Past industrial warehouses, with their dirty white concrete-block walls and nondescript rectangular shapes, Olympian Kathleen Noble rowed. Past train cars and holding tanks, she skittered along, her oars leaving circular wakes as she quietly dipped them into the water like the spindly legs of a waterbug.
Not the colorful graffiti decorating the underbelly of an overpass, nor even a bedraggled doll strapped into an abandoned shopping cart, could catch her attention. As Noble pushed and pulled, pushed and pulled, her eyes took on a distant look, as though she’d gone deep inside herself to a place where she couldn’t hear her lungs and muscles scream.
Ahsan Iqbal opened up the throttle of the 15-horsepower engine on his little green dinghy and still couldn’t keep up. The coach smiled. This too-short stretch of the Jordan River’s surplus canal, the tumultuous Great Salt Lake and a monotonous indoor rower had served as Noble’s Olympic training grounds for the past two years, and her training mates had mostly been a group of high school boys. Yet on that early July day, with the Tokyo Games less than a month away, Noble looked ready.
“She seemed very determined and to me, that’s such a key part,” Iqbal said of why he and his wife, Linda, the head coach of the youth rowing club Utah Crew, agreed to train Noble, who this week will compete as the first Olympic rower in Uganda’s history. “If you’re doing it because it’s cool, that’s not going to do it.”
Noble had to be determined because — pandemic aside — becoming an elite rower in a water-strapped state like Utah has its challenges.
“I didn’t think I could even really find a place to row in Utah,” Noble said. “But it was something I knew I would regret if I never really tried.”
Racing for Uganda
Noble, 26, was born in the central African country of Uganda to a pair of missionaries from Ireland. She lived there through high school and actually became an accomplished swimmer who represented Uganda in the 2012 FINA World Swimming Championships. Her relationship with the sport was love-hate, though, and when she moved to the United States to attend Princeton University, she left swimming behind.
Her college roommate happened to be a recruit for the crew team, and when she was a sophomore, Noble decided to give the sport a try. She had no visions of grandeur, but her coaches saw potential.
“We knew right away that Kathleen had a strong aerobic capacity that she had built up through her swimming career,” Princeton head Paul Rassam told goprincetontigers.com. “It was also clear that she had a good amount of natural power and natural boat feel — from day one she really seemed to understand how to latch on to the water and accelerate the boat past the puddle. Her form was solid right away.”
A coach from Uganda saw her at a training camp and met with her when she returned home the following summer. The country didn’t have many resources for its rowers, but it could offer international opportunities. Noble raced in the U23 world championships and figured that would be where her time as a national team athlete would end.
Then, a few years later and a full year after she’d graduated and stopped rowing, Noble got a call. Uganda’s Olympic committee wanted her to race in an Olympic qualifying regatta at the end of 2019.
There was only one problem. She would need to race single sculls, which was a completely different animal from the eight-person crew she competed in at Princeton. Where she had previously been responsible for one oar, she would control both. And where she’d had eight teammates, including the coxswain, it would now just be her.
In addition, she had gotten a job as a technician for the Huntsman Cancer Institute in Salt Lake City, where rowing wasn’t exactly part of the fabric. The only competitive squad she could find was Utah Crew, a team for 13- to 18-year-olds. So she contacted the Iqbals and asked for their help — and the use of a boat.
“Rowing is like a worldwide family. Rowers typically help each other out,” Linda Iqbal said. “So my first instinct was: Here’s someone who wants to row and we’ll help her.”
The Jordan River is flat. Algae floats along the sides, undisturbed by wind or wake until Noble glides by, sometimes collecting gooey green strands on her oars.
“The water is disgusting, but there are mountains,” Noble said.
The canal only has water from May to the beginning of November, which is when Noble trains there. She spends the winter doing dryland exercises, including hours on a standard indoor rower, or ERG. Then, for a brief window in March and April, she puts in at the Great Salt Lake.
“It’s beautiful. Sometimes when it’s flat, it can be the most gorgeous thing. You can just go and go and go,” Noble said.
More often, the lake is so stirred up by the wind that rowers can’t train there. That makes it probably the closest approximation to what Noble will encounter starting Thursday in Tokyo.
“Tokyo Bay, I’ve heard from everyone who’s been there, is it’s not a nice course. It’s choppy,” Noble said. “It’s a crosswind. It’s a bay, so it’s very open, so it’s kind of like bigger waves. So I’m not excited about that, to be honest.”
The rough waters will be particularly challenging for Noble, who will be one of the smallest rowers in the Olympic field and more apt to be bounced around by the waves. Technically, she should be racing as a lightweight, but the Olympics only offer an “Open” division in single sculls. So, the 5-foot-8, 135-pound Noble will be going head-to-head against women who are closer to 6 feet and 170 pounds.
When Noble was racing the varsity boys on the Utah Crew team, that disadvantage felt enormous. But after a year and a half of not racing anyone else, Noble last month attended an elite training camp at the Vesper Row Club in Philadelphia. She went on to finish third in the Independence Day Regatta against a field of women vying for spots on the USA national team for the upcoming world championships.
“She was able to deal with it and make moves,” Ahsan Iqbal said of the weight disadvantage. “That’s the confidence I wanted her to have.”
Ahsan Iqbal rowed for MIT and also had a stint coaching the Pakistani national team in 2006. Linda Iqbal, who also took up rowing at MIT under Ahsan’s encouragement, has taken several Utah Crew rowers to youth national championships through the years. So they’ve seen success. Still, they’re in a state of disbelief that an athlete they trained will actually be competing in the Olympics.
It’s not that they didn’t think Noble had the talent or the competitive spirit or the drive all along. It’s more that she did it here.
“It’s very surprising,” Linda Iqbal said. “Rowing in Utah is extremely difficult.”
Because one body of water can’t be compared to another, and what is a fast run one day may be slow the next, Noble said she hasn’t set any time or placement goals for Tokyo. She just wants to settle into that space deep inside her and let her muscles scream until they’ll hoarse.
“I want to feel exhausted. I want to feel like I rowed as hard as I could row,” she said.
“So,” she added, “just, like, race brave, I guess.”
TOKYO 2020 ROWING
Women’s single sculls
Schedule (all times MDT)
Thursday: Opening rounds, 6:30 p.m.
Friday: Repecharge, 5:30 p.m.
Saturday: Semifinals E/F, 6:20 p.m.
Sunday: Quarterfinals, 6 p.m.
Monday: Semifinals C/D, 5:50 p.m.
Tuesday: Semifinals A/B, 7:58 p.m.
Wednesday: Finals E/F, 5:42 p.m.
July 29: Finals A/B/C, 5:45 p.m.