for their medals at Eaton Dorney; up to eight athletes in a long narrow boat moving in a rhythmic unison to speed across the water towards the finish line. Maybe you’ve watched and wondered what is it like to be out there representing your country, competing against the best in the world? Well, Indy local Jen Kaido doesn’t wonder, she remembers. Four short years ago in Beijing, she was the one out in a boat on the Olympic stage rowing for Team USA.
Jen never expected to be an Olympian. In fact, she never expected to be a rower. Sure she had played sports growing up and enjoyed athleticism, but for college Jen was focusing on her studies and working towards veterinary school. In her junior year, though, she began to miss the comradery and challenge of being a part of a sports team. Three years deep into her college career, Jen thought this desire would be unfulfilled as it seemed impossibly late to join any teams during her senior year. Family friends, though, encouraged her to try rowing. “It’s great for walk-ons” is what she heard over and over again. So, somewhat trepidatious, Jen talked to the Cornell rowing coach towards the end of her junior year. The coach was fairly welcoming and gave Jen some things to do over the summer to build strength before practices started in the fall. “I didn’t really do all that,” admits Jen. “I tried to run, but I wasn’t much of a runner. And I never made it down to the boathouse to erg [work on a rowing machine] or get in a boat. I pretty much just showed up on the first day of practice my senior year.” And it actually turned out all right.
Jen learned quick and found she really enjoyed rowing. She started on the Novice team with the freshmen but was upped to the Varsity team when the rowers moved inside for winter training. No one told Jen, though, that she had been promoted. She showed up to the Novice practice to the surprise of everyone else. They quickly informed her that she was supposed to be with the Varsity and so Jen ran back up the hill to join them. The other team was in the middle of a thirty minute test on the rowing machines. Not entirely certain of what was going on, Jen got on a machine and joined in. It was a long thirty minutes and since Jen started late, many teammates gathered around and started cheering her on. Unbeknownst to her, they were all impressed by the numbers coming up on her machine. Afterwards, Jen found out that she had the second best averages of anyone on the Varsity team. “It was after that I thought, ‘I think I really have potential here’,” says Jen. “I found my sport.”
Jen graduated in 2003. Veterinary school had lost its luster and the new grad wasn’t sure what she wanted to do. So when a friend invited her to come out and join an intensive rowing club in Connecticut, Jen decided she would try it out. “I knew I could learn so much more,” says Jen. “I knew there was so much more potential in me. I just need more time to learn to row, more than a year.” As she worked with other driven rowers in Connecticut, Jen decided to put in her all and that is when she made the 2008 Olympics her goal. “That was the ultimate goal,” says Jen, “but first I made all these little goals so it wasn’t too overwhelming.” One by one, she began to accomplish her goals. Jen started competing and attending time trials to try and catch the eye of Tom Terhaar, Head Coach of the Women’s US Rowing Team. She did and was invited out to Princeton, New Jersey in 2004 to practice with the US Team. Jen came on the team as an alternate in ‘05 and became a full member from ‘06-‘08. Then in the summer of 2008 came the day when the coach picked the line-up for the Olympics.
“It was June 26, I can never forget that date. That is the date the boats had to be named [for the Olympics] and God forbid we name it a week early. They always name it the day of and they are always doing seat racing and selection until the last minute. You never knew during selection. The coaches would just make switches. I never knew if I would be taken out and somebody else would be put in my place and if they made the boat go faster, I lost. So you were going hard all the time. We did a couple of races in the morning. [The coach] made some switches with people and we rode back to the dock. I was expecting it would be more than it was. I thought it would be like, “Here is the team!” The coach was just like, ‘The line-up we went out in in the morning, that’s the boat that’s going to the Olympics.’ He didn’t say a whole lot, not very emotional. After that, I was like, oh my god, it’s over. It felt like you could breathe, I could relax. It was like a huge weight came off my shoulders, like I was on Cloud Nine. For the two weeks leading up, I felt like my stomach was in knots all the time. Worrying about everything; everything you ate, if you were hydrated well enough, rested well enough. Hoping it was all going to be enough. When I finally made the team, I could finally breathe. I remember going home and I was so tired from everything, I just napped.”
