Off the Water with Amanda Polk


Grace Doerfler '18, Assistant Editor

As soon as Olympic gold medalist Amanda Polk walked into the Donahue Pavilion on the morning of September 8, the assembled crowd erupted into tumultuous applause. Students and faculty alike leapt to their feet to welcome home Oakland Catholic’s famous daughter. As Amanda beamed and waved to the crowd, happy tears ran down her cheeks. A month earlier, her lifelong dream to win the Olympic rowing final for the women’s eight had come true. She wore her gold medal over her Team USA uniform, evidence of the long journey she’d made from an Oakland Catholic boat to Rio de Janeiro.

Amanda is ranked third in the world among female rowers and is the American record-holder for the 2k. The American women’s eight holds eleven straight world championship titles, and Amanda has rowed in six of those boats. Amanda has had remarkable success as a rower by anyone’s definition, yet when she started high school, she’d never given rowing much thought. In fact, her dream was to play Division I basketball in college. Rowing piqued her interest at an activity fair though, and in tenth grade she had her first exposure to the sport—at an ergathon, which is an indoor rowing machine race that most seasoned rowers speak of with dread. It was hardly an ideal first experience. “I thought, ‘Well, this’ll be a good way to stay fit!’” she remembers, laughing. “I thought that nothing would come of the rowing other than just helping me with basketball.” However, basketball eventually took a backseat to Amanda’s growing love for the water. “Basketball actually became the tool to help me stay in shape for rowing,” she says—quite a turnaround from that first trial-by-fire ergathon.

Amanda’s high school accomplishments attracted recruiting attention, and she eventually decided to attend the University of Notre Dame, where she became the most decorated rower in program history. Since her Notre Dame successes, she has lived and trained in Princeton, New Jersey. She was selected as the alternate for the 2012 Olympic boat and didn’t get to row, a heartbreaking disappointment for Amanda. The experience almost led her to end her rowing career. She describes the years of training following London, from 2012 to 2016, as “the toughest years of my life,” but ever positive, she managed to draw strength from a challenge others would have buckled under.

“It was really a blessing in disguise, because it really helped me to rebuild and become even stronger than I was,” Amanda says of her disappointment at London. “But in your failings, you have a decision as to whether or not you want to just accept the failing, or you want to improve on it and decide what you want to do with it.”

Improve on it she certainly did, continuing to push herself in Princeton and then being selected decisively for the 2016 Olympic boat. She speaks of her teammates with esteem and affection, and it’s clear how well they work together. “Each one of us had complete trust and complete faith in the other,” she says. “It’s extremely important to have that dynamic within the boat and, in my opinion, outside of the boat, too. And that was another joy that I experienced, just getting to know them.”

Amanda and her teammates have undergone grueling workouts together, and with the Olympic regimen came sacrifices. Amanda kept an early bedtime—just 7:30 PM—that Oakland students might envy but that left her unable to hang out in the evenings with family and friends. Now that she’s giving her muscles some rest, she’s enjoying the luxury of staying up past sunset. Social engagements weren’t really an option with her training plan—she just barely managed to get to her brother’s wedding but had to miss many friends’ and cousins’. “Traveling or seeing my family wasn’t really an option,” Amanda says matter-of-factly. “No vacations of any sort, other than we got some downtime after the World Championships and, obviously, the Olympics. That made it difficult for, sometimes, Christmas or Thanksgiving, where it was 8:00 PM, and I had to say, ‘Okay, I have to go to bed’ because I had to get two or three practices in the next day.”

After the years of work, Amanda’s Olympic victory was “pure joy.” She remembers adrenaline coursing through her veins, an “electric feeling” in the boat. At the 1000-meter mark of the race, Team USA trailed just behind the Canadian team. But when their coxswain, Katelin Snyder, told the women to dig deeper, Amanda describes “a surge of energy that I’ve never felt before in that boat. It was incredible because it was like this lightning bolt went through all of us, like, ‘Here we go, ladies, find another notch.’ And we could easily have said, ‘No, this is hard enough, I’m good, we’ll just see how it goes.’” But the women refused to yield. Amanda recalled her longtime mantra, “mind over matter,” and continued to push alongside her teammates. The boat flew through the finish almost a boat length ahead of the runner-up.

“Every cell in my body was shaking,” Amanda remembers. “It was a dream come true.” She recalls feeling overwhelmed by pride for her country and love for her family.

Amanda’s parents are, naturally, incredibly proud of their daughter. Ken Polk, Amanda’s father, describes Amanda as “the easiest, the sweetest, the most humble girl you will ever know.” His eyes shine with pride when he thinks of his daughter’s remarkable accomplishments and wonders what she will achieve next.

Amanda is unsure what the next stage in her rowing career is. For now, she’s focusing on family and friends. Whatever her next step may be, one thing is certain: everyone hopes her plans include Dancing With the Stars.

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Follow Amanda Polk on Twitter: @arpolk