Coach Carrie Cook-Callen: Walking the Walk

“We laugh, cry, live, and learn,” she said. “We go through ups and downs together like everyone else. I just want them to understand that our sexual orientation is a part of us, but it’s not defining us.”

For Coach Carrie Cook-Callen, it is important that her student-athletes feel comfortable in their own skin and understand that at KU, it’s all about embracing the culture of a radically inclusive boathouse—a term coined to express and showcase total inclusivity.

It wasn’t always easy for Cook-Callen to open up about her sexual orientation. For a long time, she wasn’t comfortable speaking about it.

Today, however, she doesn’t hide her true self anymore and is surrounded by a supportive group of colleagues, family, and friends.

When Coach Cook-Callen’s wife and daughter visit her at the boathouse, she wants her student-athletes to understand that “we don’t all have to look the same” to be a family.

The rowing melting pot

“It means a lot to me that I can be openly gay here at KU and get all the support from my colleagues and team,” Coach Cook-Callen said.

As a head coach, she feels a certain responsibility to address her sexual orientation during the recruiting process.

“I don’t want this to create any tension once they get here,” she said. “In a sense, I’m trying to make sure they know this program is inclusive in all ways, starting at the top.”

According to Coach Cook-Callen, rowing, in particular, is a sport that welcomes people from all sorts of backgrounds. Compared to other sports, however, rowing isn’t super accessible, especially in high school.

Reflecting on her own experiences, there wasn’t even a river near her high school. Many collegiate rowers don’t pick up the sport until they actually make it to college. Coach Cook-Callen followed a similar path.

She remembers, “When I was playing basketball, I was just one of the numbers, you know? I wasn’t good enough to play at the Division I level. So, I was very fortunate to have an opportunity to switch sports and still represent Kansas.”

As a result, people from all sorts of backgrounds comprise rowing teams in college. It’s a sport that encourages young men and women to try something new. And at KU, people don’t have to hide who they are when they walk through those doors.

The power of acceptance

One of the many things Coach Cook-Callen loves about being a college coach is seeing the transformation her athletes go through.

“They’re not living under their parents’ roof anymore, and they’re getting to meet new people and pick the things they want to do,” she said. “They’re just growing and learning about themselves and trying new things. Seeing them figure out who they really are as a person is a wonderful experience.”

In order for her student-athletes to go through this transformation, it is important to create a welcoming environment for everyone. One that makes all student-athletes feel 100% accepted and embraces differences.

“It’s important for them not to feel ashamed of who they are and feeling a need to hide it,” Coach Cook-Callen pointed out. “That authenticity comes out differently in a situation where we’re seeing them in the highest of highs and lowest of lows, when they’re physically and mentally challenged. They have to know they’re going to be supported, encouraged, and guided while they’re here. And that isn’t just on the athletics side, either. They need to feel like they really belong in a place that doesn’t expect them to be like everybody else. They need to know they can have their own story.”

My own story

Coach Cook-Callen hopes that by sharing her story, she can continue paving the path for her athletes to find joy and happiness in their own skin.

“There have been some student-athletes that have come out to me as maybe the second or third person in their life,” she said. “For me, it’s a wonderful reminder of why it’s important to lead by example.”

At the end of the day, Coach Cook-Callen understands that despite cultural or sexual differences, everyone wants the same thing.

“I bleed crimson and blue,” she said. “I love cheering on the Jayhawks, and I have a lot of pride in being a Jayhawk. And my student-athletes feel the exact same way.”

Coach Cook-Callen continues to lead by example and lives her life authentically—free and open to having her own story.

She continues to walk the walk.