Karen Kraft Rigsby


Season 01 : Episode 09

Karen Kraft Rigsby is a former Olympic silver and bronze medalist in the women's pair in rowing, survivor of battles with cancer after each Olympic cycle, a badass yogi, and a very proud mom. In between teaching yoga classes, Karen sat down and told her story like it's never been told before. She was an unlikely Olympian, starting as an architecture major at Cal Poly, and she fought for every inch of her success, spending hundreds hours training alone in a basement only to be turned away from the national team. Karen's perspective on what her 10 year journey means to her now, and how hot yoga can give you the same relief as rowing does, is a lesson in keeping things in perspective when it feels like the cards are stacked against you.

You can’t find Karen on social media, but you can take her class at Inner Fire Yoga in Madison, WI. Bring all the water and all the towels.

Show Notes

[2:43] Karen was the oldest of four kids, and her upbringing was not centered around sports. All the kids in her family had a lot of responsibilities, such as doing her daily paper route and doing all of her homework before doing anything else. 

[3:30] How Karen first got to try out rowing. When Karen got to college, she wanted to try out some sports. Over the course of two years, Karen tried out for eight teams: track, cross country, volleyball, swimming, basketball, and she can’t remember the last three. Any time she tried out for a new team, the coaches were a bit dumbfounded because she had no real natural talent. The cross country team, though, told her she could red shirt and try out for the team the next year. One day, when Karen was out running practicing to get noticed on the cross country team, she ran past the rowing team out for a run, and they invited her to a practice. She went to their practice the next Saturday, was thrust into a boat because someone was missing from practice, and by her senior year, she quit her job so that she could officially be on the team.

[6:00] After college, Karen was invited to a high school rowing camp in Cincinnati, and she loved it. This was the first time she got real coaching, and some quality aerobic training by attending two practices a day. The coach, Dave Reischman, took her aside at the end of camp, and told her she could keep going with rowing and try to take it to the next level. Karen had a job offer as a junior draftsman in an architecture studio, so she had to decide: was she going to take rowing to the next level, or was she going to choose a career in architecture? Her coach Dave told her he believed she could go on to do whatever she wanted to accomplish in rowing, which meant a lot to her. The year was 1991, and he told Karen that he believed she could someday make it to the Olympics, which had never dawned on her before. 

[9:00] Karen decided to put her degree in a drawer and pursue rowing. She went back to California, got a waitressing job so that she could go train on an erg and bring her erg score back down. She trained out of the Stanford rowing program’s ergs (they had 2), so she had to work around their schedule. She mostly ran stadiums, did some weight lifting (that she created out of her own imagination), and did erging workouts in between when she could get onto one of the ergs.

[10:30] Karen met her future pair partner, Missy, when they were both at a selection camp in 1991. Missy and Karen were both kept in the back of an 8+ boat during seat racing selection, and Missy won every single one of her seat races. Their coach put the two of them in the pair (2-) in 1994, and they went to the World Championships in Indianapolis as the spare pair that year. They didn’t get to race, but it was incredibly inspiring for them and gave them a glimpse of this level of competition. 

[12:25] Missy and Karen didn’t get much coaching during these early years, so they would train for hours on their own. In 1995, they went to the World Championships and won a silver medal. After the racing, their coach Hartmuth pulled the whole team into a conference room and essentially told the group that the silver medal 8+ would double up and compete as the pair, because he felt that a silver medal in the pair wasn’t good enough. Karen and Missy decided to leave the training center at that point and went to Australia and found their new coach. 

[14:31] In Australia, Karen’s new coach taught Karen and Missy to row using their small statures as an advantage. They learned new rowing technique, trained hard, and flew back to the US to compete in the Olympic trials against the women from the 8+ who were meant to be faster than them. They won all of their races by very large margins, and earned their bid to the Atlanta Summer Olympics in 1996. 

[16:30] When Karen and Missy went to the 1996 Olympics, they were not supported by the USOC or any other organization, so they were training and committing to their Olympic bid by going into debt. They kept their Australian coach, Dicky, as their official coach. He had them do hikes and long walks the day before hard workouts to prepare them for going to both the opening ceremonies in addition to racing the next day. Karen remembers that her sports hero, Muhammed Ali, lit the fire for the opening ceremonies. 

[18:20] Karen describes the Olympic final race at the 1996 Summer Olympics. They had a photo finish, and earned a silver medal by 0.3 seconds. This was the first race that her parents ever saw. 

[19:30] Karen thought the 1996 Olympics would be the end of her training. She moved back to California, decided to go to graduate school for exercise physiology, and just wanted to move on with her life. In addition to wanting to move on, Missy donated a kidney to her brother, which just added to their understanding that they should be done with training. 

