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Tracy Falkenthal and Growing Rowing

May 1, 2024

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Rowing can be brutal, harsh. The pain of a 2000 meter race, whether it’s on the water or on a rowing machine, is well-recognized. This strength-endurance sport forces the mind and body through lactic acid build-up and muscle fatigue executed at an anaerobic threshold pace. And this goes on for minute after minute.

Being part of the rowing culture can be inspiring, life-changing, welcoming and an avenue to friends for life. Breaking into the rowing culture is not always easy or a given. It is known to be a very traditional sport and, in many countries, it prevails at private schools where white skin dominates.

Tracy Falkenthal came into the sport down a different road than most. She grew up in the smoky jazz bars of California where her mother was a singer. There was no father on the scene and not a lot parenting from her mother. Going into her teenage years, Falkenthal says she was hanging out with what she describes as “horrible, bad people.”

Friends of her mother saw Falkenthal heading down this difficult road in life and invited her to join their rowing group. This gave Falkenthal the courage to join her school rowing program. In a vein similar to Arshay Cooper’s story (see the documentary A Most Beautiful Thing), two white women came into the school cafeteria to recruit for the team.

“I told them, ‘I know rowing, I want to do that’. I loved it,” says Falkenthal. “Up at 5 a.m. taught me routine, discipline. It found me and saved my life.”

This is no small statement. Falkenthal lost her brother at a young age and her mother died of lung cancer at 58. “I never thought I’d live past 25,” says Falkenthal.

Falkenthal’s rowing adventure had begun. An adventure that would take her through varsity rowing at Boston University and on as a masters rower and then coach. At Boston University Falkenthal was the only Black girl on the rowing team. When she goes back to her school, she always checks the wall of rowing photos and says, “Last I saw, I am still the only Black girl on the wall.”

Falkenthal went on to a career in the army and as a firefighter, as well as becoming a competitive bodybuilder and fitness trainer. After retiring as a firefighter, Falkenthal started coaching at the Texas Rowing Center in Austin, Texas. She calls it her most proud achievement and credits the success there to Texas Rowing’s founder Matt Knifton.

“Matt said to me, ‘I need your help. I’m a tall white guy. I go into high schools and that’s what the students see’.” 

He offered scholarships to athletes of color or those in financial need. “It was a success. Matt and I grew a diversity team in Austin and were able to get a lot of athletes involved.”

Falkenthal says she was aggressive at approaching people on the dock who would come to paddle board on Austin’s Lady Bird Lake. One woman she recruited was Stacey Malone, and Falkenthal says it meant so much to her to be able to sit in a boat with another Black rower. She’s also proud to say Malone is now one of a very small group of Black coaches in the United States. Additionally, Texas Rowing Center varsity mens’ head coach Eric Dilworth is a Black coach she recruited from Detroit.

Falkenthal is all about making rowing approachable for anyone. “I want to create a warm, welcoming environment. Not an elite thing like it still is in schools. I want the sport to stay alive. To do that it needs to represent the entire community. I want to make a change. Who would have ever thought I’d be doing this fancy sport!” 

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Falkenthal has recently moved after calling Austin home for many years. Living on the outskirts of Austin had become untenable. The political direction, says Falkenthal, had become too much for this woman who has lived through her fair share of discrimination. She is now at her new home in San Diego where rowing continues. Falkenthal coaches juniors at Community Rowing San Diego, bringing in underserved youth from the community. She’s also coaching the U23 rowers at San Diego Rowing Club and is a personal trainer at ZLAC Rowing Club. Falkenthal races competitively with Endeavor Racing Alliance. And what about her favorite workout? Falkenthal admits she prefers the Concept2 SkiErg. "I love 40 seconds on 20 seconds off for three minutes. Then 30 seconds on 30 seconds off for three minutes. After a long 20 minute warm up, I do these sets for 20-30 minutes. It’s so hard. I love that SkiErg!” A true rowing inspiration.

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