Twenty-five years is a long time to be doing anything, but for Kirsten Anderson, Orlando Area Rowing Society director, the time has passed in the blink of an eye, and she said she still has more work to do.
Throughout the years, the team has relied on Anderson’s consistency, dedication and discipline to grow physically and developmentally from six boats to 48 boats with more than 200 members, including middle- and high-school athletes.
“Our mission is just to develop athletes,” Anderson said. “It’s not really about winning races — that comes as kids develop correctly. But it’s really about taking them where they’re at, making them better, helping them improve, seeing them believe in themselves. … That’s the greatest part to watch.”
As a seventh-grade science teacher at Windermere Preparatory School, Anderson came to realize early in her coaching career she’s a stickler for doing things the right way.
She noticed some of the OARS coaches in the past did not have the same level of experience to offer the children.
“That was the most fun for me,” Anderson said. “Those initial first years — where the kids almost had no clue what they were doing. Seeing the learning curve and the success that came from that was such a rewarding experience to be a part of. They were so passionate and fun to be around. … Now it’s just part of me. I couldn’t not do it.”
Although Anderson’s role has evolved throughout the years — from women’s coach to men’s coach and director — her mission has remained the same: help children develop and become good citizens.
Being a director of the program brings more administrative work, but Anderson has the ability to not only educate the athletes but also her strong roster of coaches, as well.
“Coaching is so much more than doing well in the physical sport,” she said. “It’s the lessons they learned well beyond. It’s hard work. Being able to show up and work with other people as a team. It’s perseverance. Never giving up on yourself and learning the process. That, to me, the older I get, those values are so much more than the medals. … Everything today is progressing so fast that sometimes good old-fashioned work ethic is so important to learn.”
Another reward for Anderson is watching children develop into athletes who did not think they had the potential.
“A lot of times, parents will shove kids toward rowing if they’ve already tried other things with no success,” she said. “It’s nice to get the kids away from the technology and get them outside. Yes, the lake is beautiful, but rowing is actually one of the most grueling sports there is; and it’s a full-body sport.”
Anderson said OARS is a unique program compared to other rowing organizations because of its small-town character.
“We’re hidden and kind of tucked away here in Windermere,” she said. “The community is very supportive of us. So many children have gone through our program that it’s very easy to encounter someone who has been involved directly or indirectly. We just absolutely love being here. We have this gorgeous Chain of Lakes, which is just beautiful and precious to us, to help take care of and make sure it’s here forever. It provides something so unique that may not be available to everyone.”
OARS has developed into a true team throughout the years.
There are about 40 to 50 competitive rowing teams in Florida, and many more across the country, and Anderson believes OARS has risen to be one of the most ambitious programs in the South.
“Competitive-wise, what we have done is become a recognizable force,” she said. “There are many different types of categories … but we are usually within the top three when we compete at states and regionals as a whole team.”
In Anderson’s early years of OARS, the Winter Park team was always one the group wanted to beat, and she remembers the exact boat of girls who had “so much fun” beating them. The major accomplishment allowed the athletes to realize they could overcome even the most difficult of obstacles.
Anderson also has had several athletes go on to earn scholarships or coach at elite colleges such as Yale, Princeton, Alabama and Purdue.
She has guided a few athletes on the junior national team and even watched world records be broken.
Christine Cavallo broke two world records on the rowing machine while she was at OARS and went on to row for Stanford and the national team.
“To just see kids continuing on with the sport even after OARS is incredible,” she said. “The kids that figure out that they just love to row, no matter who it’s for and where they are, are the ones I’m most proud of.”
Anderson said OARS has a wonderful parent board of directors and outstanding support, but there is quite a bit of financial stress on families because rowing is an expensive sport.
The ability for the program to obtain donors or financial endowments would ease economic stress with boats costing $40,000 each, the fee of traveling for regattas and allowing the organization the ability to pay their coaches more to maximize maintaining individuals with experience.
In addition, Anderson would like to have a structure or find a local warehouse for the rowing machines and for strength conditioning, which would be especially useful during the unpredictable and hot local weather conditions.
Finally, Anderson said she would love for more people to try the sport out.
“The sense of being a part of this community that I grew up in and giving back is just so important to me,” she said. “The rowing community is so close and connected that I have friends across the country thanks to this sport. If anyone ever questions whether to try it or not, I always say try it because you can gain lifelong relationships.”
Born in Chicago, Anderson moved to Central Florida about three months after and was raised in the Dr. Phillips area for the majority of her life. She still lives in her same childhood home today.
Even before she began rowing, Anderson grew up on and around the water as a swimmer and water skier.
She joined the Dr. Phillips High rowing team the year the school opened and the program was created. Anderson went on to earn a rowing scholarship to the Florida Institute of Technology, from which she graduated with a degree in marine biology.
After competing as a collegiate athlete, she decided to take a break from rowing and pursue a career in education.
Less than a year after she started teaching, a friend’s parent who was involved with OARS called Anderson after the coach had quit unexpectedly.
Although Anderson said she made it clear she wanted to coach the men’s team not the women’s team, the organization felt she would be a better match for the women’s team.
Looking back 25 years later, the women’s team ended up being Anderson’s bread and butter for a majority of her years.
During the day, Anderson taught at Gotha Middle School before coming to OARS.
“It went hand-in-hand with teaching,” she said. “It was a great fit to be able to teach. … I got hooked and loved it. Next thing you know, it’s been 25 years.”