BY CONNOR WALTERS
PHOTO COURTESY IU ATHLETICS
Kate Sweeney looks around at the Ohio State University women’s rowing coaches, her eyes meeting theirs, and she knows that they are in this moment together.
In the office suite that the Buckeye coaching staff occupies, deputy director of athletics Janine Oman informs Sweeney and her peers that 24-year head coach Andy Teitelbaum has been fired from his position. He had been Sweeney’s coach and had led the program from relative obscurity to national prominence, with a string of three consecutive NCAA Division I team championships to his name.
The news stuns the staff. Then Oman announces that Sweeney is to become the interim head coach, effective immediately. With these words, at barely over 30 years old, Sweeney becomes one of the youngest collegiate head rowing coaches and assumes leadership of one of the nation’s most prominent and respected programs. It is her first job as a head coach.
“Obviously it was a lot of things–emotional, surprising, confusing, all of these expected feelings,” Sweeney says. “It was nice to look around the room at the rest of the staff and know that we were going to be OK.
“It was shocking, but at the same time comforting to know that I had those people around me.”
The date is March 10. The university is on spring break, and the Buckeye women have water practice scheduled for that afternoon. Sweeney gathers the squad in their team lounge to process the news. It is her first act as the leader of her alma mater. She lets the women speak their thoughts and feelings. She listens. She directs the team leaders to find out what the athletes want to do next. She listens some more.
“They came back out and said, ‘We want to train because we have goals and we’re not moving away from those goals,’” Sweeney says. “To me I was like, ‘OK, we can do this.’ Their conclusion was we want to keep moving. We’re going to be OK.
“We trained, and then we got up the next day and we trained again.”
That next day is filled with bursts of sunshine and 50-degree temperatures suggesting that spring is on its way. Sweeney is working out on a Concept2 bike erg after the team’s first practice of the day. She learns that the Patriot League is suspending spring athletics because of the rapidly emerging coronavirus pandemic, after the Ivy League has already done so.
Her father-in-law, an administrator at Santa Clara University in California, texts her to say that if the NCAA basketball tournament is canceled, then there’s no hope for the rest of spring sports.
Before Sweeney leaves for the boathouse that afternoon, she receives a message from Oman that more news may soon arrive. Waiting at the office becomes waiting at the boathouse, but with no official word, the Buckeyes launch for their afternoon row on Griggs Reservoir.
They practice, logging well over 12,000 meters, and all the while Sweeney is anticipating the call that seems inevitable. If this is their last practice for the year, she wants to know it–and she knows the rowers do, too. She and the coaches stall, even as they approach the boathouse docks. Let’s go for another 2K loop, they say to the athletes.
Then, Sweeney gets the call. Instinctively, she knows what to do.
“We pulled everybody together on the water,” she says. “Novices and varsity. There were a couple people on land on the erg, so we got them on launches and brought them out. In hindsight, with social distancing, that maybe was not the best idea.”
Sweeney tells the team that this is their last practice. Their season is over. A southeast wind blows across the half-dozen or so racing shells clustered together on the water. Tears flow from senior athletes, whose final months of racing are abruptly erased. Sweeney grants the crews a few final minutes together on the Scioto River.
The eights and fours row away from the dock, heading up river for one final go-round. Strokes and coxswains trade seats; might as well have a little fun. The women paddle up and back, reluctantly returning to the dock.
They carry their boats up the ramp on the western shore of the reservoir, toward the gorgeous stone façade of the boathouse, and lay the shells to rest on the racks inside, storing with them their long-held dreams of championship races in May.
Whenever the athletes return, these dreams will be ready for re-awakening. Sweeney will aim to lead her team to making these dreams come true. They are dreams she has known before.
Sweeney’s rowing story begins like many do–with a completely different sport: basketball. She hooped it up around Pittsburgh in AAU with her Oakland Catholic High School classmate, Amanda Polk. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because Polk won an Olympic gold medal with the U.S. women’s eight in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, adding to five world championship titles.
“She was speaking so highly of the sport, she sort of convinced me to give it a go,” Sweeney says. “When a senior tells me to do it, you do it.”
Though she was a little late to the rowing game, Sweeney immediately knew what Polk was talking about.
“The people who were involved in the sport in high school were just tremendous,” she says. “I clicked with them really quickly and enjoyed being around them. When you’re in a team boat, it really is the ultimate team sport. There’s nothing more uniting than trying to propel a shell with one, three or seven other rowers and a cox, and that’s what really hooked me.”
Initially, Sweeney sought a different college than Ohio State. “It had kind of been in my face my whole life,” she says. Her parents, grandfather and other family members attended, and even after her granddad took her on a tour, she wasn’t sold.
“Then I started getting recruited for rowing,” she says. “I went on a visit, met the team and met the coaches and said, ‘Yeah, this is where I want to be.’”
Her four years of rowing under Teitelbaum were critical building years for the program. From 2009 to 2012, the Buckeyes began climbing the team points rankings at the NCAA Championship. Sweeney finished in the top five twice in her events at the regatta. She graduated the year right before the program’s historic string of three consecutive team points titles.
But despite a successful collegiate rowing career, coaching was not in the plan; law school was. Before starting down that path, Sweeney elected to do a year of service through the AmeriCorps City Year program. She was placed in an underserved Columbus high school, tutoring and mentoring ninth graders.
“That fall, I started coaching with the local high school. I coached the novice boys,” she says. “It was really cool because I was working with ninth graders during the day in a very different part of the city and then coming to work with ninth graders in the afternoon to coach rowing.
