RCW: Course Correction
Meghan Karoly does not take no for an answer. Her drive and determination for success is evident in her journey to becoming a Division I student-athlete at the University of Kansas.
Karoly’s story starts in high school. A three-sport athlete with dreams of becoming a physical therapist, she had everything figured out: finish high school, be a direct admit to Marquette’s accelerated physical therapy (PT) program and graduate in six years instead of seven – or so she thought.
Until she was waitlisted, sparking her “never-take-no-for-an-answer” attitude. From De Soto, Missouri, just outside of St. Louis, Karoly and her mom embarked on a short trip across the state line for a visit at the University of Kansas.
“KU was always my second choice,” said Karoly. “My mom and I came on a tour here, walked up and down Mass Street and then went to go see campus and I was like, ‘Yep, this is it. This is the one.’ I didn’t even go look at any other school.”
In Lawrence for freshman orientation, Karoly’s mom was approached about her daughter trying out for the rowing team. Having never rowed a day in her life, Karoly decided to give it a try.
After being hired at the Ambler Student Recreation Fitness Center on campus the first week of classes, Karoly set her sights on KU Crew – the club rowing team.
“Time commitment was really a big reason I tried out for the club team,” said Karoly. “Not that it’s that much less (than the DI team), but instead of two-a-days they just practice once a day. You still practice every day and you travel just about the same amount. I was gone a lot of weekends as well.”
Club teams do not make cuts, so Karoly found herself in a new sport and was ready to tackle anything that came her way. With the help of coaches and fellow students, Karoly found her niche in rowing and excelled from there.
“Once we were able to start doing the rowing-specific tests with her on the rowing machine or on the water, she really stood out even more,” said Brian Leimer, a first-year assistant coach with KU Crew. “She was a smaller, leaner woman, but she had a pretty powerful score, which translated to her overall ability to be a boat mover.”
Leimer was in his senior year of college, and his first year as an assistant coach, when Karoly joined the team as a freshman, or sometimes known as a novice – a first-time rower.
“I remember being out in the boat with her, I was in the coaching launch across from them, and she was always asking and making sure that she was doing everything okay,” said Leimer. “She wanted to know if she was doing everything appropriately because it was a brand-new sport for her. She wanted to make sure that she was applying her power in the most efficient way. I would always coach the rest of the boat more than her and when she would ask if she needed help with anything I told her she was doing just fine and didn’t have anything to worry about from my perspective.”
Playing basketball and soccer and running cross country in high school helped with Karoly’s competitive mindset coming in. However, she quickly learned that it would take much more than just being competitive to succeed in her new sport.
“You have to have that certain level of ‘crazy’ for rowing,” said Karoly with a laugh. “The best thing about rowing is that it’s the same thing over and over and over again. You’ll do it faster or slower, or maybe some strokes have more power, but there’s no offense or defense. It’s a repetitive motion. It’s the same movement and it has to be perfect and in perfect unison with everyone in the boat. It is unlike any other sport I’ve ever done. (It’s) Definitely the most painful sport I’ve ever done, too.”
Come the end of her freshman year at KU and her first year as a rower with KU Crew, Karoly had found that level of crazy and became the leader of her boat. Finishing the season with only six women rowers left on the team, the women were in a four (person boat) with Karoly as the stroke, the seat closest to the back of the boat.
“Getting to know her as a person, she’s a hard worker and leads by example,” said Leimer. “She was very verbal in the boat. We put her as the lead of the boat and she was very vocal, making sure everyone was doing their part and doing everything correctly. She was very coachable. She would be quiet and listen and then apply what was being taught to her.”
With the crew team and the collegiate team sharing a boathouse, stats were easily accessible for Karoly. She was able to see the times of the rowers on the Division I team versus hers along with her power to weight, how hard she can pull for her body weight, which was right in the middle of the pack of the student-athletes.
Karoly had been told by former head coach Rob Catloth that her size was not right for the Division I team. Although she was small and lean, she was not small enough to be a coxswain, the boat’s eyes and ears on the water, and not quite as tall as the rowers. Knowing that only fueled her “never-take-no-for-an-answer” mentality and she began talking to Kelsey Arnold, an assistant coach for KU’s collegiate team, about tryouts for her sophomore year.
