Athlete Spotlight: Grace Kennel
JL Racing: What sports were you involved in growing up, and when did you start rowing?
Grace Kennel: I started rowing the summer after freshman year, after playing soccer for ten years. I joined because I felt that I needed a change and I was taller than everyone else on my soccer team. While I liked the mental and physical challenges of swimming and running, which I did during the summers, I hated having all the eyes on me while I was doing it. My dad suggested that I row, and I’ve never looked back.
JL: What is your major at Purdue? Do you find it difficult to balance the workload of being a student and an athlete?
Grace: I’m enrolled in the chemical engineering program at Purdue, concentrating in Food Science and Biology. On top of this, I oversee two engineering project teams that work within the engineering school to develop sustainability initiatives around campus. Doing all of this on top of rowing two hours each day, traveling each weekend, and doing outreach work with the crew team is incredibly difficult, and I often struggle to stay motivated. I keep myself on track by reminding myself what I am working towards and finding the joy in the journey, doing little things like cooking for my teammates, and setting aside time for myself.
JL: What is your favorite part about being a student athlete?
Grace: I enjoy having my day segmented off. As much as I struggle at times to manage my time, it’s nice to have a couple hours every day to dedicate to something I love. This also forces me to use the rest of my time wisely so that I can give my best effort at practice. Being a student athlete has also forced me to be able to compartmentalize so that I am not worried about upcoming tests while in the boat, or upcoming pieces while in class. It has taken me out of my comfort zone for sure, but it has also forced me to grow in new and positive ways.
JL: If you could give a high school rower a tip to prep for being a collegiate rower, what would it be?
Grace: Learn how to erg. Coming from a high school that 2ked once a year, I heard over and over that “ergs don’t float.” However, eventually the people who are fast on the erg will fix their technique and if you don’t have the mental stamina to make it through tough erg pieces you will lose out on valuable training and start to fall behind. Learning how to lock in and embrace the pain of tough interval pieces, endless steady states, and rate ramps will make you not only a more marketable athlete, but significantly improve other aspects of your life as well.
JL: What is the best advice you’ve received from a coach?
Grace: During my senior year, the varsity four that I raced in qualified for nationals. Despite the fact that graduation fell on the same weekend, and my boat was composed entirely of seniors, we decided to go. We were the only boat from a team of seventy that had qualified and we weren’t ready for our season to end at states. We were fast, we stacked up well against the other midwest teams, and we were confident that we had a shot at medalling.
During our semi-final, a difficult crosswind, an ill-timed crab, and a suboptimal point led to us missing the A-final qualification by a tenth of a second.
Leaving the water we were silent. Walking back to our trailer it was as if someone had died. My friend and teammate, a Villanova commit who I had never seen cry, sat silently shaking while tears streamed down her face. We had all sacrificed so much for the boat, giving up our graduation, our senior party, the last four years of our social life, all for it to end in a petite final.
Our coach sat us down, smiling the same unnerving grin he always donned when he was trying to cheer us up. We talked for a few minutes about the race, what went wrong, what went well. He told us to shape up, that we had another race in three hours. Looking around, I knew that we were all thinking the same thing:
There is nothing I want to do less than race a petite final.
Our coach must have caught on to the pity party we were all partaking in. He joined us on the ground of the slimy, unused dock we were sitting on and looked us up and down, sighing a sigh that only a forty-year old man can produce.
“Just remember guys,” he said, still smiling that disconcerting smile, “from here on out it’s all gravy.”
We were all caught so off guard by this statement that we briefly forgot that we were supposed to be sulking.
“It’s all extra,” he replied, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. “You’re here, you're together, you got these extra races. It’s just-- It’s the gravy on top.”
We stared at him blankly, tears drying on our cheeks as we sat there stunned. Finally our stroke seat spoke up. “Do you mean it’s the cherry on top?”
He shrugged. “You could also think of it that way.”
I couldn’t help it, I burst out laughing. Soon enough, the rest of the boat joined me. Later that day, when we rowed up to the starting line, I could tell his speech had had a significant effect. Gone were the tears from earlier, the anger, the pity. We did all of our pre-race rituals. We sang at the start line, convinced our steak-starter to take a picture of us, spit in our rigors. We rowed the best race we had rowed all season and destroyed the competition.
My coach, however weird his phrasing had been, had reminded me at that moment why I rowed. I was there to win, I was there to be competitive, but I was also there to enjoy myself. I was there to race one last time with girls that had literally been in the same boat as me since freshman year. I had watched them go from scrawny freshman to D1 prospects, grown up with them, seen them at their best and worst moments.
That race allowed us one more moment together, one more start, one more sprint, one more scream of victory as we crossed the finish line. That last race with them was extra, it was just for us.
It was gravy.