First-year rower goes from walk-on to invitee to Olympic development camp

KINGSTON, R.I. – Oct. 16, 2019 – To look back on Kat Gillies’ novice season with the University of Rhode Island rowing team, it would be easy to miss the rough patches.

In one year, Gillies ’22 has gone from an unrecruited walk-on with no rowing experience to one of 15 young rowers in the nation to be invited to the 2019 USRowing Under 23 Women’s Olympic Development Program Camp.

“I know it sounds really amazing and exciting, especially for only a freshman, but the journey to where I am today was very hard,” says Gillies, a kinesiology major from Franklin, Massachusetts. “It was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever done. But it was also one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, walking onto a Division I sport.”

Kat Gillies
Kat Gillies, front row, second from right, poses with some of the 15 young rowers who took part in the 2019 USRowing Under 23 Women’s Olympic Development Program Camp at the University of Iowa.

For a walk-on, Gillies quickly established herself on a team that captured its third-straight conference title and qualified for its second-straight NCAA Championship. By the first half of the spring season, Gillies had earned a spot on the second varsity 8+ boat, which went on to win its flight at the Atlantic 10 Championship in May, and finish 20th in its flight two weeks later at the NCAAs, where the Rams placed 21st nationally.

“Kat really picked up rowing quite nicely,” says coach Shelagh Donohoe, who is staring her 14th season at URI having coached the Rams to seven conference titles and all four of the program’s NCAA berths. “She has good size, good structure, and I don’t think she’s even scratched the surface of what she’s capable of doing. She’s still young. I think we’re going to see a lot from her over the next three years.”

It was that potential—and impressive times on the rowing machine, or ergometer—that earned Gillies an invitation to the U23 Olympic development camp. At 6-foot-1, Gillies has the size desired of elite rowers, and her times on the ergometer—7 minutes, 4 seconds on the 2-kilometer test—are national level.

“When you’re talking national team,” says Donohoe, “they look at size and they look at numbers. The ‘erg’ shows a lot of grit and power. That’s something that’s really hard to teach. Coaches are confident that they can teach you how to row if you have those.”

The Olympic development camp, held Aug. 13-17 at the University of Iowa boathouse on the Iowa River, brought in 15 young rowers, rising sophomores and juniors from such programs as Duke, North Carolina, Oregon State, Notre Dame and Dartmouth, with the physical potential and desire to become elite rowers. The camp was led by Iowa coach Andrew Carter, USRowing Director of Athletic Development Brett Gorman and Ohio State assistant coach Anna Goodale.

Days at the camp started at 6 a.m., with rowers spending about four hours in the morning and another three hours in the afternoon on the water, along with weight training and running sessions. There were also lessons in strategy, nutrition and mental strength.

“The camp touched on a lot of different things that really helped me, my technique, my technique on the ‘erg,’ my times, and everything in between,” Gillies says.

Gorman, a former four-time national team member, says Gillies showed she has more than the height and athleticism to succeed. “Her attitude and progress at camp showed me that if she chooses to continue rowing she has the capacity to get very far,” she says.

A year ago, Gillies never thought rowing would be such a big part of her life. A high school swimmer, she had no intentions of competing in college in any sport when she enrolled at URI, attracted by the University’s program in kinesiology, and its closeness to the beaches and to her home.

“It was really weird,” says Gillies. “My mom one day last August said you should try rowing. And then that same day, out of nowhere a former URI rowing coach messaged me on Facebook and suggest I try rowing.”

Gillies joined the rowing team with about 20 other walk-ons last fall when training started for novice rowers. The schedule was grueling: early mornings on Narrow River or withering sessions on the ergometer in the gym; afternoons running stairs in Keaney Gymnasium or doing circuit training, and three days a week in the weight room.

Used to training hard as a swimmer, Gillies watched as other walk-ons gradually dropped out as training got progressively harder. But she had her own doubts—the ergometer sessions were a drain, mastering rowing technique came slowly, it took a while to balance training for a Division I sport and academic demands.

“Last year, when things got tough and training got hard and I was in a funk, I wished someone had handed me a packet of everything you need to know about this sport, because if I had known it was going to be this hard, I would have never done it,” she says.

Her confidence got a boost last October when the novice rowers had their first 4-kilometer ergometer test. “That was our first real test. I had no idea what to expect,” she says. “But by the last 500 meters, a bunch of varsity rowers were behind me cheering because my score was looking pretty good. When I finished, one of them said to me, ‘That’s an NCAA time.’ After that, I felt like I could really do it. It was really hard, but I got through it.”

Going into her sophomore year, with her experience at the Olympic development camp, Gillies has a new sense of confidence.

“Being a walk-on last year, I was scared because it was so new,” says Gillies. “The coaches saw something in me but I was really working to reach my full potential. So, going to camp, meeting the coaching staff really helped. They explained things and demonstrated things in such a way that I finally realized what I needed to do to improve in terms of technique and mental toughness.”

If Gillies goes on to represent the U.S., she will join such URI rowers as former Olympians Julia Chilicki (later the first coach of the URI women’s rowing team) and silver medalist Jason Gailes, and such more recent Rams as Allie Reilly and Karen Petrik, who earned silver in August at the World Championships in PR3 Mix 4+ boat. The boat was coached by Donohoe

“If we can develop Kat and she’s willing to train hard, she has a shot,” says Donohoe. “When you have that opportunity, you’ve got to grab it because there’s a hundred people behind you who want to take that seat.”