Five years after coming in ninth (out of 10) in the 2004 Olympics, rower Kate MacKenzie found herself asking, “What do I really want to do with my life?” At 34, she was living in New York City, working at a job she didn’t like and had just broken off her engagement. She felt lost.

“I realized I wasn’t happy and this wasn’t what I wanted to do,” she reflects.  “I hadn’t thought about anything but the Olympics. I came back from Athens and didn’t know what to do with myself.”

Courtesy of Kate MacKenzie
Kate MacKenzie

Living with her fiancé in Princeton, New Jersey, after the Olympics, MacKenzie got lucky and landed a job in human resources through a temp agency. “I’d spent six years training, not really getting any experience,” she admits. “I didn’t have much to offer an employer except, ‘I went to the Olympics and I work really hard.’”

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That kind of self-marketing could only get her so far, especially when she’d racked up a couple thousand dollars in debt. There isn’t much money in rowing. In order to go to the Olympics, athletes get some help from the team, which includes health care and a stipend to cover rent and basic bills, but beyond that, it’s up to the competitors to fundraise on their own behalves.

MacKenzie approached friends and family for donations, and was able to raise about $14,000, which took care of most, but certainly not all of her expenses. (Many of her teammates, she said, fared far worse, wallowing in debt.) She didn’t think she had a good enough story to try to sell herself to corporations for sponsorship: “I was a good rower, I was going to make the team, but I doubted I had any chance of medalling.”

MacKenzie rowed in the boat that won the 2002 World Championships. She was looking forward to defending the title the following year when she ruptured a disk in her lower back. The injury landed her on the operating table, and she spent six months recovering. She missed the World Championships. (The U.S. team took fifth place.)

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When she started rowing again in October, she had her sights set on the eight-person boat that stood a chance of earning an Olympic medal in 2004. The coach had doubts, and placed MacKenzie in a pair boat for the trials. Though she and her new partner, Sarah Jones, had never rowed together and only had a week and a half to get to know each other’s styles, they clicked and pulled out a surprising win to qualify to compete in Athens.

It was a thrill to make the team, but MacKenzie and Jones had pushed so hard in the trials that they had little left for the Olympics themselves. They came in second-to-last. (MacKenzie notes: “We did beat France!”)

Courtesy of Kate MacKenzie

“We were already burned out,” she says. “I don’t think we raced to our potential. To be in the biggest race in my career—the biggest race in the world—and not feel like we made it work was really devastating.”

Fortunately, time provided MacKenzie with some much-needed perspective. “You have to realize: Most people don’t win medals. After the Olympics, you spend time kicking yourself. Then you realize, ‘Hold on! I made the Olympic team!’ You put everything you had on the table, and you should be proud that you represented your country, that you were good enough to be on that stage.”

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It’s taken her a while, but MacKenzie has found the right path for her. Now 37, she is one year away from earning her degree as a Doctor of Physical Therapy from the University of Michigan, Flint. Physical therapy was a huge part of her recovery, and she’s excited to be on the other side of the training table.

“It feels like finally, at 37, I’m getting my feet underneath me,” she says. “If I could go back, I’d prepare myself for life after the Olympics a little better, but I wouldn’t trade the experiences for anything.”