“I really enjoyed the coaching aspect of everything I was doing–mentoring during the day and coaching in the afternoon,” Sweeney adds. “They’re like, ‘You should really consider giving coaching a shot.’ That led me to think that maybe this is something I’d like to pursue as a career.”
She applied for an assistant coach position at Indiana University, where veteran head coach Steve Peterson hired her and helped her hone her fledgling coaching skills.
“Whenever I have an opening, I write down my ideal candidate. What are they going to have?” Peterson says. “I had this list of things; Kate had everything with the exception of one thing: experience.
“It was very obvious from the first conversation I had with her that she loved the sport, she loved working with student-athletes,” he adds. “She came from a good program. She has a good understanding of the sport. It was pretty obvious from the word go that she has the drive and love of the sport that every successful coach has to have.”
Says Sweeney, “I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I had little to no experience on my end, but [Peterson] was willing to let us learn and make mistakes and that sort of thing. Looking back, wow, he was a great teacher.”
The Hoosier coaches during Sweeney’s two years on board guided the program to its first NCAA championship appearance and were named the 2014 CRCA National Coaching Staff of the Year.
After the 2015 season, Sweeney’s wife took a job in California, and so Kate joined Cal-Berkeley as a volunteer working under Al Acosta for the 2016 campaign, during which the Bears won the NCAA title.
Unlike the high school version of herself, the coaching version of Kate Sweeney dreamed of ending up at Ohio State. When a position opened up on Teitelbaum’s staff in 2015, she applied and was hired. “There’s nowhere I’d rather be than Ohio State,” she says.
Even if it weren’t her alma mater, Ohio State would be an attractive place for any young assistant coach. Not only has the rowing program earned championship status but also the university is practically unmatched in terms of athletic resources, competition and success.
Sweeney’s assistant coaching years were learning years, and she absorbed the myriad lessons offered by some of the sport’s biggest head coaching names: Peterson, Acosta and Teitelbaum. She also credits a long line of her former fellow assistant coaches with walking alongside her on this coaching journey.
“I have been incredibly lucky to have worked with some great coaches throughout the last seven years,” she says. “That has been the most impactful thing on me.
“The most important things that you learn are the impact we have on student-athletes, and we need to make sure that we’re intentional about how we engage with them. It really is about the student-athlete experience and what can we do as coaches to support them in their endeavor as rowers, students and good stewards of society. That’s the most important why as to why we’re here. Winning boat races is important, but the most important stuff is those intangibles that they take away with them when they go.”
In the months following Sweeney’s sudden ascension to the helm and the abrupt end of the rowing season, it becomes clear that her interim title may be short-lived.
“It was a series of conversations between my boss and me, because obviously I was not expecting to be in that role at that time,” Sweeney says. “It wasn’t on my radar as something that I was going to be jumping into, a head coaching role. I wasn’t out there applying for head coach roles.”
She continues her conversations with Oman. She meets with Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith. They encourage her to take her time and reflect on what it would mean for her to take over the program.
Sweeney mulls it over with friends and family. She discusses it with coaching colleagues at other schools. The opportunity is hers for the taking. She says yes. Speaking about this decision, she already sounds like a head coach, projecting confidence despite professing not to know exactly what comes next.
But for the moment, what does she think it will take for Ohio State to return to national-champion status? Sweeney responds with a lightheartedness that reflects the resilience she has already developed.
“Having a season would be helpful,” she says, laughing.
She returns to the question the way a humble leader does, acknowledging that she still has much to learn, but well aware of the hard work, commitment and sacrifice it will take. She uses that classic coaching line: “We can control only what we can control.” No time like the present quite reinforces this lesson.
Her former mentor and now Big 10 rival, Peterson, is eager to see what Sweeney will do.
“I’m psyched for her,” he says. “I’ve had a ton of former assistants go on to great positions. I take a little bit of pride when I look across and see people [who were] on my staff or that I coached that are doing well as coaches. I want to beat her, and I’m sure she wants to beat me, but I’m very psyched for her.”
After unexpectedly taking over the team at the start of a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, Sweeney has had a little time to begin dreaming of her vision for where Ohio State rowing might go. No doubt she knows what it’s capable of; it set her off on the path she’s on today.
She talks about recruiting and training and championships and the Big 10 and everything else she will always be expected to talk about as the head coach at Ohio State. And then she rhapsodizes about what she hopes the outcome of those things might be.
“The most important thing is to create an environment where our athletes can thrive. How can we create more opportunities for our young women to grow in the leadership space while they’re here at Ohio State? How can they develop leadership skills so they can take that as they move forward into the workforce?”
Her questions sound like the result of some introspection. What is it that Kate Sweeney gained from her years rowing for the Scarlet and Gray that has prepared her to be the head coach at Ohio State? How might she pass that on? How might those lessons that she honed in the weight room, on the erg, and up and down the Scioto River inform what she does as the leader of nearly 50 high-performing, ambitious and determined women?
“I’m learning more and more about myself in this space,” she says.
It’s easy to focus on all the unknowns, all the things she still has yet to learn, all the uncertainty with the school year and seasons that seem to hang in the balance. Sweeney acknowledges that it’s all a little intimidating, but she doesn’t dwell on it for a second. She directs the conversation to what she already does know.
“I have the luxury of knowing the school and department and team. I’m not walking into a new environment in the head coach role. I know the student-athletes. I know the administrators, the trainers, the strength coaches and staff. That provides a level of comfort.”
She also knows that Ohio State has climbed to the peak of collegiate rowing success before. She knows that the journey to this summit is full of steep challenges and frustrating setbacks. She knows that the way to go far is to go together. She knows how to listen and how to work hard.
She knows more than one might think.