[21:00] When Karen started treatment for stage 2 cervical cancer right after the 1996 Olympics. A couple of months after the 1996 Olympics, Karen went to the doctor for a regular checkup, and her stage 2 cervical cancer was discovered.  She underwent two cycles of chemo and one heavy dose of radiation for three months after the Olympics. She didn’t have any insurance at this time (was not covered at all while she was training for and during the ‘96 Olympics), so she went into incredible debt during her life saving treatment.  

[23:00] Karen went into six digits of debt by the time her cancer treatment was finished in the beginning of 1997. She spent the next few years working hard to pay as much of her debt off, which became her new focus. 

[23:55] Karen viewed her cancer diagnosis as an inconvenience, rather than a stumbling block. 

[24:20] In Karen’s mind at this time, she was a retired athlete. She was applying to graduate schools, and needed to take some prerequisite courses in order to qualify for exercise physiology programs. Before she could get any of those things taken care of, she got the cancer diagnosis, which delayed her pursuit of graduate school. Karen thinks that the cancer diagnosis kept her from falling into the depression that can come from the post-Olympics slump. She now realizes that her diagnosis was actually life threatening, but at the time she never thought about that aspect. She just wanted to get through it. 

[28:05] Karen didn’t tell her parents or her closest friends about her cancer diagnosis and treatment until she had made it through it. She now sees that as a mistake, but she really didn’t want to create any drama for any of them. 

[29:00] How Karen and Missy decided to start training again after the ‘96 Olympics. Once Karen had a clean bill of health in 1997, she enrolled in two classes at Stanford to complete her pre-requisites for graduate school. She was living two miles away from Missy, and during this time Missy donated her kidney to her brother. After a very intense four years of training for the ‘96 Olympics they had naturally distanced themselves from one another in the following year.  After her surgery, Missy had a long recovery because her kidney was so large.

[31:40] How both Missy and Karen’s health complications may have led them to decide to start training again. By August of 1997 both Missy and Karen ended up watching the Rowing World Championships on TV. Missy called her on the phone the next day and asked Karen if she had watched the race, where the pair had not done very well. Without exchanging many words, Karen and Missy both decided they wanted to start training again together for the next Olympic cycle. 

[33:50] Karen and Missy moved to Texas in 1997 to start training again for the next Olympic cycle full time. There were really no other fast rowers down there, so they raced boys’ quads, they trained in singles, tried out switching seat in the pair, did a lot of erging while listening to NPR, and just logged the time training that they needed to in order to build their fitness back up. They did not make the team that year, but they were really just focusing on getting back in shape.

[36:00] Karen comments on what being an athlete without any prospect of fame or glory meant to her. She says she’s tried to think about this over the years since retiring, and she thinks she may have come up with an explanation. What she gets from her time as an athlete is the intrinsic knowledge that once she decides she is going to do something, she knows that she understands the process of how to do it. She knows that she can set small goals that she knows will get her to her end goal. By setting small goals, she doesn’t need to feel the pressure of the giant final goal, but rather accomplish the smaller, more doable goals. This way, she can build the path stone by stone. She has realized she likes doing the work, she truly enjoys the journey. The sense of accomplishment is what makes her happy. 

[39:00] Kristin and Karen talk about the physical feedback that athletes are uniquely in tune with within their own bodies. For Karen, she spent so many hours staring at the screen of the rowing erg and analyzing the correlation between certain splits and how she felt. Years of doing that led to her being able to predict her own performance within taking three strokes on an erg. They agree that there is no comparison out there that they can think of that compares to feedback from physical work. 

[42:10] Karen says the erg is still soothing and calming to her, even now. They talk about the idea that athletes might all be addicts, in  a way, to exercise… 

[43:00] How the training and lead-up to the 2000 Olympics was different than their first cycle. Karen and Missy trained against the men because they were not invited to train with the women’s team. Dickey, their coach, was back in Australia, and would communicate with them via emails, giving them feedback and adjusting their training program from afar.

[44:45] Karen’s second cancer battle immediately following the 2000 Olympics, but she wasn’t diagnosed right away, despite feeling pain. Karen was back home living with her parents in Washington, and was studying for the GRE. She had some pain in her abdomen, similar to menstrual cramps, but she knew that couldn’t be it because she had not had a period the entire time she was training. While she was experiencing those pains she was accepted to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin. 

[46:15] Karen’s second transition period was much tougher than the one after the 1996 Olympics. She struggled with decreasing her exercise volume, and found herself doing multiple workouts every day.

