Sept. 1, 2011
What started out as something to keep Amanda Polk busy between high school basketball seasons now has her on the cusp of representing the United States in the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.
The most decorated rower in Notre Dame history stumbled upon her sport while looking for a way to raise her fitness level as an aspiring high school basketball star in Pittsburgh. A friend realized that Polk’s height and strength would be beneficial in rowing and encouraged Polk to give the sport a try.
“She persuaded me and helped me because I had no idea how to get involved in rowing,” explains Polk, who made her competitive debut at an indoor competition in which rowers compete on rowing machines.
“I was learning how to row at the first indoor erg race of the season, and I had no idea what I was doing, no idea what the numbers on the screen meant,” she says. “My coach and teammates were teaching me the sequence of how to row literally twenty minutes before my race. During my race, I thought I was doing something wrong, because I didn’t realize that the number (displayed on the screen) dropping was actually better.”
“It was actually comical.”
Polk proved to be a very quick study. After being introduced to the sport as a sophomore at Oakland Catholic High School in Pittsburgh, basketball soon became something she did to stay in shape for rowing, although she did manage to find time to captain Oakland Catholic’s basketball squad as a senior.
“On the water, it was awesome, it was so much fun,” Polk relates. “For me, I found a true team sport. You really need to have all of the members of the boat together – when you’re on the water, everyone’s role is very similar and everyone has the same goal of getting over the finish line first.”
Just two years after taking up the sport, Polk was recruited by colleges including Duke, Virginia, Michigan, and Notre Dame. Following her decision to attend Notre Dame, she was invited to join the U.S. National Junior team, helping the eight to a seventh-place finish at the World Rowing Junior Championships in Spain.
“When I visited the campus at Notre Dame, I just had the feeling that was where I was destined to be,” she says. “That’s where I felt the most comfortable, the people were awesome – they were very friendly and very helpful.”
“And on top of that, I was very excited because their rowing program was seen as the underdog, and I really like being the underdog.” As it turned out, the other members of Polk’s Notre Dame recruiting class were of a like mind – they wanted to take the Notre Dame program to levels it had not seen since its debut as a varsity sport in 1998-99.
“It just so happened that everyone in my recruiting class all had the same reason to row at Notre Dame,” Polk shares. “And it was to bring the program up to see if we could get a NCAA team bid and eventually win a NCAA championship.”
The Irish are still looking for their first NCAA rowing championship, but thanks to Polk and her teammates, they can boast of their first-ever team invitations to the NCAA championship, earning a ninth-place finish in 2006 and a 12th-place finish the following season in 2007.
Polk did more than her part, earning All-American honors all four seasons at Notre Dame, becoming the first rower in school history to achieve multiple All-America accolades.
“Obviously no story is perfect,” says Polk in reference to that elusive national championship. “But getting to the NCAAs is a huge accomplishment in and of itself, and we’re really proud of that, especially since it was the first time the whole team was invited.”
In addition to everything she achieved on the water, Polk earned her degree in biochemistry after persuading her academic advisor that she could accommodate both her rowing schedule and the demands of such a rigorous field of study.
“I’m very humbled by my whole experience and by what I learned at Notre Dame as a student, as an athlete and as a person,” says Polk, while acknowledging the huge impact that her coaches at Notre Dame – Martin Stone, Marnie Stahl, and Joe Schlosberg – had on her development.
Polk also credits her parents, Ken and JoAnn, who never wavered in their support.
“Even though there were five children, they somehow made each of us feel as though we were an only child,” Polk marvels. “They taught me how to work hard, and by watching them, I learned that commitment and persistence builds great relationships.”
Shortly after graduating from Notre Dame with a degree in biochemistry, Polk won the gold in the eight as a member of the United States U-23 Team at the 2008 World Rowing Under-23 Championships in Germany.
“After winning that gold, I was sold,” says Polk.
“I was on this high that I needed to take rowing to the next level,” she recalls. “Winning an international gold is an incredible feeling.”
“What’s even more incredible is that everybody has a different story of how we’ve all come together,” describes Polk. “When I was in high school some of these women were just starting on their first national team – it’s crazy how dedicated and committed these women are.
“I’m just so blessed and humbled to be a part of this.”
For now, being “a part of this” means that Polk has to postpone a career that would utilize the biochemistry degree she earned at Notre Dame. Members of the U.S. National Team must provide their own financial support, but training and competitions preclude full-time employment. As a result, Polk has built an eclectic resume of part-time positions, including work at a financial services firm, as well as a museum curator, a babysitter and a dog walker.
The U.S. National Team is currently competing in the 2011 World Rowing Championships in Bled, Slovenia (broadcast live on universalsports.com), which conclude tomorrow (September 4). The Americans will be seeking to qualify for the 2012 London Olympics, with the Olympic team likely to be finalized in the late spring.
Although she’s had a great summer on the water, including agold in the women’s eight crew at the Lucerne World Cup – her fifth international gold – Polk is taking nothing for granted.
“Rowing with the U.S. team, no matter what happens – if I make the Olympic team, or not – I’m honored to be part of the journey and very grateful to have the opportunity to compete for my country,” she says.
“All you can do is focus on one day at a time, one task at a time,” says Polk. “First of all, the time flies when I live in the moment and secondly, it keeps me sane. If I look too far in the future I can get overwhelmed and too excited.” That might be easier said than done – the Olympic finals for Polk’s event, fall on August 2, 2012, her 26th birthday.
“An Olympic gold medal – that would be the ultimate birthday present for me,” she allows.