Courtesy of Konrad Weeber

Last Friday, Yale women’s crew alumnus Kristina Wagner ’15 established herself as the third fastest women’s single sculler in the United States.

Racing in Nathan Benderson Park, Wagner crossed the finish line at 7:39.29 in the women’s single sculls final at the first 2020 U.S. Olympic Team Trials. Her bronze finish placed her 12.12 seconds behind 2016 Olympic silver medalist Gevvie Stone and 15.92 seconds behind 2012 Olympic bronze medalist Kara Kohler, who placed first and secured her bid to represent the United States in women’s single for the 2021 Tokyo games.

In the first women’s 1x time trial last Monday, Wagner placed fourth. The following day, she took second in her heat behind Brown alumnus Cicely Madden, sending Wagner to the repechage — an additional race that gives athletes another chance to qualify for the semifinals. On Wednesday, she clocked in at 7:49.85 to continue to the semifinals, where she beat Madden by six seconds to place second behind Kohler with an 8:02.38.

“My biggest goal was to make the final, which was top four,” Wagner said. “I just really tried to take it race by race and day by day and focus on what was happening in the moment — not get too ahead of myself.”

From the shore, Wagner’s coach Eric Catalano watched the races unfold.

Catalano, who has been training Wagner on-and-off since she was in high school, is the head varsity girls’ coach at Saratoga Rowing Association and founder of ARION, the Advanced Rowing Initiative of the Northeast. According to their website, ARION is an elite residential training program for a select group of athletes with National Team ambitions.

“It was super exciting to watch her achieve her goal,” Catalano said. “I will say it was very much an emotional roller coaster, starting from the beginning. The time trial, just going out, I was praying that she could just have her race because I knew her race would put her right in the mix. So, as [the results] came up, [her fourth-place finish] was not unexpected, but it was a relief.”

After the heats, though Wagner did not advance straight to the final — a break that was reserved only for the first-place finisher in each heat — Catalano felt as though Wagner came off the water more confident because her times and standings were amongst those of the finalists.

When asked about her performance in the semifinals, Wagner said that she struggled with her start yet was able to recover, leading to her second-place finish in the semis on Thursday.

“I didn’t have the best start in that race [but] I was just focused on myself and, honestly, was a little caught off guard that I was catching up,” Wagner said. “I just tried to feed off the adrenaline and the speed I had in my boat, and it happened to work out that time.”

 

Courtesy of Konrad Weeber

Wagner began receiving accolades for her rowing at a young age, captaining her 2010 Waylon Weston Crew team and occupying one of the team’s first boats ever to go to Youth Nationals.

She continued her rowing career as a student-athlete at Yale, where she stroked the varsity four to a second-place finish in the NCAA Championship grand final, the highest finish for the four at NCAAs in school history, in the 2014–2015 season.

“Kristi is clearly one of the fastest scullers in the U.S.,” women’s crew head coach Will Porter said. “It is a testament to her commitment to the sport. She is a great example to our current athletes.”

After winning the silver medal with the varsity four, Wagner now competes internationally for the United States, earning sixth place for the women’s quadruple sculls without coxswain in the 2019 World Cup in Rotterdam.

Wagner told the News about how she initially intended to leave her rowing career at Yale after graduation. Though she had a separate job already lined up, her plans shifted after she was invited to the Craftsbury Outdoor Center, a training facility for scullers in Vermont.

“I went there and sculled a little bit that summer and then still moved back to Boston where I started working,” Wagner said. “I was able to train on the side and just really liked elite training … it’s a lot more individual … and then I moved up to Saratoga Springs, where I’ve been for the past four plus years.”

While training with ARION, Wagner competed in the World Cup in 2019 and told the News that she was “having a good year” until the COVID-19 pandemic halted international competition. 

Despite the pandemic initially limiting her to training in her living room, Wagner soon made it back out on the water in a single. She expressed her gratitude for being able to train again in Saratoga, especially because of her hip injury in 2017 that required surgery and made her unable to row for about six months.

Wagner rows in Florida last Wednesday. (Photo: Courtesy of USRowing)

“I’ve really just kind of been building back up since then [and] I’ve raced a lot since then, mostly in the single and double [and] a little bit in the quad,” Wagner said. “My finish is getting a little bit higher at all of our internal U.S. rowing selection regattas … and then last year, you know, was having a good year until the pandemic … but all in all, I think I was really lucky, just with how everything worked out.”

As Wagner looks forward to the future, she envisions a lot of training and work before the naming of the rest of the Olympic team, which currently only has one spot occupied by Kara Kohler after last week’s trial. Wagner added she is looking forward to also taking some time to enjoy the success of her bronze medal and “unwind a little bit.”

Although all of the openweight women’s boats have been pre-qualified for the Olympics, the next trial in April will determine the double and some of the bigger boats, such as the quad for sculling. Unlike the trial process, the eight and the four are decided through a selection camp at the coach’s discretion, Wagner explained.

“I’m definitely hoping to get a double with someone and race at doubles trials,” Wagner said. “I mean, I guess you race in a trial to win, and, you know, that that was ultimately my goal.”

While Wagner is not yet sure of her exact spring plans, she is set to head to Boston shortly to train on the Charles River.

Amelia Lower | amelia.lower@yale.edu