Noank's Negaard O'Brien enjoys special homecoming

Kristen Negaard O'Brien didn't know what to expect when she recently visited Florida for her induction into the Jacksonville University Athletics Hall of Fame.

Admittedly on the shy side, she's never been comfortable being in the spotlight.

"It's something I try to avoid," Negaard O'Brien said.

The heart-warming reception from the university community won over Negaard O'Brien, who was honored for her highly successful rowing career as a competitor and coach.

Family, friends, former teammates and ex-coaches attended the event.

"It was lovely," said Negaard O'Brien, who lives in Noank. "To see 40 years of people for the weekend was really lovely."

The Hall of Fame event took place last month at Jacksonville's Negaard Rowing Center, which was named in the family's honor. The family received the school's Distinguished Service Award in 1988.

A ground-breaking athlete, she belongs to the First Family of Rowing in Jacksonville. Her brother, Brad, had an accomplished career in the sport and parents, Robert and Shirlee, were enthusiastic supporters of the Jacksonville program and founded several rowing clubs.

She became involved in rowing purely by accident.

After dislocating her hip while practicing gymnastics in high school, her brother encouraged her to try rowing.

"I was working on a split that I hadn't done and did it too quickly," Negaard O'Brien said. "I wanted to be highly athletic but I couldn't move from the waist down for awhile so I couldn't be in my other sports.

"My brother suggested coxswain. I became the tallest coxswain (5-foot-9) as a freshman in high school."

She fell in love with rowing and continually fought through barriers in the male-dominated sport to reach an elite level. At 16, she placed second in the first Olympic women's rowing doubles trials in 1976. The next year she won a national junior single sculling title and eventually received Jacksonville's first rowing scholarship.

During her college career, she won numerous state and southern championships in sweep and sculling events. She stroked for the women's varsity four to a bronze at the Dad Vail national championships in 1978.

"I had an unusual life," she said.

It was a natural transition to the coaching ranks for Negaard O'Brien. She returned to her high school, Jacksonville Episcopal, and increased the size and competitive level of the rowing program.

She moved on to Jacksonville University (1987-89), leading the Dolphins to the national prominence and a bronze medal in the women's varsity lightweight four national championships. She later served on the Olympic Rowing Committee for four years.

Looking for a new adventure, she headed North and coached at the Coast Guard Academy from 1989-92, starting the women's lightweight program. She fought to save the program from being cut.

Eventually, the Coast Guard lightweight boat won the regional title and went on to nationals, reaching the finals. "I just fell on my knees and cried," she said. "They had come from so far."

Negaard O'Brien remains involved with the sport. She helped create the Fitch High School Crew Club. She's active in the Noank Rowing Club, a non-profit organization. Her coaching career has covered 37 years.

She embraces a positive, upbeat approach to coaching, teaching life skills as well as rowing skills to all ages and abilities.

The club regularly trains on Beebe Cove in Noank.

"Life health through rowing and building community one stroke at a time - those are our two mottos," she said. "That fits me well. I can't think of anything better to do with my time than working with young people and young at heart people and teaching them a sport that's excellent for all ages."

Negaard O'Brien, 54, has no plans to slow down. She's having too much fun. "I still have a bundle of energy," said said. "Rowing was a great place to harness that. That's why in part I still do it.

"It has a great benefit for my own personal energy level but also offered me such wonderful life rewards, not only physically but lifelong friends, learning how to focus and obtain what I selected to obtain."

g.keefe@theday.com

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