Erin Cafaro

June 3, 2019

June 3, 2019


Season 01 : Episode 03

Erin Cafaro is a former 2x Olympic gold medalist in the Women's 8+ in rowing, and the co-creator of the humbled podcast. After winning gold at the 2008 and again at the 2012 Olympics, Erin went on to build a career in the sports performance industry. On the surface she appeared to be thriving, but internally she was struggling with her addiction to ‘health’ and demons of her past. Erin gives an incredibly candid view of an Olympic Champion’s ascent up the mountain and walk down the mountain after retiring from professional athletics. Erin offers some nuggets of advice on strategies to recover, adapt and thrive once again.

You can follow Erin on Instagram or the Twitters @erincafaro

Quick Links

Cal Women’s Crew


San Francisco CrossFit

Show Notes

[1:40] Kristin and Erin talk about how they have kind of known each other for over a decade, but were never really friends until a few months ago.

[2:33] Erin and Kristin talk about how the Humbled podcast is really a laboratory for thinking about how to approach understanding more about athlete transition. They talk about how far back you need to go in someone’s life history to really understand how their transition from athletics will go over. Erin thinks everyone’s athletic career starts from the very early on in their life. For her, her older brother really shaped how she approached sport. He would let her play with him and his friends, but there was one rule: you’re cool to play, but just know that you have to play by the same rules as us; there was no special treatment because she was younger and a girl.

[5:45] Erin talks about an incident in her childhood is a good example of how she approaches tough situations and challenges. Back when she was a kid, she broke her first bone when she was playing roller derby with her brother and one of his friends. The game was supposed to be non-contact, but she got pushed over and she hurt her wrist. Her mom told her to shake it off, so she went back to school (she was in third grade) and her wrist hurt all week and the nurse sent a note home telling her parents to take her to the ER. Erin now appreciates that approach of not coddling her as a child and getting her to shake it off.  She also thinks that experiences like this were the foundations for her getting to the upper echelons of a sport started forming; she had a great older brother and a tough mom.

[8:45] Erin talks about how she thinks she started thriving in team sports. She was a dancer for twelve years, had an eating disorder, and was not healthy. She then transitioned to team sports (softball, volleyball, basketball and cross country), but she was just mediocre at those sports. But, one thing that stuck with her in these sports, particularly basketball, was that she loved the practice component of sports. She remembers going out and shooting free throws over and over again in her driveway. She loved zooming in on a target and getting instant feedback. She had a difficult junior season, and experienced a coach who didn’t like her (which she now thinks was a good experience in retrospect), but then she started looking for other sports to try.

[11:45] How Erin got into rowing: her dad left a news article on the kitchen table with a story about a rower and she started looking for collegiate rowing programs. She called rowing coaches at schools up and down the West Coast, asking what it would take to join the team. She had done a 2k test (one of the main standard testing distances on rowing teams) on the rowing ergometer, and had not gotten a very good time. Because she was new to the sport, she didn’t know her time was slow, and shared her time with a few of the coaches she was talking to. Finally, the Cal coach told her not to tell anyone else her 2k score, and told her that if she could get into Cal on her own, that they would love to have her on the team.

[13:45] Erin does not consider herself a natural athlete. She believes her superpower is being highly adaptable and persistent, and that continued exposure to things makes her better at them.

[14:00] Erin’s road to the National Team: She showed up to Cal, unaware of the type of team she was walking onto, and just happened to join the team at a great time in the program’s history. The team had an amazing roster of athletes, such as Megan Cooke and Martha Helgeland, who were great leaders. Those older women taught her how to work, and she learned how to work hard by their example. They had a great coach who made it fun to go hard, Dave O’Neill. That sort of experience by example is irreplaceable. Erin’s freshman year was difficult, just like so many transitions are. In the end, she was one of the only ones who was moved up to the JV boat her freshman years (for you rowing nerds, she was 7 seat in a bucket rigged 8+ with 6 and 7 in a bucket). They ended up getting third at the NCAA Championships that year.

[17:40] How Erin took two years off of rowing early on in her career- After an incredible freshman year on the Cal rowing team, Erin came back her sophomore year and didn’t enjoy rowing with the team as much as she had her freshman year. She started partying a bit more and got mono. She didn’t want to stop going to school (she didn’t want to move back home), and she couldn’t stay away in class. She ended up getting pretty bad grades and started wanting to hang out with a group of friends who weren’t on the rowing team. She felt like she really benefited from those friendships, but it ultimately led to her distancing herself from the rowing team. This marked the beginning of two years away from rowing. During those two years she did one year of studying abroad in Australia. During the summer after her year in Australia the coach of the Cal rowing team (Dave O’Neill) called her up and let her know that they had a good team that year and told her that he believed that she could contribute to the team. She really appreciated the fact that he reached out and made her feel welcome back on the team, and it ultimately led to her coming back to rowing. Dave had a great impact on her and has been an incredible coach in rowing in general.

[22:30] Erin talks about how being on a team with a good leader and a good team is so good for you. When she was in the varsity 8 her junior year at Cal they won the NCAA Championships, and then did not win her senior year. They go on to chat about Kristin’s sophomore year boat in 2006 and how great that boat was, and how they raced each other that year.

