Rowing to Victory
Berkeley MBA Tastes Paralympic Glory in Beijing
By Simona Chin Campbell, MBA 07
At 5:20 p.m. on Sept. 11, 2008, four athletes
and I tried to simultaneously calm our nerves
and heighten our intensity as we sat at the
starting line of the Shunyi Rowing-Canoeing
Park just outside of Beijing. Ahead of us
lay 1,000 meters of water, stands packed
with spectators whose chatter had already
become a roar, and a chance at making
history. Nearby were five other boats full
of athletes, all waiting in eager and slightly
And then, in a matter of seconds, a red light turned on and a sound similar to a dull air horn blared. Muscles and voices exploded, and we were no longer four athletes and a coxswain. We were the United States of America, racing for the first Paralympic medals ever to be won in the sport of rowing. Three minutes and 37.61 seconds later, we were silver medalists in the Legs-Trunk-Arms Four with Coxswain (LTA4+) event at the Beijing Paralympics. Italy won the gold; Great Britain finished third, only .76 seconds behind us.
Small, loud, and slightly bossy
I first learned about rowing at Stanford, when I joined the men’s team as a freshman. They needed someone small, loud, and slightly bossy to steer a boat as the coxswain, and no one else was interested. Little did I know that not only would I come to love the sport of rowing, but also that being a member of the team would become a defining element of my undergraduate experience. Much to my parents’ chagrin, I planned classes and visits home around our practice and racing schedules. I missed my only sister’s college graduation to train for the national championships. I learned about financial services and took a job with Goldman Sachs because of a teammate. Eventually, I left that job and returned to business school because I thought my racing days were over and I wanted to change careers.
In pursuing my MBA, I thought I would find a way to channel my love for sports and competition into a career rather than an extracurricular activity. My goal to become an athletic director led me to choose Berkeley because of its experience with students who pursue nontraditional career paths. While at Haas, I raced only recreationally.
A long shot
Then, in 2006, I learned about the Paralympic Team. The coach connected me with one of the rowers after I moved to Washington, DC, and I knew that I had to at least try for a spot on the team. I also knew that being chosen was a long shot, but after four days of selection camp last June, I was offered the chance to represent the USA in China.
At the Paralympics, only a handful of athletes are not required to have physical disabilities. We are, ironically enough, referred to as “noncompeting participants” and include coxswains for the 4+ event in rowing and pilots for blind cycling. Despite the terminology, we train and ultimately compete with our teammates at the Paralympic Games.
My teammates have a variety of disability classifications: Jamie is blind, Jesse has a below-theknee prosthesis on one leg, Tracy has cerebral palsy, and Emma has Erbs palsy. As athletes, they awe and inspire me. As people, they humble me.
The Olympic team trains together in Princeton for the entire year before the Games. We, however, live in different parts of the country and trained together only a handful of times in the summer, making personal, professional, and financial sacrifices to attend weekend practices in Philadelphia. We trained up to six or seven times in one weekend, once or at best twice a month between June and August. The rowers would push themselves beyond exhaustion to improve our speed.
Defying the odds
With our short training schedule and limited time together as a team, we were by no means the favorites in our event. We knew the games would be difficult and that we faced tough competition, but we also knew that we had to aim for nothing but the best from ourselves. In placing second, we defied the odds and the expectations, making our sacrifices more than worth it. To my teammates and me, the silver medal feels as good as gold.
Beyond the medal and the memories, I also have an increased respect for disabled athletes and an indescribable appreciation for the truly global community that existed at the Paralympic Village. Further, as a Chinese- American, I was able to compete not only for myself, my teammates, and my country, but also for my family and my heritage. I had the privilege of representing my country in the land of my ancestors, competing with elite athletes who have overcome the most severe of obstacles, and achieving my own personal dreams.