Maria Kent, from Oak Park, earned the Most Improved Award on the Stanford University women's rowing team, which finished fourth in the nation. (Photo by Aaron Shepley)

When Maria Kent was a freshman in high school, she decided to pursue a second sport in addition to playing basketball. Based on her height (5-feet-11), strength, and athleticism, perhaps volleyball, softball or another sport could have been a good fit.

However to paraphrase Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken,” Kent chose the one less traveled, and that has made all the difference.

“I was looking for a new sport and many people suggested I give rowing a shot,” said Kent, who graduated from OPRF in 2017. “I started rowing during the spring of my freshman year. I was coming off the winter basketball season and would normally take up AAU basketball, but I decided to try rowing instead.”

Since OPRF doesn’t offer rowing, Kent joined the Chicago Rowing Foundation (CRF). Inspired by CRF varsity girls head coach Mike Wallin, Kent immediately embraced both the challenges and rewards of rowing.

“I got my first taste of what it’s like to fully apply myself physically as well as mentally,” Kent said. “I learned that skill can only take a person so far in rowing. Without determination, the boat won’t go very fast. I understood at Chicago Rowing Foundation that rowing is about consistently honing ‘your best’ to make it good enough to win.”

Kent, 20, parlayed her passion for the sport into a rowing scholarship from Stanford University.

Fast forwarding to the 2019 NCAA Women’s Rowing Championships at the Indianapolis Rowing Center (May 31-June 2), Stanford finished fourth in the team standings. Kent’s boat placed fourth in the 1V8 category as well.

“We plan on winning a National Championship within the coming years,” Kent said. “It was an amazing honor to represent my team and my school at NCAAs. I have never felt more alive than when we raced in the Grand Final on [June 2].

“We saw great competition that weekend and we are glad our hard work landed us among the top of many talented programs,” she added. “My team and I are hungry for more, however, and we have more to give. I really look forward to my next two years on the team.”

If the Cardinal shows as much progress in the boat as Kent has, future accolades are very likely for one of the top programs in the country.

Kent couldn’t compete as a freshman due to injury. She responded well to that adversity, however, earning an award this year.

“I am humbled and honored to have received the Most Improved Award only because of the pedigree of the women who received it before I did,” Kent said. “Being injured freshman year was an invaluable experience because it gave me the opportunity to face a challenge that knocked me down. Then I experienced the joy of realizing I wanted to get back up and go in for more.”

Kent looks forward to taking on more of a leadership role for the Cardinal over the next two seasons. Hard work and determination coupled with the support of teammates has her poised for the transition.

She recalls one invaluable learning experience during a practice.

“I was in a pair with India Robinson who is now a rising senior, but was a sophomore at the time,” she said. “I was in charge of steering our boat up and around the bay and I had no idea what I was doing. I ‘gave us some extra opportunities for meters’ that day which means I zig-zagged across the channel. India didn’t get angry at me. On the contrary, she was kind, understanding and provided tips on adjusting my steering technique to best suit our boat.”

Similar to Kent’s athletic path, her academic pursuits at Stanford are a bit unconventional and unquestionably interesting. She is majoring in religious studies with a minor in Native American studies.

“I am interested in how people relate to divinity and how that relationship affects how they interact with themselves and the world around them,” Kent said. “I am particularly interested in indigenous spirituality and would love to concentrate on holistic healing.”

She would also like to study mysticism, but that track doesn’t exist at Stanford.

“I count myself lucky that I’m able to study what I am passionate about,” Kent said. “Beyond undergrad, I’m not sure how I want to apply my degree. I am fortunate to have parents [Robert and Marian] who let me meander in this area a bit.”

With academics as her top priority (Kent was named to the Pac-12 All-Academic Second-Team), rowing demands much of her remaining time. Stanford practices 20 hours a week. Individually, Kent focuses on stretching, taking ice bath/hot tub treatment, eating well and getting proper sleep. Her teammates adhere to a similar regimen.

“It’s part of our team commitment to the sport and to one another,” Kent said. “We wouldn’t do it if we didn’t love it. The door is always open to quit, but we stick with rowing for what it teaches us about ourselves and about what we are capable of.”

Many of the top college rowing teams like Washington, Texas and Michigan (all Stanford rivals) have international athletes on their roster. The Huskies, Longhorns and Wolverines placed first through third at the NCAA Championships.

As an interesting aside, Kent’s fellow 2017 OPRF grads Ava Trogus and Charlotte Melcher are on the rowing teams at Washington and Wisconsin, respectively. They both played soccer at OPRF.

“It’s a fabulous reflection on the sport that so many international students compete in women’s rowing,” Kent said. “It’s a clear sign that the sport is growing and that the field is becoming more competitive. We don’t have many international students on our squad, but the ones we have are among the most committed and most talented in the classroom and on the water.”

Kent says she is savoring her overall experience at one of the premier universities in the country.

“My Stanford experience thus far has been somewhat of a wild ride,” she said. “I’ve been very fortunate to take a wide range of classes and really take the time to discover what I am interested in. The time it takes to find the community that is right for you at Stanford is very well worth it. I have formed friendships that I hope will last a lifetime.

“Like the rest of the world, Stanford moves fast, but I’ve learned there is space for me if I take action.”

Though she’s established as a successful student-athlete in California, Kent hasn’t forgotten her roots.

“I loved my time at OPRF,” she said. “I’m grateful for the space it gave me to discover what I’m interested in. Playing basketball there was very fun and it was an honor playing for my school. My academics at OPRF set me up very well for life at Stanford.”

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Marty Farmer

The Illinois Press Association recently honored Marty with the 1st & 2nd Place Awards for Best Sports Feature for his article He's in an Oak Park state of mind: Former OPRF star Iman Shumpert returns...

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