“I knew I was small and that I kind of had to row with a chip on my shoulder, but I wasn’t showing it,” said Karoly. “Rowing with the guys on Crew and having them to talk to – John Gragg is a guy that I rowed with, he was a senior on the team, and then Matthew George, he was also a senior on the team – they were like my older brothers. They were following me through my path, wanting to know if I emailed the coaches that summer, where I was in the boats and everything. They were kind of like my cheering squad.”
Karoly credits her KU Crew coach, Jeremy Struemph, for pushing her and shaping her into the rower she is today.
“Jeremy, my coach, has since passed away, but he was always checking in on me, too,” said Karoly. “It was nice to know that those people were all rooting for me. I think that helped give me a boost in my competitiveness. He did a great job of working with what we had available. He really made me the rower I am. I truly believe that. Yes, I’ve been molded more along the way, but he created the foundation.”
With that foundation set, it was time for Division I tryouts. Knowing she performed well in a four, that is what Karoly had her sights set on. At that time, Carrie Cook-Callen, currently the interim head coach, was the coach of the fours.
“Going in to my first year on the Division I team, I was gunning for Carrie’s boats,” said Karoly. “I knew I was good in fours, loved fours. All I knew was fours, and I knew Carrie was a great coach and that’s what I wanted to do.”
Competing for a spot on the team, Karoly performed her hardest during tryouts to earn a position on the roster for the 2015-16 season.
“It was pretty easy to see in that process that she was good enough and going to make our team,” said Cook-Callen. “We worked her in with our recruiting group really quickly and she began to grow from there.”
Karoly’s first test as a Division I athlete soon approached – winter training in Tampa. The team completed a 30-minute test before leaving for Florida to gauge where the rowers were at with their training. Catloth, who has since retired, was impressed with two of his newest rowers and called Karoly and McKayla Ross up to his top group for Tampa.
“McKayla and I were the two freshmen pulled up who had never rowed before and we looked at each other and were like, ‘We need to be friends,'” said Karoly. “I just kind of held on through Tampa, making it as best as I could.”
Her best ended up landing Karoly in the Second Varsity Eight, along with Ross, throughout her first season on the Division I team. However, the fight did not stop there.
“You fight for your seat the whole season,” said Karoly. “You are showing and proving (yourself) every single practice. Forget seat racing, but every practice, you’re proving that you deserve to be in that seat.”
Karoly and Ross continually proved that they deserved a top seat on the team and moved to First Varsity Eight (1V8) their second year on the team. The redshirt-junior duo has stayed in the 1V8 throughout the 2017-18 season, Karoly’s last on the team. Karoly is currently in the bow seat as one of the more technical rowers on the team.
“She’s been a high-value add athlete for our program,” said Cook-Callen. “She’s gotten better every year she’s been on the team. She’s led positively, worked incredibly hard, she’s been great. She loves a challenge and loves to prove that she can do it and always looks for the optimism in things. Meghan will be wildly successful beyond her years at KU. I’m blessed to have gotten to be in her path along the way.”
As her collegiate career comes to a close, Karoly looks to bring that success with her to physical therapy school. She will continue as a Jayhawk, attending PT school at the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City, Kansas.
“Rowing has given me a confidence, drive, not complaining attitude and just taking things as they come,” said Karoly. “Just thinking, ‘You know what, I’m just going to work through it.’ Something that is so big that Carrie has helped me with is, ‘Don’t be upset about what you can’t control.’ There’s no reason to be upset because you can’t control it, you just have to let that stuff roll off. I definitely think I carry that into my day-to-day life and I’ll for sure be taking it to PT school.”
Karoly recently completed an internship at Lawrence Memorial Hospital (LMH) where she worked with a variety of patients. At first, Karoly had planned to work with autistic babies in a new PT field, but after her experience at LMH she has more options at her fingertips.
“The door is so wide open for me right now,” said Karoly. “I like so many different things and I think that’s to my benefit. I worked with a lot of stroke patients at LMH and I think it is so awesome. It’s a very slow healing process. To see any sort of improvement, we’re talking about centimeters every month. One of my patients was working toward walking his daughter down the aisle – talk about fulfilling. I know when I get to clinicals and am out in the field I’ll get a better idea, but today I’m not sure (which area she wants to specialize in).”
Although Karoly’s path to PT school did not go as originally planned, it allowed her to experience life as a Division I athlete and develop a mentality that will lead her through life.
“I didn’t ever expect to be here or finish in the top boat, but I made it,” said Karoly.
Who knew that a big-state school only 40 minutes from the Missouri border would be the perfect fit for a St. Louis girl with dreams of becoming physical therapist?