Kris Karlson is a world-champion rower and a member of the U.S. national team. Because of these achievements, she dreads hearing the O word. "When I got back from the world championships last year, everyone asked, 'Are you going to the Olympics?" " says Karlson. "I got so sick of it. Then in October everyone asked, 'Did you go to the Olympics?" It was really tiresome."
Her answer was always, "No." Karlson didn't go to the Seoul Games because she had—and still has—a weight problem. She is a lightweight sculler in an ocean of heavyweights. Big rowers generally go faster than small rowers, and Karlson competes in races for women who weigh 130 pounds or less. Unlike the world championships and other major competitions, Olympic rowing doesn't have a lightweight classification.
This September in Bled, Yugoslavia, Karlson not only successfully defended her lightweight single sculls title but, with C.B. Sands of North Reading, Mass., won the lightweight double sculls as well. It was the first time anyone had swept the single and double sculling events in world championship competition since Jack Kelly (later better known as the father of Grace Kelly) did so 69 years ago.
When Karlson was growing up in Warren, N.J., she "wasn't real good at any kind of land transportation," says her mother, Nancy, with parental tact. "But she could swim."
"I wasn't a high school athlete," says Karlson, 26. "I can't chase a ball, I can't hit a ball with a racket, I'm not a good runner. Rowing attracts the kind of person who is too much of a klutz to do anything else."
The 5'9", 130-pound Karlson is all legs and elbows and determination—good qualities for a rower—but she did not lay eyes on a racing boat until she was a freshman at Williams College. As a lark, she went out for crew, and ended up rowing women's eights for four years. "It was fun." she says, "but we weren't exactly a force to be reckoned with."
When Karlson started medical school at the University of Connecticut in 1985, she tried single sculling. On the narrow, twisting Farmington River she learned to row with two oars. The next fall she won a lottery for a chance to compete in the Head of the Charles. America's most celebrated regatta, in Cambridge, Mass. She finished second in the open-club single sculls and realized that she was pretty darned fast in her tiny, tippy scull. "Everyone kept asking me who taught me how to scull," she says. "What was fun is that nobody taught me."
"Kris is really a targeted individual," says John Marden, her coach and Sands's husband. "She sets short-term goals for everything and watches the clock all the time."
Marden started coaching Karlson when she made the national team, in 1987. Before then Karlson's self-taught stroke was so rough she called it "killing fish." Marden tried to smooth it out, although, he says, "it's hard to get her to be patient and slow down."
Juggling rowing workouts, competitions and medical school rotations is tricky enough, but it would be nearly impossible to complete a residency program—which can require as many as 100 hours a week in a hospital—and continue as an elite athlete. So Karlson, who will graduate from med school this spring, plans to spread her internship over 18 to 24 months and then put off her residency to concentrate on making the 1992 Olympics.
"It's hard to know what she's capable of," says Marden. Although she should make the Olympic team, whether she will seriously contend for a medal in single sculling is another matter. Most women medalists have weighed at least 30 pounds more than Karlson. "Many lightweights have tried," says Marden, "but they don't do well."
Karlson will add muscle, bulking up to perhaps 138 pounds. She thinks she can earn a medal in a double scull, or perhaps a quad. Even if she doesn't do well in the Olympics, she won't regret having made the trip. It's not hard to imagine one of Karlson's patients 10 years from now saying, "Hey, I heard you used to be some kind of rower. Were you ever in the Olympics?"
Dr. Karlson would like to answer simply, "Yes."
Karlson (front) won the worlds with Sands but must bulk up to make the 1992 Olympics.