Life as a freshman student-athlete can be tough.
Sure, there are systems in place to ensure that a student-athlete hits the ground running, but at the end of the day, the individual is probably leaving the comforts of home for the first time.
West Virginia University freshman rower Liz Kantak
faced all the challenges a typical freshman faces, but as an Atlanta native, she found herself more than 600 miles away from home surrounded by new faces and new challenges.
As one of two freshmen on the team, Kantak envisioned a season in which she would be able to acclimate herself to the team and learn from the upperclassmen around her, not one that would see her rise to becoming a key component of the Mountaineers’ first varsity eight crew and the Big 12 Conference’s Newcomer of the Year.
“My main goal was to be what the team needed,” Kantak says. “Since there are only two freshmen on the team, I just wanted to do what was needed for the team. I didn’t expect to be rowing with the first varsity eight.”
Even coach Jimmy King, who was intrigued by Kantak’s potential, was unsure of what role Kantak would fill during her first season with the team.
“Liz did not have a great erg score coming out of high school, and we didn't know much about her club team,” King says. “Despite a lack of notable stats, we recruited Liz based upon the person she is, not just the rower. We identified physical potential in Liz, but what sold us was her personality.”
Flash back to Kantak’s sophomore year of high school, and the early stages of a successful rowing career begin to come to fruition.
“I went to a high school outside of Atlanta, and rowing was not offered there,” Kantak says. “My home is right by the Chattahoochee River, and I saw a sign for a camp. I went to the camp, and I really liked it. It was something that no one else I knew was doing, so it was a good experience to meet other people from around the area and in the rowing community.”
Soon after Kantak’s experience at the camp, she joined the St. Andrew Rowing Club, which allowed her to partake in highly-regarded camps and competitions such as USRowing Club Nationals, where she first met King and made rowing at the collegiate level a reality.
“From rowing on my club team, I was able to meet a lot of girls that wanted to row at the collegiate level, so that was a great opportunity,” Kantak says. “At Club Nationals, there is an event that is similar to a college fair. I met with a lot of different coaches there, and that is where I first met Coach King. We didn’t have much dialogue at first, but I remember speaking with him more at a later date.”
Following the encounter with King, Kantak made a visit to Morgantown and was hooked on the great environment that WVU had to offer.
“I looked at a lot of different schools, but I really liked the team here,” Kantak says. “You can see that the team really cares about what they are doing – that is something that is very important to the team aspect. You can have a bunch of people that are very fast on the team, but they might not click or have that chemistry.”
Following a fall season in which Kantak rowed primarily with the second varsity eight, her breakthrough with the first varsity eight crew came prior to the team’s competition against Alabama and UCF on April 6.
“We had a 2K test in the lead up to race, and I had done pretty well on it,” Kantak says. “I don’t think anyone really expected us to win, but we put together a pretty solid race against our competition and ended up winning. I think Coach King was pleasantly surprised with the result, and I think that is what secured my spot with the first varsity eight.”
Following the first-place finish in Tuscaloosa, the first varsity eight crew rowed to a fifth-place finish out of 34 boats at the Knecht Cup Regatta and a first-place finish against Delaware. As a result of their successes, the crew earned Big 12 Boat of the Week honors and back-to-back Conference USA Boat of the Week honors.
Then, after the Mountaineers’ placement of third in the first varsity eight competition at the Big 12 Championships, Kantak garnered her individual honor of Newcomer of the Year.
“I thought it was kind of weird at first, because rowing is all about the team,” Kantak says. “Any individual can have a good 2K, but that doesn’t necessarily make you a good rower. It was a huge honor, but if anything, it speaks for what the team has been doing this year and how much everyone has been stepping up. Each of us has been pushing ourselves to new limits. It has been a rewarding experience.”
King echoed Kantak’s sentiments about the award and says her quiet demeanor nearly caused him to overlook her in the nomination process.
“Liz has obviously had a great first year, and she has accomplished it in a very quiet manner,” King says. “So quietly, in fact, that had I not stopped and thought about the Big 12 Newcomer of the Year nomination, I might have overlooked her myself!
“The progress she has made this year is due primarily to her own work ethic and desire to not simply become a better rower, but to find out how much of a better rower she can become. Credit also goes to her teammates. We have a great team dynamic this year, one that fosters healthy intrasquad competition. Without such an environment, Liz's progress most certainly would have been stifled to some degree.”
Now, with the season nearing an end, Kantak is hoping that the team can use its fourth-place finish at the Big 12 Championships as a motivator for this weekend’s C-USA Championship, which has 11 teams vying for an automatic qualifier spot to the NCAA Championship.
“We all really want to close the gap,” Kantak says. “If we can put together a solid race, we can beat the top teams this weekend.”
The C-USA Championship takes place on Saturday, April 17, on Melton Hill Lake in Oak Ridge, Tenn.