Title IX had just passed when Kathy Keeler ’78 arrived at Wesleyan as a first-year. The athletic program saw its female sports teams double in number from six to 12 by the time she donned a cap and gown. Keeler’s professional rowing resume speaks for itself as she has landed on four U.S. national teams, earning a silver medal in the women’s four at the World Rowing Championships in Lucerne, Switzerland, and winning gold in the women’s eights during the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympic Games.
The rower’s collegiate success peaked in her last year when she and seven others captured the Dad Vail title, which was equivalent to a national small-college rowing crown. The present Cardinal women’s crew has a four-seat shell that bears Keeler’s name. Keeler’s athletic talents as a Cardinal were not confined to paddling on the water, as she played basketball for her first three years, leading the team in scoring and rebounding during both her sophomore and junior seasons. Her impact on growing female sports at Wesleyan earned Keeler, one of two females, an induction into the inaugural class of Wesleyan’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 2008.
The Argus got the chance to speak with one of Wesleyan’s first successful female athletes, and Keeler revealed her admiration for Swiss cows in the country side, her preference of Olin over Sci Li, and of course, her long shelf of rowing medals.
The Argus: When was your first experience with rowing?
Kathy Keeler: It was on the Connecticut River in Middletown, CT, during my freshman year. I went out for field hockey, but when I looked at Wesleyan, the crew coach had spoken with me, and Title IX had just passed. I started going out on a single and a double at two o’clock in the afternoon before field hockey started.
A: How were you able to juggle being a multi-sport athlete at Wesleyan?
KK: Well, it was different back then, I would think. The time commitment wasn’t the same, the intensity of the workouts wasn’t the same, and I just liked doing sports every day. The teams didn’t train out of season, and basketball didn’t start until sometime in November, around when the field hockey and crew season ended, so I didn’t have to worry about missing any preseason workouts. Then basketball finished and crew started again, and it all clicked together.
A: Do you have a favorite class from your time at Wesleyan?
KK: I had a favorite professor. Dick Miller of the Economics department.
A: I’ve actually met him before, and he’s a really good lecturer.
KK: He’s still around?
A: He’s now Professor Emeritus, but he was a guest speaker in one of my classes on welfare economics a few years back.
A: What’s your fondest moment from your time in college?
KK: When we won the Dad Vail Regatta my senior year; that was kind of a magical moment with everything coming together, and even though I went on to win some pretty impressive things, that was still my favorite race to win, in terms of being unexpected and not having thought that that would happen. This was the opposite when I was on the national team at the Olympics. There was more pressure on us because we knew we were going there to win. It was really cool to give your hardest effort and lead the race the whole way, and after the race, I remember the men’s team coming by and singing the Alma Mater for us.
A: Where was the spot that you went to study when you really needed to buckle down and get work done?
KK: I loved to go into the quiet room in Olin with the cool desks, the lamps, and the old chairs. Although, when I was there, the science center was open 24 hours a day, so if you had some big project, you could always go in the basement and stay there all night long.
A: Where is the coolest destination that you have ever gone to for a rowing competition?
KK: When I travelled to Lucern, Switzerland. The race was exactly 2,000m long, and on one side, there was this big hill with cows with cowbells that you could hear while you were rowing. On the opposite side were the fans, of course, but we always went down before the race to take pictures of the cows on the other side.
A: Do you still keep in touch with the other members of your Olympic winning boat?
KK: We’ve had a reunion every ten years for a while. There was one in 2014 and 2004, and we’re trying to have them more often, but who knows? It is really fun to get together, and a couple of them live in the Boston area, so I see them a little more frequently. We’re in touch, but we don’t see each other too regularly. They’re like the equivalent of my college buddies.
A: What was your mindset going into the Olympics after taking a silver medal two years prior at the World Championships?
KK: It was complicated. We won a pre-Olympic regatta in Switzerland, which made us the favorites for the Olympics. There was a lot of pressure that you feel, despite all the fun that you have. The boat was awesome, and we had great practices all of the time. People always ask if the race was the most exciting thing, but I think that the training together, and knowing and trusting everyone in your boat is the great thing. When it comes down to crunch time, you have that in the back of your mind that you don’t have any doubts or worries.
A: Did you have any music that you liked to listen to before you raced, or any pre-race rituals in general?
KK: No, never. People do now, but no. I had a stretching routine, a breathing one, those kinds of things, but not music.
A: How much of an influence were you in your daughter’s decision to also become a rower?
KK: Her father [Harry Parker] was also a famous rower, and we put no pressure on her to row, because if you do that, then she won’t. We were delighted in high school when she decided that she wanted to do that, sort of surprised and delighted. She tried a lot of other sports, and somehow she’s found that the hard work ethic is something she really likes, and she pursues it very intensely. It’s fun to watch, but it’s shocking at the same time. If we told her that she had to row, I’m sure she wouldn’t.
A: What are you up to these days?
KK: I’m doing volunteer coaching with the Harvard Crew program, working out, tutoring at an inner-city program, and a little bit of work with a community outreach program for troubled kids in Boston.
A: How did you find out that you were inducted into the Wesleyan Athletic Hall of Fame, and what was your first thought?
KK: I was in the first class, and I had kind of heard that it was happening, so when [former athletic director] John Biddiscombe told me, I was like yay. I was excited and I figured that I should be inducted, so I wasn’t necessarily surprised, but I was really pleased that I was recognized. This was especially true because I wanted to make sure that there were women recognized, since there is a whole history of men in sports who were so much before me. When I was at Wesleyan, there were no awards for any female athletes, and all of the trophies were for men’s sports. For my senior year, they gave my teammates and I just a general award because we were good, but it wasn’t an official award. That next year, Suki [Hoagland ’78] started the first prize for any female. It was nice to finally be recognized.
A: Any more thoughts?
KK: I loved my experience at Wesleyan and the opportunities that were given to me. Title IX had just passed, so when I started at Wes, there were six female teams, and when I graduated, there were twelve. It was exploding at that time, and a lot of us had never done sports in high school, since there weren’t any chances, so it was kind of a new world. I love to come back and see what all of the opportunities are for the women now.