Jan. 22, 2014
By Staci Gasser
Kendra Rask is making a big impact not only for her sport but also for those in the community.
Last season, the University of Notre Dame junior rower competed with the runner-up second varsity four entry at the 2013 BIG EAST Championship, helping the Irish score a regatta record 151 points and win their 10th consecutive conference championship crown.
And Rask has used her success on the water to help those in need, all while making rowing more visible in South Bend.
"People are largely unaware of rowing and how it differs from other sports," Rask said. "We are the only team that doesn't have a home regatta. People don't know what we do."
Rask took her bubbly personality and rowing enthusiasm to Hannah and Friends, a local nonprofit foundation dedicated to providing a better quality of life for children and young adults affected by Autism and Global Delays. Rask was a fundraising and summer camp intern, and her favorite time was "Fun and Fitness Week," because it gave her a chance to show the children her sport. Rask brought two ergs (rowing machines) to the camp to give the kids a hands-on experience of rowing.
"It was one of the best experiences of my life. They had a blast racing each other and the interns," Rask said. "And I didn't know how much of an impact it was going to have on me.
"The kids are really wonderful, they come in every day with the happiest moods on the planet," she said. "They were happy to be there and wanted everyone there to be happy."
Another community project Rask has been involved in is the women's rowing team's annual Erg-A-Thon, a fundraiser for the fight against pancreatic cancer. The event, which features erg competitions, raffles and t-shirt sales, started three years ago when the mothers of team member Sarah McShane ('13) and the team's advisor in the Student-Athlete Academic Services Office, Kassen Delano Gunderman, were both diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
The team raised $10,000 in the one-day event on campus last fall. Proceeds benefited the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCAN) and the Harper Cancer Research Institute, a Notre Dame entity that supports undergraduate research on campus.
"The funding for pancreatic cancer is so rare that it makes it underfunded," Rask, who served as co-chair of the most recent Erg-A-Thon, said. "So we wanted to get an organization together to showcase what we do with our sport and at the same time, raise money for pancreatic cancer research."
Now, Rask is focusing on the spring season to start after fall rowing and winter cardio fitness training.
The Honolulu, Hawaii, native was a swimmer at Punahou High School (the same high school attended by former Notre Dame football players Manti Te'o and Robby Toma, and current rowing teammate Samantha Hedrick) and had plans to swim at Notre Dame, her father's alma mater, before tearing her rotator cuff junior year. Being a distance swimmer, Rask couldn't put in the necessary training volume to compete at the highest level with that type of injury. So she fell back on her second sport: open ocean outrigger canoe paddling.
That ultimately led Rask to try out for the first-year rowing program with the Irish during her freshman year in 2012.
"I thought, `Okay, that's a boat, these are boats. There should be some sort of crossover. But they are nothing alike," she said. "But I knew Notre Dame had a really good walk-on program with their women's rowing team."
Rask explained that the Fighting Irish rowing first-year program is unique compared to other programs across the country because some schools tend to keep their recruits and walk-ons separate, creating a stigma associated with being a walk-on rower.
"But really, that doesn't exist here," Rask said. "You're given an equal opportunity along with the recruits to go out, compete and make top boats."
Notre Dame finished in 13th place at the NCAA regatta last season, which according to Rask was a little lower than expected. But the team has high hopes this year, with the goal of advancing its top three boats to grand final (top six) heats at the championship.
So far this season, the rowing team saw both of its entries claim top-10 finishes on Oct. 20, 2013 at the 49th Head of the Charles Regatta on the Charles River in Boston. One of the largest rowing regattas in the world, the two-day competition featured more than 1,000 top international and collegiate rowing crews competing in 55 different events.