As Kate Walker strolled across Texas’ campus after class, a member of the women’s rowing team stopped her, and she became one of the many freshmen stopped by groups looking to sway newcomers into joining their clubs.
When Walker heard that the rowing team wasn’t merely a club but a Division I sport, her interest instantly grew.
Now a sophomore, Walker will join the Texas varsity team, a year after she blindly joined the sport.
“It’s crazy to see how far we’ve all come when we didn’t know anything about the sport,” Walker said. “I didn’t know anything about the sport 10 months ago. I had no idea what rowing even was, and now, I mean, it’s kind of what I do with my life.”
Walker, a port-side rower, will look to lead the Longhorns back to the top of the Big 12. Texas won four straight conference championships before Oklahoma won the 2013 Big 12 regatta.
When she graduated from Argyle in 2012 after playing softball and basketball, Walker said she contemplated playing basketball at the Division III level. But she tabled those notions and decided to go to Texas, a school she had wanted to attend since about second grade for no specific reason.
Walker attended informational meetings that filtered out young women who realized the boat wasn’t for them, sifted through September tryouts and was one of about 75 people to stay with the team.
When cuts were made again at the end of 2012, Walker was one of 30 people who remained on the novice squad for the spring season. During spring break, Walker moved up to the novice team’s top boat.
“With rowing, you go as fast as you can as hard as you can for as long as you can, and you just convince yourself it doesn’t hurt and you just push yourself just to be the best that you can be,” Walker said. “It’s one of those things where there is no politics to it. Whoever is fastest is whoever’s in the boat.”
Rowing is an Olympic sport, but at the collegiate level it’s a sport derived from the need to maintain a balance between male and female athletes, Texas women’s rowing coach Carie Graves said.
“If you find a big football school, and a football school that’s near water — rowable water — you’re going to find a women’s rowing team,” said Graves, who founded UT’s program in 1998.
Graves graduated from River Valley High School in Spring Hill, Wis., and picked up the sport that ran in the family — one of the few sports available for her to participate in during the early 1970s.
Title IX, passed in 1972, is a law that requires gender equality in educational programs that receive federal funding.
Graves went on to row with three U.S. Olympic teams.
“I really felt that I could push myself beyond any boundaries I had ever known before, in terms of pain,” Graves said. “It’s about pain.”
From a distance, Graves said, she sees Walker carry herself like an athlete and that she’s cut out for the grueling nature of the sport.
“I also get the feeling, just from watching her, she’s tough,” Graves said. “Tough in a way that she’s got some sort of athletic moxie going on.”
Texas assistant coach and novice team head coach Caroline King said Walker rose to the top very quickly.
King referenced a time when about 15 people were working out in Texas’ 20,000-square-foot weight room. King earlier had exhorted the team to be more vocal and supportive during workouts.
When King stepped through the door, Walker boomed out a greeting to her coach and spurred her workout partners and teammates from then on.
“Kate is one of the most outgoing people I’ve ever met,” King said. “She came in as a pretty good athlete, but she’s an excellent, excellent team worker and she has a great work ethic.”
Walker said the thing she enjoys most about the sport is the teammates she’s acquired — a group of people with whom to go to football games, have dinner and chase conference championships.
“It’s a really close group of people that become your family because you’re going all the time, and no one else really understands how painful rowing is unless they’ve done it,” Walker said. “[Other people] kind of understand, but no one really understands exactly what you’re going through except for the people that are in the boat with you.”
Walker went from knowing nothing about the sport as a freshman to becoming a potentially integral piece in Texas’ chances of earning a berth in the NCAA Division I championship regatta.
The Argyle alumna said the opportunity has allowed her to fulfill her dreams of being an athlete at the highest collegiate level.
“It’s really cool,” Walker said. “Especially since being a Division I athlete is always what I wanted to do, and the fact that it’s worked out for me and I’m a Division I athlete now, it’s just really cool.”
BEN BABY can be reached at 940-566-6869 and via Twitter at @Ben_Baby.