[47:55] Karen moved to Wisconsin in 2000 to start graduate school, got health insurance, and was still feeling the pain in her abdomen. She went to the doctor and was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. This second cancer diagnosis rocked her quite a bit more than her first one. Because her biological father passed away when she was four years old of cancer, she was more scared this time around. Karen reflects on how her mind was filled with questions and fear about why she was going through this not once but twice, and why it always followed an Olympic cycle, etc. Furthermore, because both of her cancer battles were reproductive cancers, she was told she would most likely be unable to bear children. 

[51:30]  Karen started graduate school in 2001, and was working as a server at a restaurant in Madison, where she met Justin Rivas, a yoga teacher in the community. 

[53:00] By 2001, Karen was in over half a million dollars of debt following two fights with cancer, 9 years of training for the Olympics without working very much. (She does talk about how awesome Home Depot was to give her and Missy jobs during their second Olympic run.)

[54:00] Karen talks about how she finally stopped exercising so much. By 2001, Karen had been battling cancer and working so hard to pay off her debt that she no longer had enough hours in the day to over-exercise.

[54:50] Karen started graduate school studying exercise physiology and biomechanics. She wanted to study the angles of rowing, and the architecture of the body and how it creates balance. She sees her interest in biomechanics as the beginning of her interest in yoga. She went to the open house for a yoga studio in Madison that was just opening up (which is now Inner Fire Yoga), and she was hooked. She fell in love with yoga because it was exhausting, hard work, she got endorphins, sweated a lot, and it had a lot of the aspects that drew her to rowing. 

[57:00] Karen did her yoga training with Marit Sathrum, the founder of Inner Fire Yoga, for free, and in return she taught for free at the studio for one year. 

[57:35] Kristin points out that Karen never really took a break following her retirement. Karen points out that most of her life has been in response to opportunities (or challenges) that are presented to her. She talks about how, after the 2000 Olympics, she didn’t have time to reflect on her rowing career being over, because she had to focus on beating cancer. 

[59:00] Karen talks about how she’s never had a “master plan”. By the time she was 40 years old, she was finished up with rowing, cancer battles, graduate school, and she was finally interested in starting a family with her husband. It wasn’t until then that it really hit her that she could not take it for granted that she’d be able to have a child. 

[1:01:00] How Karen’s hopes for her graduate degree ended. A few years into graduate school, Karen’s graduate school lab lost its funding. At the same time, she was offered the assistant coaching job for the University of Wisconsin women’s rowing team, so she chose to take on the full time job of coaching, which launched her into her next career. 

[1:03:00] On Karen’s transition out of the rowing world, including out of her role as a rowing coach, and launch her new journey to become a mom and focus on creating the family she put off for so many years. Karen married her husband Calvin in 2008, in the same year that she started coaching at the University of Wisconsin. She had a romantic idea of both of these new endeavors, but didn’t anticipate how much work each would require from her. She absolutely loved working with the athletes as a coach, but the lifestyle of a Division I coach meant she was away from home from 4 AM to after 6 PM, and travelled many weeks and weekends out of the year. The schedule meant that she struggled to create the family that she wanted, and in 2014, she realized she couldn’t do it all. She had started trying to get pregnant a few years before, but ultimately suffered 9 miscarriages between 2008 and 2013, over half of which were during the second trimester. Karen decided to leave her career as a rowing coach in 2015 so that she could focus on her family more.

[1:10:15] At the time when Karen was recovering from the crushing sadness of miscarriages and leaving her coaching career, she was practicing yoga like an athlete- staying very disciplined, practicing every day, and was very regimented. She had stopped thinking too hard about becoming pregnant, and in March 2014, and gave birth to her daughter, Revel, in December 2014. Karen calls her a miracle, and has decided to commit herself to staying home as much as possible as long as she can. Revel is strong willed, spirited, and Karen is raising her to do whatever she wants to do in her life. 

[1:12:20] Karen talks about how she has used her life experiences to help her parent. She believes that she is more patient and engaged with her daughter because she waited so long to become a mother. She has taken on being an “older mom” with the same confidence that she approached all of her other challenges throughout her life. (She does, however, say that being perimenopausal makes it a little harder.)

[1:15:30] What’s next for Karen? She just wants to focus on her daughter until she goes to school. Karen’s not in a hurry to move onto the next thing for herself. She’s enjoying teaching yoga, and being a part of teaching yoga teacher training. She has found that she loves teaching, but wants to keep Revel at the center of her upcoming adventures. 

[1:17:30] Karen answers the question, “If you really knew me…”