Our living rowing legend; Ekaterina Karsten
A true living legend of rowing, Ekaterina Karsten of Belarus celebrated 30 years in the sport this year. The majority of her time in the women’s single sculls, Karsten (nee Khodotovich) finished second at this year’s European Rowing Championships just shy of her 45th birthday.
Some point to Serena Williams as the greatest female athlete of all time, but Karsten must be able to give Williams a run for her money for this title. She has rowed at seven Olympic Games and has two Olympic gold, one silver and two bronze medals, plus six World Championship titles and 29 World Rowing Cup wins to her name. The length of time Karsten has spent at the top of the rowing world is unprecedented.
We will not see her at this year’s World Rowing Championships though. Apart from 1998, when Karsten took a break for the birth of her daughter Alexandra, this will be the first time Karsten will miss a World Rowing Championships since she won her first as a junior single sculler for the Soviet Union back in 1990.
Known to shy away from interviews, Karsten talked frankly about her 27-year long international rowing stint, a stint that she has no intention of calling a day. At least not yet.
World Rowing: You began rowing when Belarus was still part of the Soviet Union. How did you get started in the sport?
Ekaterina Karsten: I grew up in the country and one day my sport teacher received a letter saying that the Sport Boarding School in Minsk was looking for tall, sporty girls. He asked me if I was interested. I asked what sport I was supposed to do there and was told athletics or rowing. I had no idea what rowing was at the time. But after checking with my parents, I went to Minsk in June 1987 and by the afternoon I was already sitting in a boat. I had just turned 15.
I celebrated my 30-year rowing anniversary this year and my husband gave me a golden ring for the occasion, which he got made with the Olympic rings and the women’s single symbol on it. The years I participated at the Olympic Games are written on it and he left an empty space for Tokyo. As always, he knows more than me.
WR: Did you enjoy rowing right from the beginning?
EK: Yes, but at the beginning I was in an eight and that wasn’t my thing. I was the ugly duckling from the country and the others excluded me a bit. When they went out to dance clubs at night, I stayed home. The next day, I noticed that the results where not as they could have and should have been, so I went to the coach and told him that I would like to continue rowing, but only in the single. He accepted it and I got into the USSR national rowing team.
The training in the USSR was defined by a strict hierarchy and the coach was more or less God and the athletes his property. When the Olympic Games in Barcelona came around, a discussion started if I should be allowed to row the single. Their opinion was that I was too young. That’s why I won my first Olympic medal in the quad. The crew raced as the Unified Team (including 12 of the 15 former Soviet Republics).
WR: With Belarus’s independence how did your rowing change?
EK: My future was unsure for a long time. Some of the former Soviet coaches brought their disagreements into the new Belarusian national team and in the beginning it was unclear if they would even provide me with a boat.
At that time, I considered changing to the Russian team and even trained there for a few months. But then the then Sport Minister of Belarus called me in and urged me to stay with Belarus. He enforced the end to all disagreements and promised me my own boat. That made my decision to stay.
The structures in the sport were still difficult though and I wouldn’t have been able to make it through without my German husband Wilfried. We found a new coach, Norbert Ladermann. Plus it all only worked out because Norbert helped me without being paid for the first few years.
Belarus did not want to see their first Belarusian Olympic gold medal, which I won in Atlanta, leave the country and move to Germany. But things got better when I won another gold medal for Belarus at the 1999 World’s after the birth of our daughter in 1998. After that, I came to an agreement with the Sport Ministry, they supported us and we were able to travel as a family to training camps and regattas.
We moved to Germany in 2002 and the federation pretty much accepted that I was living and training in Germany. Of course that meant higher costs for Belarus and there were people holding a grudge. When I did not win a medal in London (2012 Olympics) because of two broken ribs, it only added fuel to their fire. I lost all support for the next eight months. I only made it through that period and to the Europeans in 2013 thanks to my coach and husband.
A similar thing now happened after Rio (2016 Olympics). Since then, I have been financing my training in Germany. It’s improved now and at least I can train again in Belarus.
I actually just returned from there after racing at our nationals, where I won the single. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to go to the World’s as the heat in Lucerne afflicted me so much that I did not meet the Belarusian qualification requirement of finishing eighth. But it looks possible again to be nominated for the Olympics, if I produced the required results.
WR: How have you adapted your training under different regimes?
EK: Differences in my training did not depend on the countries I trained in, but with the individuals who trained me. My old coaches received a bonus for my success and that is why the health of the athletes more or less did not matter to them.
The most significant change in my rowing career has been Norbert. When he started advising me in 2003, I had had some returning disc issues. He changed my training and created a plan that has allowed me to have a long career and to stay healthy. Only because I started working with him the success of the last few years was possible.
Also the help and support of my husband has been key for my career. Unfortunately, his health is deteriorating and he can’t support me as much as I was used to over the years.
WR: You once said you would stop when your daughter started beating you. And?
EK: My daughter was enthusiastic about rowing for a time. And thanks to her being 190cms tall, her first results were promising. Unfortunately, the real athlete heart, the will to get better and to work on those things you are not very good at, wasn’t there.
She now prefers to do things she already knows how to do and has fun doing. For her it’s ok to just do a bit of rowing as a hobby and she prefers sitting in front of her laptop.
WR: Are you well-known in Belarus?
EK: When I go shopping there it does happen that people let me pass the line at the cashier. And a couple of weeks ago, when I travelled from Belarus to Germany it happened again. There were long waiting times at the border, but somebody recognised me and I could hear them make a call saying; “Katja is coming, make sure to make this quick.”
Recently people have compared me with the Belarusian Biathlon skier, who has won three gold at the Winter Olympics and they keep mentioning that three Olympics are pretty good, but that five medals and seven Games are better!
WR: Do you have a favourite rowing spot and a favourite race?
EK: I will always remember the weather in Brandenburg and for training the regatta course in Cologne is my absolute favourite. As far as my achievements go, nothing compares to my first Olympic medal in Barcelona. Apart from that, I will always remember Lucerne 1996. It was my first international win in the women’s single, my birthday and the day Wilfried proposed.
WR: What do you think has changed in the sport since you began competing in 1990?
EK: What I don’t like is that these days athletes take money to row. In my opinion, the goal should always be to achieve the best result and not a full bank account.
WR: What are your rowing plans and maybe also beyond?
EK: I do have my eyes set on Tokyo and we will see if it works out.