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Rowing Pains

Kristine O’Brien did not want to row.


When her parents suggested it as a way to earn a college scholarship as she headed into high school at St. John the Baptist in West Islip, O’Brien was not quick to hop aboard.


“I didn’t think it was a real sport,” said O’Brien, 21, from her home in Massapequa Park. 

Now, fresh off a World Championship as a member of Team USA’s under-23 rowing team, her second gold medal, and a successful college career at the University of Virginia that saw two NCAA championships and a bevy of awards, O’Brien is starting to think her parents had the right idea.


“I found something I was really passionate about,” she said. “Once I got the taste of winning, I just fell in love with it.”


Now that passion could translate into a brand of winning she never dreamed of tasting, as O’Brien is set to try out for the Olympics with the senior national team in September. 


But becoming a world class rower was not smooth sailing. When she first joined the rowing team in high school, O’Brien struggled to find her rhythm. And after years of competing at a high level in multiple sports including basketball, volleyball, soccer, softball and track and field, not being the best was tough to swallow. 


“I was definitely bummed out a bit,” she said. “But I stuck with it and trained really hard. Then in the winter of my freshman year, it just clicked.”


That spring her team won the state championship and she has not looked back since. During her high school rowing career, O’Brien won four state championships; was a member of the U.S. Rowing High Performance team; she earned four varsity letters; won most improved; set a course record on the Charles for the Girls Youth Double; was a

Scholastic National Champion; won the Stotesbury Cup Championship; set a school record for the 2,000-meter ergometer score; and much more. 


Her powerhouse rowing skills continued at her dream school, the University of Virginia, where O’Brien and her teammates won the two NCAA National Championships, she captured the 2010 ACC Freshman of the Year award, won 2012 USRowing Fan’s Choice Collegiate Rower of the Year, and took home many more awards too numerous to list. 


Awards and championships do not come easily and O’Brien goes through a grueling seven-day training regimen that includes time on a rowing machine and strenuous core and weightlifting workouts. 


“You have to be extremely dedicated and commit yourself to putting in the time,” she said. “If you don’t put in the strokes and put in the miles, you are not going to go anywhere in this sport.”


But according to O’Brien, the payoff to that dedication is immeasurable. Besides bringing championship glory, she said rowing has afforded her the opportunity to maintain friendships with teammates and coaches long after the boats came ashore. 


She counts last year’s NCAA championship as her all-time favorite rowing memory. When she crossed the finish line with her teammates, O’Brien said family, friends and non-starting teammates stormed the water, prompting the team to jump out of the boat and join them in the drink.


“We were all in the water, the team, the athletic director, everyone. It was mass chaos and the coolest experience of my life,” she said. “There was something so special about my time at Virginia. You work so hard all year with teammates and coaches that you form a special bond. And when that work pays off, it’s just amazing.”


But hard work can only take one so far and O’Brien counts inspiration and support from her parents Stephen and Kathleen and her college coach Kevin Sauer as deciding factors in her success. She also draws joy from buffalo wings, her 8-year-old brother Christopher, a Massapequa Mustang little leaguer, and her twin sister Melanie, who O’Brien said was the better athlete growing up.


The O’Brien sisters, together nicknamed Sister/Sister, were always on the same team throughout their early sporting careers at Berner Middle School. That is, until they tried out for CYO travel basketball and were placed on opposing teams. 


“It came down to the final game for the championship,” she said, recalling how Sister/Sister became Sister vs. Sister. “I’m almost positive I won.”


And now as she prepares for the next leg of her rowing tour, O’Brien laughs at the thought of ever not wanting to row.


“If I keep working hard, there’s a chance I could go to the Olympics,” she said. “It’s amazing to even hear myself say that.”