The rowers flew into Beijing two weeks before the opening ceremonies and stayed in hotels near the rowing pavilion about an hour from the Olympic Village. They spent their time practicing on the pavilion and bearing with the thick, hot Chinese air. Jen came to compete in the women’s quadruple sculls, a race with four women to a boat each with two oars. On the day of the finals, Jen and her three teammates were lined up against teams from Great Britain, China, Germany, Ukraine, Australia, Russia and Canada. The race took just over six minutes and China snuck past Great Britain right at the end to win the first Olympic medal the Chinese rowing program had ever received. The US boat came in fifth place. “I was disappointed a little bit,” says Jen. “We had gone to a World Cup before that and came in second. We had the potential. We were young and we were all first time Olympians. Our racing was inconsistent. I don’t know if we were nervous or flustered so we came in fifth. I wish I would have taken it more in [at the time] and not worried so much about ‘Oh, we came in fifth.’ I should’ve been like, ‘Oh we came in fifth in the world. At the Olympics. I should be really excited about that.”
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Once the finals were finished, Jen and the other rowers moved to the Olympic Village to spend the last week with the rest of the athletes, watching other events and enjoying the spectacle of it all. “It’s like a big party scene,” explains Jen. When everything was all over, Jen headed back home to take a much deserved break. “I had no desire to do anything as far as working out for about two weeks. I didn’t want to break a sweat or do anything for at least two weeks,” she says.
Jen went back to training in Princeton in January of 2009, but she found it hard to return. Finances were becoming more stressful. Members of the US Rowing Team receive a small stipend while they train, but a rigorous training schedule doesn’t leave much room to fit into a part-time job and the cost of living in Princeton is high. Training six days a week also makes it difficult to see family or take vacations. “I think I just wanted a life,” says Jen. “[Training] is a huge time commitment, a lot of energy. It controlled a lot of different aspects of my life. I couldn’t stay out late. If I did, it would affect the next days practice. Eating right or eating at the right time, everything is so controlled. And I was starting to miss my family and just my freedom.” So after struggling financially, emotionally and working through an injury, Jen had to make a hard decision in the spring of 2011. “I was really losing passion,” she says, “for everything. I enjoyed rowing, but not at that level.” She raced one last time in Germany and then told the coach that it was time for her to move on.
Once again Jen was done with one chapter of her life and unsure of what came in the next. She stayed in Princeton and worked in a sports retail shop for a while until she heard about the Indianapolis Rowing Center. The IRC operates on the Eagle Creek Reservoir and has been in existence for over thirty years. It remains one of the top rowing venues in the country and has played host to the Pan American games, numerous Olympic, Pan-Am and National Team trial regattas, NCAA National Championships, and in 1994, Eagle Creek hosted the World Rowing Championships for the first and only time they’ve been held in the United States. USRowing, the national governing body for the sport of rowing in the US, often holds their National Championships in Indianapolis as we were home to their corporate headquarters until 2006. In 2011, though, the Indianapolis Rowing Center was looking for an Executive Director.
Jen applied, came to visit the city and decided to stay. She became the IRC Executive Director in September of 2011 and has since then been working to carry out the Rowing Center’s mission “to develop youth and adults of all social and economic backgrounds through the sport of rowing by providing experienced and knowledgeable instruction, a variety of skill-enhancing programs, and world-class facilities.” The IRC offers classes for all skill levels from a novice program for junior high to high school kids, introductory classes for adults and even a Master’s program for dedicated adult rowers desiring to compete. Between classes and member programs, the IRC works with over 300 people a year. The rowing community in Indianapolis is thriving and growing. And we must say that they are some of the most kind and welcoming people we have ever met. If you have any curiosity to try rowing for yourself, have no fear of rejection when approaching this group.
Jen has found a place to live out the next chapter of her life doing what she loves and investing in a community. “I do like Indiana and Indianapolis,” says Jen. “It would be nice to settle down here and make a group of friends. As far as [the IRC] I would like to try to grow it and try to get the word out to as many people as I can.” It has been a long bumpy road from Cornell to Beijing to Indianapolis with highs and lows, but Jen has learned the secret of taking advantage of opportunities and overcoming the difficulties. “While I was training, there were a lot of ups and downs. There were a lot of times like, why am I doing this? Am I ever going to make it? Is it gonna be worth it? Sometimes I think the same thing in my job. There’s ups and downs and I’m like, oh my gosh am I going to make it? Am I going to do it? Am I doing a good job? I just have to have the confidence than I am doing a good job and that I can do it. I have to keep my head above water and keep plugging along, keep chugging along. And trying to stay positive. I try to visualize myself doing stuff. I’m hoping if I visualize enough, I will at least stay positive and get me where I want go.”