row2k kicks off our 2020 spring collegiate racing preview with an interview with Wisconsin lightweight senior Tori Kost. We talked with Kost about finding lightweight rowing, learning to walk, and more.
row2k - You started rowing as a novice at Wisconsin, what was your athletic background before enrolling and how did you end up in Madison?
Tori Kost - I did a bunch of activities growing up. When I was in elementary school, I was a tennis player and dancer, which, looking back, is really hard to believe because of how clumsy and ungraceful I am. During middle school, I transitioned to basketball, track, and waterskiing, which took over my life year-round. High school brought more basketball and track, and I began competing in cross country, trap shooting, and alpine skiing. It felt like my life was booked every weekend and night, but I really commend my parents for making it to every sporting event, even with three other kids who were just as active as me.
Junior year rolled around, and that meant fun family road trips to go and tour different colleges and universities around the country. We toured so many, and I was convinced I was going to Creighton University in Omaha. The day before I was supposed to make my college decision, I received a phone call from the office of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Chancellor/Powers-Knapp Scholarship team who said that they were offering me a full-tuition scholarship to attend the university. I couldn’t believe it, it was almost 10 pm, but I ran upstairs and told my parents I was going to Madison for school. Four years later, here we are, and I cannot imagine not being a part of the Badger community.
row2k - How did you find your way into the rowing program?
Tori Kost - Honestly, I had no intention of competing in sports. If anything I wanted to compete on the intramural basketball team, but I had suffered so many concussions playing, that it was not a good idea. I was looking for a low to no contact activity when, all of a sudden, this really athletic-looking girl ran up to me and told me to fill out my information to join the Wisconsin rowing team. I had never even heard of rowing in my entire life before but, hey I love kayaking and paddle boarding, so how hard could it be? Needless to say it is not at all like kayaking.
I filled out the information, and when I got back to my dorm, I looked up the Wisconsin Women’s Rowing team. I saw that almost all of the rowers were over 5’6”. A few of them were 5’3”, so I called my mom and told her I was going to be something called a coxswain. I rolled up at the boathouse on the first day of the open house and went into the open-weight erg bay. I was one of the shortest rowers there! I tried being a coxswain for a week on the open-weight team before the lightweight coach told me that I should come and row for the lightweight team; the rest is history!
row2k - You faced some challenges during early childhood, how did those help you to become the person you are today?
Tori Kost - I was born in a fixed backward C position, immobilized so badly that doctors were convinced that I would be unable to walk, attend school, or be a functioning adult without a caretaker. I went into foster care after birth and was almost immediately adopted soon after. My parents were amazing; they took me to numerous doctors’ appointments at the Children’s hospital to see different specialists and doctors in an attempt to change the trajectory of my life. All the doctors said the same thing; my chances of walking and moving by myself were slim to none. That’s when we met my physical therapist who told us that she was going to do all she could to get me to at least move by myself. After our appointments, my mom would come home and help me to do all of my exercises. She would sit with me for hours moving my joints and eventually helping me to jump in and out of laundry baskets. Out of my other three siblings, I was the last person to sit up, crawl, and walk.
Kost at IRA in 2019
By the time I was three, I was now able to stand up by myself without my parents holding me; something that was deemed impossible. I was able to walk, I was able to go to school, I was able to run, swim, bike, and play like the rest of my siblings. It really puts into perspective what life is. I was supposed to have a drastically different life than I do today. If I was not adopted by my amazing parents, if we had not found my determined physical therapist I would not be all that I am today. The challenges I went through as a child really made me think about how to live my life.
I really started immersing myself in everything I could get my hands on, different clubs, sports, activities. In my mind, I wanted to stick it to everyone who said that I couldn’t do it and show that miracles really do happen. It gives me motivation for my future. When I think that I cannot do something, my mom always reminds me of how far I have come. I think that is a big thing people need to realize in themselves as well. Take a second to look back and see what you have already accomplished and believe in yourself. Try something new, take risks, be proud of who you are and what you’ve done. Make mistakes, be ok with failing because that is an opportunity for growth. Each day is a new day; just like in rowing, you have a new opportunity each time you hop on the erg or into the boat. I no longer believe in living once. I believe you live every single day, so how are you going to maximize each day you have been given?
row2k - How well did you and your team cope with all the unexpected COVID-19 issues in the spring and fall?
