Walk-on rower makes adjustment to a student-athlete

Temple University rowing head coach Rebecca Grzybowski offered senior rower McKayla Kelly a spot on the team in Fall 2021.

McKayla Kelly, a senior in the College of Public health, poses for a photo on the top of Anderson Hall on Nov. 5. | AMBER RITSON / TEMPLE NEWS

While senior McKayla Kelly was on the elevators in Pearson and McGonigle Hall during the first week of the Fall 2021 semester, she was approached by rowing head coach Rebecca Grzybowski, who asked if she would be interested in trying out for the rowing team because of Kelly’s height and frame.

“[Grzybowski] asked me if I am a Temple athlete, would I like to be and if I was interested in rowing,” Kelly said. “And I said, ‘Yeah’, so I had a couple follow up questions with the novice coaches and tried out and made the team.”

Already balancing work and school, Kelly reconnected with her love for sports this semester as a walk-on rower for Temple’s novice rowing program, a competitive category of rowing for student-athletes who are in their first year in the sport.

Two years ago, Kelly transferred to Temple from the  University of the Sciences, where she competed in track and field and volleyball. Although she came to Temple for the athletic training program, she didn’t have the intention of competing in a Division I sport, and instead wanted to join a club or intramural team, Kelly added. 

“Division I is much more of a commitment,” Kelly said. “When I imagine playing sports again, it was never at this level.”

When Grzybowski approached Kelly, she decided to try a Division I sport because she was excited to learn something new and missed the friendships she made through team sports.

Kelly’s character and mindset stood out while she was trying out for the team, said Anastasia Price, assistant coach for the women’s novice program.

“She has the height and she has the power,” Price said. “But she also has the attitude, so she’s somebody who we know is invested wholeheartedly and is the exact type of teammate that we want.”

Kelly has consistently sat in seat five of the novice eight boat, which is considered the powerhouse of the boat because they are normally the most powerful and heaviest rowers, she said.

“I call myself the mitochondria,” Kelly said. “That nickname has stuck a little bit with some of the girls on the team.”

On the water Kelly isn’t afraid to make a mistake because she knows how technical the sport is and it takes time to become an expert, she said.

“I try to make that clear with novices,” Price said. “Every time you come in, there’s something new to improve on.”

On a typical day, Kelly wakes up at 5 a.m. and gets ready for practice. At the boathouse, Kelly and the novice team will run and stretch before launching into the Schuylkill River for their 6:15 a.m. workout, she said.

“[The workouts] have been nice so far, the river is beautiful especially this time of year with the leaves changing colors,” Kelly said. “I also love how we can see the skyline the closer we get towards boathouse row.”

After the team’s morning practice, Kelly heads to class at 8 a.m., before going back to practice from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. She usually ends the night in the Esposito Dining Center catching up on homework, she said.

“Definitely keeping the priority straight knowing that it’s student athlete, student comes first,” Kelly said. “School comes first. Athletes and athletics come second.” 

Outside of practice and schoolwork, Kelly also works part-time at Temple’s Campus Recreation as a supervisor and facility monitor for the fitness facilities, she said. 

When Kelly joined the team, she had to change some of her Campus Recreation shifts and sought advice from her professors on how she could better balance her coursework with her responsibilities as a student athlete, she added.

For Kelly, managing her busy schedule comes with its challenges, but it’s worth it because being a part of a team again is allowing her to make new friends, stay active and gives her a positive mental outlet, she said. 

“She’s got the character that it takes and she’s putting it together on the water too,” said Breanne Fitzsimmons, a coach for the Women’s Novice Program. “She’s really developing into a great rower.” 

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