Redmond’s Cara Linnenkohl is living proof that hard work and dedication to a sport will pay off in the long run.
During her entire senior year of high school, she would get up at 4 a.m. and drive 25 miles to the Lake Union Crew boathouse in Seattle where she would take part in early morning practices. This was all before the first bell rang at The Bear Creek School, where she graduated in June.
The 18-year-old began rowing when she was 13, and credits her older sister Jessica with getting her involved in the sport. She has been a member of Lake Union Crew for about the past year, where she met her current rowing coach Conal Groom, whom she has worked with for the past 11 months training for elite rowing events.
All those practice sessions and work with Groom were put to the test at the recent World Rowing Junior Championships in Linz, Austria, where she placed second in the single sculls event. She was the highest-placing U.S. junior woman in the history of the World Rowing Championships.
Linnenkohl did not make her decision to row in a singles boat until only about three weeks before the competition. She went to Junior Worlds last year in Beijing and paired with Duke freshman Alex Japhet for a disappointing sixth-place finish in the women’s junior pair event, which may have played a part in her final decision to row solo this time around.
“Aside from training every day, twice a day, I’d race people at the club or other events or Nationals,” said Linnenkohl of how she prepared for rowing’s biggest event. “It kind of depended on what I wanted to do, because I could have taken the single or gone for a team boat, and I chose to do the single because I qualified for the time.”
She added, “When you’re in a single… it’s all on your shoulders. That’s one thing I really like about the single, if I screw up, it’s my fault, and I can change it.”
Linnenkohl had participated in a number of high-profile events leading up to the Junior Worlds, with an astounding amount of success. She won the junior single sculls at the 2008 U.S. Rowing Youth Nationals, which qualified her to go to Austria, and also swept the Brentwood College Regatta in British Columbia, winning the single, double and quad scull events.
Her success proved she was ready to take on the best in the world.
“The Canadians, although they’re right over the border … they have a much better, more competitive junior program,” said Groom, a full-time rowing coach at Lake Union Crew. “Their top junior programs tend to be a little bit above our top-end programs, so they’re always a very good gauge.”
Unlike last year’s championships, which took place in an extremely hot, humid and polluted Beijing, Linnenkohl said that being on the Danube River in Austria’s third-largest city gave her a comforting feeling of being at home.
“I liked it a lot better than China, it bought more of the same feeling as home,” Linnenkohl said. “The first two weeks we were there, it was rainy and quite dark like those early mornings you wake up to in Seattle, and it was better (than Beijing) because you could actually breathe.”
When it came time to compete, Groom and Linnenkohl stuck to their plan, which often meant holding back and giving up the chance of a victory during the preliminary heats in order to conserve as much energy as possible for the final race. According to Groom, this also added an element of surprise for her competition since she had been pacing herself to be just fast enough to qualify. None of her opponents truly knew what Linnenkohl’s “top gear” was, which she had on full display during the Grand Finals.
One-quarter of the way into the 2,000-meter race, however, Linnenkohl was on the outside looking in. She was in fifth place out of six boats and trailing the leader, Carina Baer of Germany, by over five seconds. But she wasn’t a bit worried.
“Coach always says, ‘You don’t win a race by the start,’” said Linnenkohl, who was recruited to row at the University of Virginia. “You don’t judge how you’re doing by the start, it’s something you have to wait a good 750 meters at least.”
Just like her strategy during the qualifying rounds, she conserved her energy during the early going, and put on the afterburners down the home stretch, in a spectacular come-from-behind display, passing three rowers to finish in second place with a time of seven minutes and 58.89 seconds, shaving more than 18 seconds off of her qualifying time in the semifinals.
“The way a typical race plan works, with the nature of racing and facing backwards, is that you want a very quick start, so people can’t see you, and they panic,” Groom explained. “That’s kind of the worst thing for your physiology to do this high blast and then settle into a sustainable (pace). Cara didn’t put everything into the start so it would be a detriment later on. One of her strengths is her base pace, her power per stroke. Once she settles in to the race rhythm, she can take a lot of distance off of people.
Although the soon-to-be Cavalier was happy with her performance in Austria, she was just as happy to be done with competitive rowing for the time being.
“I was just glad to get it over with,” Linnenkohl admitted. “I’d been training there for like two weeks. When you’re there by yourself doing 18-kilometer (sessions) every day, it gets boring. You just want to race already.”
“(Cara) doesn’t like to taper, so when she’s doing these long, medium-volume days with no racing, she gets really antsy,” Groom added. “That’s kind of the nature, we’re trying to wind it all up so when she gets the opportunity, it all unleashes.”
One of the last things that Groom told Linnenkohl before she raced the finals was to metaphorically draw a comparison between his star student, listed at 5-foot8, 157 pounds, and her more physically formidable competition as an opportunity for David to slay Goliath, like what happened in the old Bible story.
“He told me that I shouldn’t be afraid of my racing competition even though they’re huge and beat me two or three times… you can’t look at that and say ‘I’m not going to beat them,’ because things happen.”
As Linnenkohl moves on in her career, she is certain to thank those that have pushed and supported her in achieving her goal of being one of the world’s premiere rowers.
“Conal’s been a big support… he changed my perspective on how I’m coached and how I think I need to be coached,” Linnenkohl said. “What more mentally drove me was the support I had around (Lake Union Crew), because there’s so many people here that watch every race, they got up at 3 in the morning to watch the semifinal.
“I think it’s the people around you who support you who really make the difference.”
Tim Watanabe can be reached at email@example.com or at (425) 867-0353, ext. 5054.