Rowing for the Gold
Skier-turned-sculler aims high
Photo by JOEL RODGERS
Part of being a kid is dreaming big, and Tetonia’s Abby Broughton was no exception. Inspired by northern Rockies Olympians like Picabo Street and like Tommy Moe, who used to ski with Broughton and her ski-team cohorts at Grand Targhee, Broughton decided that someday she was going to be just as good of an athlete. She wasn’t sure how she’d get there, but with the optimistic determination of an eleven-year-old, she knew she would.
And she did. But what’s surprising is that her day on the podium would have nothing to do with skiing or snow, but with rowing.
It wasn’t until the spring semester of Broughton’s freshman year at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, that she even considered skimming along water in its unfrozen form. Recognizing that the young student was challenged by the stresses of adjusting to college life, a music professor took her under her wing and urged Broughton to join a sports team. Sparked by a friend’s interest in rowing, she decided to give that sport a try.
The coach took one look at her and told her to come back in the fall.
“If I’d been really tall, really strong, she probably would have said ‘yes’,” recalls Broughton—who, at five foot six and 130 pounds, doesn’t fit the stereotypical rower profile. Not to mention that she had never rowed before.
But Broughton was undeterred. She returned in the fall, joined the novice team, and found herself completely hooked. “There was something about the motion of the blade going through the water,” she says. “It’s the most amazing feeling.”
By spring, Broughton had earned a seat on Lewis and Clark’s varsity team. Soon, coaches were dropping hints that her numbers were good enough for her to think about trying out for the U.S. Rowing national team.
For her summer break in 2004, Broughton headed to a sculling camp at Seattle’s renowned Pocock Rowing Center. At the end of the six weeks she was invited to stay and train with the Pocock Elite Sculling Team, composed of fifteen men and women, all with national team aspirations.
“Ultimately, that’s what I wanted to do, but I didn’t think it would happen that quickly,” she says.
After graduating from Lewis and Clark in 2005, Broughton returned to Seattle to continue rowing at Pocock, now a far cry from the inexperienced rower from landlocked Idaho that couldn’t even make the team three years earlier. After placing second out of twenty-six in the New Jersey Regatta in 2006, she realized that her determination, dedication, and coach-ability, which she attributes to her background in ski racing, were paying off.
“I had no idea, because I had only raced against teammates,” Broughton explains. “It wasn’t until after the New Jersey race that I thought, ‘Whoa, I could actually do this and be on the national team this year.’ I got really excited.”
Broughton’s roll continued, and in August of 2006 she placed fifth in the lightweight women’s quad at the World Championships in Eton, England.
Then tragedy struck in the fall of 2006. A car accident that paralyzed Broughton’s father, and the death of her brother, gave her reasons to pause. She tried to continue training, but ended up taking the next two years off to spend time with family and reassess the role rowing played in her life.
“I wasn’t 100 percent sure I wanted to go back to rowing,” she says. “It’s hard. You know it’s going to take months and months to get back into that kind of shape. It was really daunting.”
But after finding herself glued to watching the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, Broughton decided it was time to dive back in. She returned to Pocock in the fall of 2008, and over the next two years would represent the United States at the World Cup and World Championships in places like Spain and Poland.
In spring 2010, Broughton met her current rowing partner, Ursula Grobler. Like Broughton, Grobler had come to rowing later in life, at age twenty-six, but that hadn’t stopped her from breaking a world record on the rowing machine in 2010 at thirty years of age. With just two weeks left to train, Broughton approached Grobler about teaming up for the National Selection Regatta in the lightweight women’s double.
Grobler agreed, and the pair won the selection regatta. Two weeks later, they headed to Slovenia, where they captured gold at the World Cup, winning by a decisive margin. Broughton says it was an absolute highlight of her rowing career.
“There was relief, but at the same time the moment you cross the finish line, it’s like, ‘Okay, on to the next thing.’ We won this so now we have a chance at the World Championship.”
At that championship, held in New Zealand, Broughton and Grobler placed eighth out of sixteen teams in the lightweight women’s double—unfortunately, the only Olympic event for lightweight women. After such varying results between the World Cup and World Championship, Broughton and Grobler realized they needed to give their bodies a rest from the abnormally long season of training and racing.
As of press time, Broughton was debating what her next step might be. “In European countries, their rowing and sports teams are government funded,” she says. “In Great Britain, rowers are salaried. They get to put down their heads and train. Here, there are a lot more logistics [for the athletes to contend with].”
Broughton says she and Grobler are committed to being more a part of the U.S. rowing system, which would better situate them for the Olympics. But financial realities—such as having to provide their own boat—are making it challenging.
“Going to the Olympics is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and it’s totally within my reach,” Broughton says. “But whenever I’m feeling just a bit burnt out with rowing, it’s easy to think about the other things I’d like to do.” She misses spending time with friends and family, she says, and pursuing other interests like biathlon, writing children’s books, or possibly a career in outdoor education.
But whatever Broughton decides, based on her track record, she’s bound to excel—despite the odds.