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A silver lining

Tom Boyd

Vail is well known as an incubator for Olympic ski racers, but now our Valley has produced a summer Olympic medallist.Kate Johnson, born in Vail on Dec. 18, 1978, spent the first five years of her life in Vail and has maintained a lifelong connection to our Valley. On Aug. 22 she helped the women’s-eight rowing team capture a silver medal at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games only days after the crew set a world record during a qualifying heat (see “Rowing for Gold” at vailtrail.com, Aug. 19 edition).The world-record performance which occurred during heavy winds at the Shinias rowing facility on the coast of the Aegean Sea was enough to beat-out the traditionally strong Romanian team. The American team was favored by many to win gold, but the Romanians outdid the Americans during the final race, finishing in 6 minutes, 17.7 seconds compared to the American time of 6:19.56.Still, Johnson said, the thrill of being on the podium has energized her and everyone involved in her sport.”I think we knew there was a lot of outside pressure for us to get the gold because of the world record,” she said in an interview with The Vail Trail after her race in Athens. “Typically when the U.S. has come into the Olympics favored to medal they’ve always had a bad Olympics, but we knew our first and foremost goal was to medal. In the past, teams have focused too much on gold and they didn’t medal. We took our minds off the gold and focused on rowing our best.”The women’s eight have not won a medal in the Olympics since 1984 but that was in a boycotted Olympics and in a shortened, 1,000-meter race. The current U.S. Olympic team is relatively young only two of the rowers had previous Olympic experience. But the U.S. women’s rowing programs are benefiting nation-wide from a 1996 NCAA ruling which approved rowing for Division I status in 1996. The ruling involved Title IX, a law meant to ensure equal resources for men and women in education, and essentially put pressure on college athletic departments to improve women’s sports. Rowing, as a result, grew tremendously beginning in 1997.Rowing insiders say the Title IX ruling could catapult America to the top of the world rankings as skill level and interest grows for the women; but the ball is already rolling. A World Cup gold medal last year and the recent silver performance can’t be directly tied to the Title IX ruling because only two of the U.S. women’s eight have directly benefited from the upgraded status of their sport. But the momentum of the landmark Title IX ruling is clearly adding to the prestige of the sport and many call the Olympic success a precursor to a bright future for U.S. Rowing.And the good news doesn’t end with Johnson and the women’s team. The U.S. men also broke a long medal drought when they topped the Netherlands and Australia for gold in the men’s eight. They hadn’t seen a medal in 40 years.The combined success of the American teams, Johnson said, bodes well for her sport.”What winning a medal has done is that it’s going to keep the return rate higher,” she said. “Women are going to come back, men are going to come back, because success is contagious. Now that we’ve earned a medal we are definitely going to be coming back and pursuing more success.”Vail on the victory tourJohnson said that training for rowing has kept her away from Vail for the past several years. But when she returns to the States she promised the Vail Trail that she’ll be coming through town to see her old friends and catch up with the happenings in her surrogate hometown.”I’m very proud of coming from Vail,” she said. “It’s one of my claims to fame. It was so neat to hear (from a source in Athens) that all the people from Vail were rooting for me.”Johnson has been quite the ambassador for the Valley. Her website proudly lists her place of birth as Vail; she appeared on Denver’s Channel 9 News Aug. 24 where she mentioned Vail (after several locals called the TV station and asked for coverage) and she was quoted and pictured in recent issues of Sports Illustrated and USA Today. She was ecstatic to learn that she also made the cover of the Vail Trail which she happened to mention is her favorite media outlet of them all (wink, wink).Johnson spent the first five years of her life in Vail, attending preschool at the Learning Tree alongside two other nationally-acclaimed athletes: Toby Dawson (a U.S. Freestyle Ski Team member) and Sarah Schleper (the nation’s top slalom skier).Johnson has a close relationship with Anna Christopher and the Christopher family, who have been in touch with her throughout her effort to make the Olympic team. Her father, Paul, was a rower in his youth at Holy Cross, and his mother, Linda, was one of the first Vail Hostesses.It was in her formative years, Johnson said, that she learned to live an athletic lifestyle. Call it a stretch, but here in Vail we’ll claim to have given Johnson her basic athletic mentality. Johnson did say, after all, that swimming at the Vail Athletic Club during her summers here made her into the athlete she is today.”Vail is definitely where I got my athleticism,” she said.So it’s silver for Johnson and the U.S. women something that we, as Americans and as citizens of the Valley, can feel a part of. And it makes us wonder: who else is crawling around on the floors of our preschools today who may be bringing Olympic medals home tomorrow? VTThe Vail Trail regrets to inform its readers that it incorrectly used a rowing term in the Aug. 19 story on Kate Johnson. The term “caught a grab,” is actually supposed to be “caught a crab.” We’re sorry for our ignorance when it comes to the sport of rowing (but, since we’ve never seen a body of water bigger than Nottingham Lake, we are sure the reader will understand).


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