Karle Pittsinger won a state title in the shot put at Chelan High, then picked a college sport she had never tried. Now she is team captain for the national champions.
Karle Pittsinger is a big believer in making “gut decisions.”
After years of starring in the discus and shot put at Chelan High School, she was invited to walk on to the Washington track and field team. That was her plan for years.
But her gut was telling her something different, and she listened.
She would walk on to the rowing team instead.
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Rowing was a sport she had never tried, although a family friend had rowed for the UW women in the 1980s. Pittsinger’s decision left some confused, and her father a bit sad, but it all worked out.
Pittsinger, a senior majoring in philosophy, is the team captain for the defending national champions, who will try to defend their Pac-12 title Sunday at Gold River, Calif.
She has not once regretted changing sports.
“I was pretty burned out with track after throwing the shot put and the discus for many years, and I have always loved endurance sports,” said Pittsinger who won the Class 1A state shot put title as a high-school senior, was second in the discus and led the volleyball team to second in state. “I love to move, love to go. And rowing sounded fun, something new. I wanted to be part of a team.”
Her father, Bret, was the throwing coach for the Chelan High School track and field team and had instructed his daughter for years. Karle said that, although her dad’s main desire is for her to be happy, he had mixed feelings about her choice.
“At first, to be honest, he was a little bit sad because we had so many great memories together throwing at the track,” she said. “But I will never forget, he wrote me this long note, saying just whatever you do, do to your full potential and you will find great happiness. He was sad at first, but now he thinks rowing is just the coolest thing.”
The Husky crews are always on the lookout for talent, even people like Pittsinger who have little or no experience in a boat.
“We want great athletes, because you know they have the discipline you need for rowing,” said UW women’s coach Yaz Farooq. “In rowing, you need grit, toughness and perseverance, and those three words describe Karle Pittsinger. You also need to be a good teammate, and Karle is an amazing teammate and an amazing leader.”
Pittsinger tried rowing for the first time in the summer before leaving for UW, taking a single scull out on Lake Chelan.
“I flipped it every five strokes,” she said. “And I am thinking, ‘I don’t know how I am going to make it.’ But rowing the single takes a lot more finesse than rowing the eight. I had no idea what I was doing at the time.”
But she was a quick study at UW, finding great joy and even great comfort during a time when she really needed it. Two weeks after she started at UW, her brother Matt was in a bad skateboarding accident that left him in a coma for six months.
Karle’s parents talked her into staying in school, and she found solace on the water.
“I found so much peace in rowing because it took me away from what was happening with my brother’s injury,” she said.
Matt is now doing great, but the experience changed Karle’s perspective. She still wears a bracelet her parents gave her during that tough time.
“They gave it to me to think about him, and to always be appreciative of being alive,” she said. “That bracelet has gotten me through a lot.”
After rowing on the varsity-eight boat in the NCAA championships as a sophomore, she was moved down to the second varsity boat at midseason last year. She didn’t get discouraged, continued to work and helped that boat win its race at the NCAA championships, part of UW’s historic sweep of the varsity eight, second varsity eight and the four.
“I think I am so blessed that I understand no matter what seat I am in, no matter what boat I am in, that being part of the team is the ultimate gift,” she said. “It’s a fine balance, though, because we have to be pushing each other out there every day to be the best we can. But as senior, I am just humbled to think I’ve learned a lot and become a better person in the process.”
It’s that type of attitude that got her voted team captain. There were four nominees, and each gave a speech before the voting. Pittsinger is quiet by nature, but has become more vocal in her leadership role.
“The fact she has been in the second varsity eight, I think people can relate to her,” Farooq said. “She has wisdom and perspective and experience. She’s been through the highs and the lows. She has empathy, is someone everyone can relate to, and incredibly trustworthy.”
Despite the demands of rowing, Pittsinger is the CEO of She Will Win, a company she started as part of a UW class. It sells apparel aimed at bringing awareness to women athletes. This past summer, she was the distributor for Bad Granny Cider, a hard cider made at the winery owned by her family.
For now, it’s mostly about rowing. In a couple of months, she will begin training with the U.S. rowing team in Princeton, N.J., but she is single-minded about finishing her senior season the right way.
“Part of why I think I was selected to be captain is my quiet work ethic,” she said. “I love nothing more than the work when no one is looking, but I think I’ve been challenged to become more vocal.
“Coming into the meat of the season, I don’t want to leave with an ounce of regret in regard to what I can bring to this team.”