Nov. 24, 2014

By Renee Peggs

Anna Kottkamp shines.

As a group, University of Notre Dame student-athletes are bright and excel in the classroom. They also have a sincere commitment and dedication to their teammates and coaches, and to the success of their teams. There is an appreciation for being both a student and an athlete at the University. Notre Dame student-athletes set a standard both in the classroom and on the playing field.

To stand out, then, from one’s fellow Fighting Irish takes a remarkable individual indeed.

Earning a perfect 4.0 grade-point average at Notre Dame is obviously no small feat. For a student to maintain such perfection into his or her senior year is highly commendable, and is particularly rare with a major in the sciences. Add Division I athletics with its attendant rigor and demands on time? Approaching the impossible.

Kottkamp, a senior on the Irish rowing team, holds that 4.0 GPA as an environmental sciences major with a minor in international development. She’s an active member of Voices of Faith, a student-led gospel choir serving the Basilica of the Sacred Heart and residential ministries across campus. Her Fridays are spent in downtown South Bend at the Monroe Park Food Co-op, an outreach of the Catholic Worker. On days when her class schedule is light, she volunteers in the ecology lab at Jordan Hall of Science with a professor and a graduate student. Over the years, she has spent her summer vacations in Peru, Bolivia and Honduras working to merge efforts in environmental conservation with humanitarian concerns for indigenous peoples.

As if all these things were not enough, Kottkamp is gentle, humble, articulate and passionate.

“Anna is really good at pretty much everything she does,” says Martin Stone, head coach of the rowing program at Notre Dame. “In this day and age, so many athletes who are in the spotlight are selfish and all about themselves. She is the complete opposite of that. As her coach I sometimes wish she’d come out and acknowledge how good she is at rowing, but that’s just not who she is. She’s egoless by nature and that really makes her stand out.”

Kottkamp began rowing as a walk-on in her freshman year at Notre Dame, with almost no athletics background to speak of.

“I actually quit the swim team in high school,” she says. “Then I went out a couple times for a learn-to-row class. That was the extent of my previous rowing experience before I came to Notre Dame.”

She grew up in Wenatchee, Washington, a small city along the Columbia River about 150 miles east of Seattle.

“My exercise was running up my hill at home,” Kottkamp says with a laugh. “Then I come to Notre Dame with this expectation of how college will be and what it might be like to participate in a sport, and the reality just steam-rolled all of that.

“My freshman year was actually very difficult. I was very conscious of wanting to do well in school, and I rather quickly and surprisingly made it to the second varsity boat in rowing. So then I wasn’t around my freshman peers on the team anymore, and everything was pretty overwhelming. I was even thinking about leaving Notre Dame and transferring somewhere else. But my older teammates on the rowing team basically launched this `Don’t Let Anna Quit’ initiative. They absolutely surrounded and supported me, and that made all the difference in the world. Any success I have had is completely due to those girls.”

Notre Dame assistant rowing coach Marnie Stahl coached Kottkamp throughout her freshman year and has an admiration for all of what her former pupil has as a student-athlete at the University.

“We have a program for walk-ons, yet Anna really flourished when she got used to rowing,” Stahl says. “She’s clearly also doing well in the classroom, she’s very community service-minded, a team player and she’s doing really well on the water.”

Kottkamp rows with Notre Dame’s first varsity eight-boat. Named 2014 Atlantic Coast Conference Scholar-Athlete of the Year, she helped lead her team to a ninth-place finish (matching the best in school history) last season at the NCAA Championships. Kottkamp also became the fourth Irish student-athlete to win the NCAA Elite 89 Award, which is presented to the student-athlete with the highest cumulative grade-point average participating at a finals site for each of the NCAA’s 89 championships.

“I don’t feel like I have to challenge Ann, that’s just who she is,” Stone says. “Anna has a deep sense of what needs to be done and she does it. Former Notre Dame assistant football coach Bob Diaco said it last year, as coaches here, we have to be really on our games because the kids are so on their games. Anna forces me to be better, she makes me get out of my comfort zone a little bit. We’re pretty lucky to have her on the team.”

Her family also has a great deal to do with her ability to achieve at such a high level in so many ways.

