Carmel Valley native aiming to row her way into Rio Olympics

By Karen Billing

Torrey Pines High School alumna Kerry Simmonds won the silver medal at the 2014 World Rowing Championships in Amsterdam on Aug. 30. Simmonds, 25, won the pairs competition with her partner, two-time Olympian Megan Kalmoe.

She now lives in Princeton, N.J., and trains with the USA rowing team with her sights set on rowing at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

This year’s silver-medal finish wasn’t Simmons’ first taste of international rowing success. In 2013, Simmonds was also part of the gold-winning USA National Team of eight at the World Rowing Championships held in South Korea.

“(The pairs) medal was a little bit more rewarding than the eight, because with the pairs you’re a little more responsible for how it goes and there’s so much vulnerability to it. It was pretty special,” Simmonds said. “You put yourself out there a little more and you show yourself and others what you can do.”

Simmonds graduated from Torrey Pines High School in 2007, an athlete who ran cross country and track and played basketball. When she was visiting her choice college, University of Washington, her tour guide suggested she consider rowing because she was so tall at 6 feet even.

Being tall is an advantage in rowing, as the idea is to move the boat as fast as possible by maximizing the length and efficiency of each stroke — the taller the rower, the better the mechanical advantage, according to Kalmoe.

When Simmonds returned to San Diego after that visit, she and her mom went to the Mission Bay Aquatic Center and took out a boat for a lesson.

“Looking back now, it wasn’t the greatest time,” Simmonds said with a laugh. “But I thought maybe I could try rowing out, that it could be something that kept me active.”

At U-Dub, rowing is a Division 1 NCAA-funded sport and it turned out rowing was a pretty big deal in Seattle. Simmonds found the tradition of the sport inspiring, and after trying out, was named to the novice squad.

“There were a lot like me who had never rowed, and the team was pretty good (at) being patient,” Simmonds said. “The transition was not super-hard; the challenge was actually kind of nice. There’s a lot of lingo you have to learn. It’s like a whole new world.”

She learned about pace and endurance and the right way to put the blade into the water, an art she is still working to perfect. And she met The Erg, a “brutal, honest” indoor rowing machine that measures a rower’s output.

“It’s a good tool for training and is definitely the hardest workout I’ve ever done,” Simmonds said.

Simmonds competed with the Huskies in the then-Pac-10, spending her freshman year on the novice boat, making the JV boat as a sophomore and moving into the varsity boat for her final two years.

While in college, she was invited to USA Rowing’s Under 23 team camps and made the team the summer of her senior year, winning gold at the 2010 World Rowing Under 23 Championships.

After graduating from college with a degree in biology, she moved to Princeton to train with the U.S. National Team, just as they were selecting the 2012 Olympic team.

Her Erg scores weren’t high enough to be picked, so in fall 2012 she started working on development along with another new group of rowers. She made the eight team in 2013 that won the championship.

“U.S. Women’s eight won in the 2012 London Olympics and have won every year since 2006,” Simmonds said. “In 2013, it was a completely new group. We were just thinking ‘Don’t screw it up.’”

USA Rowing holds a National Selection Regatta to determine who will make up the pairs boats. The fastest pair earns the right to compete at the World Cup and the World Championships that year.

“Megan and I weren’t favored; we were the underdogs,” said Simmonds of the 2014 selection regatta. “But we came through and ended up winning.”

The pair earned the right to compete at the World Rowing Cup in France in June, taking silver, and then went on to represent the U.S. in Amsterdam in August.

Simmonds and Kalmoe went up against the defending Olympic pairs champions from Great Britain.

“They’re the crew to beat. We had nothing to lose,” Simmonds said.

The Great Britain team is known for getting an early lead and hanging onto it, so Simmond’s and Kalmoe’s goal was to keep close to them.

“We moved into them a little at the end, but not enough to win, and New Zealand was pushing us,” Simmonds said of the seven minute, 2,000-meter race where they finished fast and strong. “Everyone was pushing everyone.”

At Princeton, Simmonds and about 29 other rowers are training six times a week, four to six hours a day over two to three practices. The rowers cross-train with running, biking, weight lifting and a lot of Erging. The USA team uses the same boathouse as the Princeton crew on Lake Carnegie and also rows at Mercer Lake.

“It does get cold here, and the lake eventually freezes,” Simmonds said.

During the winter, the team will use the Erg or they come to San Diego for winter camp, training at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista. Those two-and-a-half months back home in San Diego are fun for Simmonds, being close to family and friends.

In what little spare time she has, Simmonds also helps coach a high school rowing team in Princeton, but rowing is her full-time job.

“The whole time I’ve been here, I’ve been aiming for the Rio Olympics,” said Simmonds, adding that every year athletes  want to make the National Team, but only in an Olympic year is it the Olympic team.

“I’m an Olympic hopeful, but I’m not an Olympian yet. The goal is to stay healthy, keep training and make the team next summer.”

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