Tori Kost - Being on a team where we need to be indoors from November to the end of March really helped us mentally get through different COVID-19 issues. I mean we are used to having to work out by ourselves for several months indoors because of the snow and frozen water. It was honestly just a very long winter break. We all kept checking in with each other and our coaches would have check-in meetings every so often to make sure we were in a good place physically, but more so mentally and emotionally. We had no choice but to reach out to teammates and do workouts virtually and even did a virtual IRA organized by the seniors in the schools that take part in the IRA. It was really cool to see not only our team coming together, but the other teams coming together as lightweights across the country. Now, we are even more hopeful to be back racing during the spring 2021 season.
row2k - What do you like most about the sport of rowing?
Tori Kost - This is the most team orientated sport that I have ever been involved in; my favorite part about rowing is my teammates. I love that all of my teammates come from different backgrounds, different experiences, different coaches, and different mindsets, yet we can all come together and accomplish something bigger than ourselves. Each of us adds something to the team. We can all learn from each other, and help grow to be better women than we were yesterday. My teammates have my back on and off the water because that is who we are. The connection that we all share does not end when we get off the water, it’s a deep connection that continues to hold us all together no matter how long or how far we are apart. My teammates are the reason why I continue to row, and I know that we will continue to stay connected long after we have left the team.
row2k - What has been your most memorable race and why?
Tori Kost - The 2019 IRA National Championships was hands down my favorite race. I had never competed at that high of a level, and it was something that really made winter training worth it. All through the winter, our coaches and other teammates just told us to hang on to the thought of competing at Lake Natoma in California. I competed in the Lightweight 4+ event and what really made it special was my closest friends were in that boat. My best friend and roommate was our coxswain, who was a walk-on just like me. We had two freshmen in our boat, one who was a true walk-on and another who had never swept before. Our bow seat was the only person who had 9+ years of rowing experience and she kept us all together, she was like our mom that entire experience.
Racing heat at IRAs
When we were training back home on Mendota, we really had no idea how fast we were or where we were ranked compared to the competition, but it really did not matter. When we got on the starting line Saturday morning, we just gripped and ripped as hard as we could and really surprised ourselves. That night we sat down with our coaches, and they weren’t surprised at all. They knew how fast we were and believed in us; we just had to believe in us. Sunday morning came and we were at the starting line, I remember all of us turning to high five each other down the line, looking down the course at the still, blue water. You could feel our contained energy pulsing through the boat, ready to let loose the second the announcer called the race. I don’t remember much during the race. I don’t even know if I breathed until the final 250 meters of the course because that’s when I smelled the scent of home, grilled burgers, and brats at the Wisconsin tent. We finished third. Dead tired, but incredibly proud of ourselves for coming together and doing something bigger than ourselves. As soon as we crossed that buoy, I did not stop smiling until we got back on the plane to go back to Wisconsin. It’s the race that will always stick with me and remind me why I continue to erg or run when it’s below freezing out. It’s the race that reminds me of just how capable we are if we believe in ourselves and each other.
row2k - What are some of your interests away from the boathouse?
Tori Kost - Oh goodness, sometimes it feels like I just go from Porter Boathouse to class and back. A lot of my interests stem from the different campus organizations that I am a part of. I am part of an organization called Athletes in Action which is a Christian-based group on campus that really strives to teach athletes about why God would care about sports. I was blessed enough to travel to South Africa to complete a week-long camp and stay an additional three weeks to disciple the South African athletes at their campuses.
This past year I was honored to be chosen to be the Vice President of Student Athletes Equally Supporting Others (SAESO). SAESO works with the diversity and inclusion department on campus to ensure a safe space for athletes regardless of backgrounds. We put together different events throughout the year, including my personal favorite Soul Food Night during Black History Month, to showcase different groups on campus and educate fellow peers about different cultures. When not at school I love being at my house in Northern Wisconsin and doing anything and everything outside with my three dogs.
row2k - What are you studying at Wisconsin and do you have any plans for after graduation?
Tori Kost - I came to the University of Wisconsin intending to major in biology, but the more I studied the brain the more I fell in love with neurobiology. I found it particularly interesting when we would have a practice session that talked about mental toughness and how to train our brain to love erg workouts. After graduation in May, I intend to go to Physician Assistant school and start my career as a Physician Assistant after completing my graduate coursework.