“My parents never made me feel like there was any pressure to do well in school and I think that gave me the freedom to succeed academically,” Kottkamp says. “They’re obviously very proud of me and their support of me was absolutely essential in my being able to move far away from home for college. What they have given me is self-confidence to try all these new things, and pretty ambitious things, without ever making me feel like I had to do something or perform at a certain level. Their continued support of me from back home… it’s very important to me that I acknowledge them.”

Flexibility and willingness to self-evaluate are among Kottkamp’s other strengths. She came to Notre Dame planning to major in pre-med and, while she clearly had the aptitude to continue down that road, she found it necessary to recalibrate.

“I did well in those classes and enjoyed them but the summer after my freshman year I worked in a clinic and realized it was not for me.” Kottkamp says. “The work is valuable and wonderful but it was too much pushing numbers around and a lot of time inside a building. I realized I had a different vision for my future.

“Growing up in the northwest, I’ve always had this appreciation for nature and the environment. It’s just ingrained in me. Switching to environmental sciences and studying plants and water and the business of ecology… this is the nerdiest thing I could possibly say, but I love to take tests because it gives me a chance to show how much I care about what I’m learning,” Kottkamp says while rolling her eyes at herself in playful distaste.

Her passion for the environment goes far beyond scoring well on a test or in a class. She speaks about environmental conservation and the importance of such efforts both locally and globally, while also understanding those efforts and issues are never divorced from consideration of the people who are affected by conservation decisions.

“Conservation is not simple, it’s not just designating a tract of land as preserved or protected and then feeling like you’ve accomplished a good thing, she says. “I’ve learned you have to look at organizations not just for what they’re doing but also how they’re doing it and what consequences their work is having on people. My research right now is focused on improving the way land is used and absolutely involving the people on and around that land so the improvements are done on their terms.”

Her approach to her global environmental work – just like her demeanor – is gentle and inviting, allowing others to feel empowered rather than overpowered.

“It often takes an immersive experience to maybe violently open yourself up to the conditions under which about 90 percent of the world’s population lives,” Kottkamp says. “I’m so blessed to have had so many opportunities to get out of the closed systems that we sometimes take for granted, but it’s two-sided. I have this responsibility now to go out and share what I’ve learned and what I’ve been given.”

Following graduation in May, Kottkamp hopes to join the Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest or a similar non-profit organization to gain additional experience in service while continuing discernment toward her career. Right now, she’s struggling with the reality of uncertainty.

“It’s hard for me not to have something set in stone, especially when my friends in pre-med have their paths marked out for them already,” she says. “But sometimes you just have to let things go and rely on God, and trust that you will continue to be yourself and not fall into complacency or settle for something that won’t actually make you happy.”

And speaking of happy, her greatest joy seems clearly to come from being in service to others.

“Initially I think keeping my grades up was motivated by my own perfectionism, yet over time that has given way to such a genuine interest in and passion for what I’m doing that it just kind of carries itself along,” Kottkamp says. “Academic success is now about something more than myself. God has given me this beautiful life not to keep, but to give away to others.

“That does not mean I’m totally selfless 100 percent of the time or that I won’t join an activity that I’m really passionate about… but that I have a vision for my life that includes giving back from what I’ve been given. Having this overarching goal for my future, even though at this point it’s still pretty abstract, has been a huge motivating factor for how well I’ve done in school and for all the choices I’ve made along the way.”

Those choices almost always have been made deliberately.

“They say in college you can either have friends or good grades or sleep, and when you add in athletics, you have to choose even fewer of those,” Kottkamp says. “So I have probably participated less in dorm life than others here… I haven’t been on hall council or played flag football. I have a very small circle of close friends, my roommates mostly, and they keep me up to date on all the football games – the real ones! – because I don’t really get to more than one or two a year.

“There are definitely times I’ve been lonely and felt left out, especially freshman year, but I choose to cultivate the relationships that I do have, instead of having a huge social life. And there’s nothing wrong with a social life. But time has to come from somewhere and I’d rather not give up Gospel Choir or the Co-op.”

This young woman dazzles without being flashy. She’s humble without affectation, effusive without being mushy and deliberate without being calculated. She is the epitome of dignity and grace.

As she has been blessed, so she is a blessing. Notre Dame has been her fortunate beneficiary… the world is next.