Van Fossen in a university class of her own
If there are two things that Kirsten Van Fossen has mastered, it is rowing and university. An incredible example of achieving balance between sport and studies, Van Fossen is about to complete her PhD from Cambridge University in Great Britain and she is the most recent recipient of the Parmigiani Spirit Award.
At age 16, Van Fossen decided to try rowing. Her father had been a rower and encouraged her to try the sport. “I had played many other sports,” Van Fossen says. “But I hadn’t fallen in love with any of them.” The connection with rowing was quickly made. After a spring season on her high school team, Van Fossen rowed the next summer at a club in Philadelphia.
“There is something about being on the water,” she says. “You are really in tune with nature and with your team. Being able to move a boat in sync with your teammates, as you are all working toward the same goal, it allows you to feel the power of team, unlike any other sport.”
This turned out to be just the beginning of Van Fossen’s rowing career. After only one year of rowing, she traveled the country looking at universities. “Rowing played a big role in my college search,” Van Fossen says. “I chose Harvard, and the Radcliff rowing team, because I felt the culture was something I wanted to be a part of. I am still really close with my coaches and teammates from Radcliff.”
After completing an undergraduate degree in engineering, Van Fossen went on to do research in Sao Paulo, Brazil on water reuse and filtration systems. But her rowing career did not end there.
Two years after she completed her bachelor degree, Van Fossen was accepted to the Engineering Department of Cambridge University to do a PhD in sustainability. Her need to balance rowing with studies appeared again.
“Rowing with a team and the structure around that really helps you with time management. So for me they (rowing and academics) really complement one another. Rowing is a form of mindfulness. It gives you a break from everything else that is going on in your life. You are forced to focus on what is in front of you,” Van Fossen says.
And she has certainly done just that. Racing in the lightweight boat for the Cambridge vs Oxford Boat Race, Van Fossen managed not only the pursuit of a complicated PhD, but also the demanding twice-a-day training schedule that the Boat Race competitors take on. She calls the Boat Race “a test of patience,” naming the seven months of training all in the build-up to one crucial race.
The Boat Race preparation has been touted by many rowers as extremely grueling. Contrary to other rowing programmes at the university, under-23 or elite level, the seven-month preparation is all for one race. Van Fossen saw this as a learning opportunity, a way to be patient, to continue working even without immediate reward.
Patience is one of the three lessons that Van Fossen says rowing has taught her, along with a deep respect for health and the power of community. What is clear is that no matter which community she was in, Van Fossen dedicated her time and energy to making it a better one. As the winner of the 2015 Parmigiani Spirit Award, her university boat club will receive a top-of-the-line Filippi racing eight. The plaque inside the boat states: “This Filippi Boat is offered in recognition of her exceptional achievements as a university rower.” They were exceptional indeed.