[24:35] Erin never really had big plans to take rowing to the next level- when she was a kid she wanted to be a professional ballerina. She used to play a video game where you could play different sports that would go to the Olympics, but she never really envisioned herself as one of them. She actually thought she would go to law school because her parents said she was really good at arguing. Dave O’Neill was the one who actually suggested she try the National Team, and in 2005 she went to the Under-23 World Championships for the US. They ended up doing well at that race, which led to her being invited by the US Senior National Team coach, Tom Terhaar.

[28:20] Erin remembers being looked past by national team coaches, and how her performance at the Under-23 World Championships led to her being considered for the senior team.

[29:15] Did Erin ever consider what she would do if she didn’t keep rowing? No, she never had a plan B. She remembers a moment in 2007, when she was in her second year on the team, and she was injured. She was out for 6 months with a back injury (she tore a part of a muscle in her back), and was in incredible pain. She remembers getting stuck when putting on her spandex before practice and just gritting through the pain and going on to practice. The breaking point in her injury was during a weight-lifting session. She did a sumo deadlift high-pull and felt something change in her back, and the injury became to painful to fight through. Her parents visited her and sat her down and asked her if she wanted to keep training. She responded that she did want to, and they took her to Barnes & Noble and they bought all the books they could find that would help her get better.

[32:30] How Erin found CrossFit and functional movement in sport- When she was injured in 2007, Erin found her strength and conditioning guru, Kelly Starrett, through her brother. Kelly, who owned San Francisco CrossFit, told her he would help her build an ass. She started learning functional movements and started to think that she would ultimately go on to work with people to implement and learn functional movements in sports.

[34:20] Erin talks about what happened in 2008, her first Olympic games. She had only been on the national team for two years, and there was an underground message where people would whisper about the “post-Olympic depression.” Erin was certain it wouldn’t happen to her, because she was solidly in the women’s 8 boat. She actually thought she was going to the Olympics in two events, but the head coach didn’t want to double her up, so she only ended up in one event. Erin talks about how crazy the Olympics are, where you are given so much gear and attention, and in a way makes you want more of that type of attention.

[36:45] When Erin knew she was going to transition from rowing- When Erin was standing on the podium in 2012, she looked around and saw others crying because they were happy, and she was crying for a different reason- she couldn’t enjoy the moment. Before the 2012 Olympics she had assumed she would keep competing until her body told her not to, but she ended up deciding to stop “chasing the dragon.”

[37:50] Transitioning from rowing on the national team- Retiring meant that Erin was facing one of her greatest challenges yet: not knowing what was next. She knew that she wanted to move back home to the Bay Area, and she wanted a dog.

[38:30] Kristin wonders where Erin flew back “home” to after the Olympics? She says that the whole first year after the 2012 Olympics was a huge blur. She had some media events to attend, but then flew back to California.

[39:00] How difficult the transition period is on not only for the athlete, but their support network- Brian and his mom helped her tremendously during that first phase after she came back from her final Olympics. She thinks that athletes transitioning from sport go through a very difficult time period, and that the support network surrounding them should really have access to more information about what their loved ones are going through.

[40:15] The painful period early on in her transition- Erin felt glued to the floor or her bed for a very long time. She thinks that her major depression during this time was her body’s way of recalibrating, or finding a new baseline. She says that the fact that she can talk about it matter of factly now doesn’t soften the experience, but is a way to explain it to others. It was a dark period.

[41:00] What did Erin do during this very difficult transition period? Did she work? Meet up with friends? Not really; she worked out. A lot. She tried to keep her body hard on the outside so that she didn’t have to deal with the stuff going on on the inside. She didn’t really stay in touch with her teammates during this difficult time. Erin had created a reputation for herself as a hard core athlete, and would then go home and let it all out behind closed doors. She didn’t really have that kind of relationship with her teammates. Only her inner circle- her brother, Brian, Kelly and her parents- really knew what was going on. She doesn’t necessarily regret that, because her relationship with her teammates was more professional than personal. Erin says that one of the things that scares her is when somebody leads on that their life seems perfect. She really respects when people admit that their life is not perfect, is flawed.

[44:00] Erin talks about the concept of athletics making athletes feel good, and when it’s absent, we no longer have that feeling.

[45:15] Erin tried several different approaches to coming back from her athletic career. She tried to return to rowing in a different team environment, worked at a startup, worked in a lab at Stanford, and was without a doubt externally successful. But Erin insists that she just felt terrible, and was willing to try anything that may ease the pain. She tried prescription drugs to help her, but that didn’t really work for her. She tried working with a Shaman, using psychedelics in a therapeutic dose, and continued doing very intense work outs. These were all preservation tactics. Erin can still faintly feel in her heart how difficult that period was. When she looks back she remembers what a blissful state her athletic career was, and when you compounded that on top of some things from her childhood that she hadn’t worked out yet, as well as the physiologic load she put on her body, she understands now that she would inevitably come crashing back down hard.

[49:30] Would Erin do it all over again, go back and compete as hard as she did, knowing that the cost was experiencing some of the darkest days of her life? Yes, she would. Not for the success, but so that she could feel the depths so that she could understand herself, and also others, better. She wanted to turn around and help other athletes. She started coaching CrossFit and rowing after she retired, but had a realization that she knew how to coach the skill, but that she was hammering on people for not having the right rowing technique. She felt like it was less important to tell someone how to row a perfect rowing stroke, and more important to learn how to use sport to help them in their life.

[51:00] Erin was seen as one of the toughest rowers on the national team when she was an athlete because she was great at suffering. Now, Erin will be seen as tougher than she was as an Olympic rower because of her willingness to talk publicly about her difficult transition.