The story of unlikely Olympian Aisha Chow, who, at 39, will be the first to represent Trinidad and Tobago in rowing in Rio 2016.
Aisha Chow knew that she would have to row faster than she’d ever rowed before. Her hopes of earning a place at Rio 2016 depended on finishing at least third in her women’s single semifinal race on Laguna La Luz, an artificial lake near Curauma, Chile, on Wednesday, March 23. Everyone who made the final would secure a spot in Brazil.
Chow had cruised to second place in her heat at the FISA Americas Olympic Qualification Regatta the day before, but worried that her qualifier had been too easy. Unable to sleep on Tuesday night, and struggling with a bout of flu, she had poured over the results from the other races with her husband, Dan.
“Everyone else had blazing fast times,” Chow says. Four out of her five semifinal opponents had beaten her 8:01 time on the water. “They had rowed faster than I have ever rowed in my whole life.”
Her previous two-kilometer personal best time on the water was 7:56. These people are way faster than me, Chow thought. If I row how I row, I can’t qualify. Overnight she had to find a way to become a better rower.
Chow, 39, had always rowed conservatively, aimed for a time she knew she could make, and made it. That strategy had almost always worked. She won the C.R.A.S.H.-B. erg (indoor rower) sprints in the women’s master’s 30-39 age category in 2013 that way. Then the Head of the Charles women’s club singles in 2014, and the women’s master’s singles at the same course a year later, and the women’s singles sprints at Royal Canadian Henley in 2015.
But sitting on the start line in Chile, she knew she had to row at a speed she didn’t believe she could hold for two kilometers. You just have to fly, she thought. If you die, you die. But if you don’t die, you’re not going to qualify. You’re going to come here for nothing.
Born and raised in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, Chow grew up surrounded by a horde of brothers, sisters and cousins. Her father, Alwin “Jojo,” is one of eight children, her mother, Judy, one of six. Chow is the second of five, with older sister Kemoy, younger brothers Akim and Stanton, and younger sister Sasha.
In 1995, when she was 18, Chow left home and moved to Florida on an academic scholarship to the University of Miami. As a kid in Port-of-Spain she’d danced ballet, done gymnastics and swimming and learned jiu jitsu, but in Miami she went looking for another challenge.
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“I swam in high school, but I wasn’t very good, and so I figured I should try a new sport,” Chow says. “I’m not a very coordinated person, my hand-eye coordination is not my forte.… Anything involving balls, I’m a danger to everyone.”
A cousin who had rowed at Johns Hopkins encouraged her to turn out for crew trials, so Chow showed up at Lake Osceola on campus and was put in a big stable, but heavy, boat alongside seven other novices. That semester Chow was subjected to her first two-kilometer erg test, rowing 2,000 meters on a machine in the shortest time possible. Seven-or-so minutes later, as Chow cooled down, her assistant coach stood staring at her, open-mouthed.
“Are you OK?” the assistant asked.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” Chow replied.
She’d beaten all but the top varsity rower, and she didn’t even seem that tired. Miami tagged on an athletic scholarship, covering room and board, to her academic one, which only paid for tuition. And Chow was promoted straight from novice to varsity.
“They just threw me in the varsity boat,” Chow says. “But I didn’t know how to row, and it was awful.”
She struggled to keep time with the more experienced rowers. When the boat crashed from side to side time and again, everyone knew it was because the new girl was upsetting the delicate balance. Team dynamics in the top boat were uncomfortable. Chow thought about quitting.
“Can you imagine how pissed off the rowers were?” she says. “Some of them had been recruited from high school, and I cannot row.
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“I did get pulled from the boat a couple times, but every time they pulled me from the boat it was slower.”
In Chow’s freshman year, her varsity eight placed second out of 40 boats at the Head of the Hooch race in Chattanooga, Tenn. By junior year the Hurricanes were cleaning up against local competition, winning five of seven races at the Florida Intercollegiate Rowing Association Championship in Tampa. Her crew repeated that success in her senior year, adding the varsity eight title at the Southern Intercollegiate Rowing Association championship to its medal haul. Warming up for the SIRA final, their coxswain had played Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” over the boat’s speaker system.
But when she graduated in 1999, Chow turned serious and quit rowing. Her double major in microbiology and immunology, and biochemistry and cell biology led to a Ph.D. program in the pharmacology and cancer biology department at Duke. That Ph.D. would lead to a research scientist position at San Francisco-based biotech firm FibroGen. In contrast, Trinidad and Tobago didn’t even have a rowing federation. Competing on an elite level—becoming an Olympian—never even seemed like an option.
In 2010, Chow was chatting to a colleague at work who rowed. She’d barely thought about rowing since leaving Miami, but a decade later, she finally got back out on the water, joining a master’s rowing club in Redwood City, Calif., called Bair Island Aquatic Center.
At Miami, Chow’s power had won over the raw edges of the technique she’d had to urgently learn as a novice DI varsity rower. At BIAC she met a coach, Jen Aguirre, who wouldn’t let Chow keep getting away with everything that was wrong with her stroke. Nope. Still doing it wrong. Still doing it. Still haven’t fixed the problem. Still no, and… No. Chow credits Aguirre as having the biggest influence on her rowing.
A couple of years ago, Chow switched to rowing a single instead of with other rowers in larger boats. She liked the purity of being solely responsible for success or failure.
“In an eight, if you’re rowing well or you’re rowing terribly, it’s really hard to immediately know that you’re doing it,” Chow says. “But in a single, what’s so amazing about it, is you know right away.”
If you go faster or slower, judged by the numbers on the screen of your speed coach, you know that is all you. If you get hit by the splash from a poorly timed catch, that’s you too. And if the boat flips, you have no one else to blame.
Chow competed, and won, at major regattas, but there was no great end goal. She trained on the water just five hours per week. Her job, she says, “is non-negotiable.” Rowing was not a priority.
Family and friends had always seen more potential in Chow’s quiet intensity than she saw in herself. Her aunt Annette was her most vocal fan, her aunt Danielle had put Chow in touch with the Trinidad and Tobago Olympic Committee, and local rowing buddy Vicky Bialas had been forever bringing up the question of the Olympics. But the Games were something you watched on TV every four years. And, besides, Trinidad and Tobago didn’t have a rowing federation. Until December.
When Trinidad and Tobago registered with the International Rowing Federation (FISA) late last year, there was suddenly a theoretical, if unlikely, route to Rio. No more excuses. So Chow doubled her training hours and turned to technical coach Kristin Goodrich, a former U.S. national team rower who competed in a single at the world championships in 2002 and ’03. Less than eight months before Brazil, and barely three before the qualification regatta, wasn’t enough, says Chow, to get fitter, but she could at least work on her stroke, get better.
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Chow leaped off the line of the semifinal in Chile at her usual 36 strokes-per-minute starting rate. At every other race she’d dial that back about 20 strokes in, settle into a rhythm she knew she could survive, but not this time. She led the field of six rowers by the one-kilometer mark, on course for a time close to 7:40 that could break her personal best by over 15 seconds. But with 500 meters to go, a comfortable lead over fourth place, and Olympic participation all but guaranteed, caution came back. Chow eased off and didn’t sprint for the line, focusing instead on protecting her position and not making mistakes that could upset her boat.
In the final the following day, she rowed within herself again, qualification already assured. Afterwards, though, at home in California training for Brazil, she regretted backing off. She still doesn’t know how fast she can really go, hasn’t quite seen everything that friends and family see behind her smile. But this summer in Rio she’ll get one more chance to find out.