Persistence Pays Off: Rower Has Sights Set on Gold in Tokyo 2020 Olympics

Kristine O’Brien, a graduate of St. John the Baptist Diocesan High School in West Islip, will be competing in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. (Photo: courtesy of United States Rowing Association)

WINDSOR TERRACE — After being cut from the U.S. women’s rowing team before the Rio 2016 Olympics, rower Kristine O’Brien wasn’t sure if she should try again for Tokyo in four years’ time.

But, after receiving encouragement from her family and coaches, O’Brien decided to devote another four years to training — in hopes of representing the United States in the next Summer Games.

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The Irish-born and Long Island-raised athlete credits her family and extended family at St. John the Baptist Diocesan High School in West Islip for helping to kickstart her Olympics dream. O’Brien, 29, says her life would have turned out much differently had the Catholic high school not offered rowing.

“I didn’t have the most enjoyable middle school experience and I think that was part of why I went from public school to Catholic high school,” said O’Brien, Class of ’09, from her Princeton, N.J., training facility in late June.

“The local public high school didn’t have a rowing team and I don’t know if I ever would have found rowing without St. John’s.”

But, the irony of the situation was that O’Brien wanted to try out for the volleyball team.

“I thought I wouldn’t get a good enough workout [with rowing],” O’Brien continued. “It’s so funny I used to say that because it’s so hard.” 

When it came time to prepare for upcoming races, O’Brien said she “worked my butt off.”

“I would wake up early at 4 a.m., train with my doubles partner [Vitoria Greco] before school, and then go straight to school,” said O’Brien, explaining that the Oakdale training site was a 30- to 40-minute drive from her Massapequa Park home and another 20-minute drive to the West Islip school. “Or I would come home from practice [after school] and then go to the gym and lift.”

Kristine O’Brien’s high school yearbook quote and photos. (Photo: Courtesy of St. John the Baptist Diocesan High School)

O’Brien later received an athletic scholarship to row at her dream school, the University of Virginia (UVA). She was invited to be part of the Under-23 national team throughout her collegiate career and won two FISA World Rowing Under-23 World Championships.

O’Brien was then invited to train in the US Rowing Training Center in September 2013 and made her first senior team three years later.

However, when she was cut from the Rio 2016 Olympics team, O’Brien contemplated leaving the sport. 

“There was a period of time when I didn’t know if I wanted to keep rowing. So, I went and became a full-time assistant rowing coach at my alma mater,” said O’Brien, explaining how she was crushed to have come up short. “But, about halfway through my first year [in 2017], I thought I might want to try again, and started training.”

“That was influenced by my mom and, of course, my UVA boss Kevin Sauer — the same head coach who recruited and coached me for four years,” she continued. “When I took the job, he told me, ‘Listen, if in a year you decide you want to go back and train for Tokyo, that’s what I want for you. I don’t want you to be done because I think you’re just getting started.’ ”

Through hard work and determination, O’Brien was named to the senior national teams in 2017, 2018, and 2019. “It’s been eight years since I first started working at the training center,” the first-time Olympian said. “That’s half of my rowing career.”

“That’s kind of crazy to think about,” she added, “but that’s the kind of work it takes to get to this point.”

Kristine O’Brien finished third in the eight at the 2019 World Rowing Championships. (Photo: courtesy of United States Rowing Association)

Faith, O’Brien says, has played a major role both on and off the water, during times of sadness and even joyous celebration. “For so many years, I was like, ‘Yeah, I got cut and am still training for the Olympics,’” she explained. “I’m sure people have thought I’m crazy, but I’ve always had faith that I was going to make it.”

“I thank God for blessing me with this ability to do what I get to do every day and to keep pushing even when times are hard,” O’Brien said after learning she earned a spot in the Women’s Eight team in early June. “Before every race, I pray and I’ll even pray in the warm-up on the water at the starting line.”

“I’ve been waiting a long time for this,” O’Brien said prior to her departure for Japan — her first competitive trip to Asia. “We’ve been putting in a lot of work and now we have to go and get the job done.”

“I think we learned over the last year that training on your own is really hard and you’re a lot better when you’re with your teammates who are pushing you every day,” she added. “I don’t take my teammates for granted and I’m very thankful for them.”

Men’s and women’s rowing competitions begin July 23 and medal events will take place from July 27 to July 30. Due to COVID-19 guidelines, athletes must depart from the Olympic Village within 48 hours after their elimination or the completion of their specific competition.