Have you ever seen a scientist row? Aisha Chow, Trinidad and Tobago’s first ever Olympic-bound athlete in the discipline of rowing, has somehow devised a formula to fuse both contrasting disciplines successfully.
Chow, 38, grew up in west-side Trinidad in her younger years and completed her local schooling at Saint Maria Goretti Primary School and then St Joseph’s Convent, Portof- Spain. In 1995, the aspiring analyst migrated to the US to begin studies towards a dual bachelor’s degree in Biochemistry & Molecular Biology and Microbiology & Immunology, while on a full academic scholarship at the University of Miami. It was here Chow’s hidden passion for excellence, both academically and physically, gently rowed off.
Having been previously involved in sports such as swimming and martial arts, Chow opted to try her hands at something new in the US, and opted to have a whirl at rowing.
“And I was hooked right away, I loved the physicality and mental challenge of it,” stated Aisha from her US base yesterday.
As a walk-on to the NCAA Division One rowing team, she didn’t have the experience of many of the other athletes who had been recruited from high school rowing teams. However, her dedication and promise were evident, and by the end of her freshman year, she was a member of the top Varsity Women’s boat and on an athletic scholarship. During her four years in Miami, while maintaining a constant presence on the scholastic honour roll, Chow contributed to some of the University’s best placements, including gold medals at the Southern Intercollegiate Rowing Association Championship Regatta.
The eager rower then took a long break from sports while she pursued her Ph.D. degree in Pharmacology at Duke University, and then as she advanced her research career in the biotechnology industry in California’s San Francisco Bay Area.
She later joined research-based biopharmaceutical company, FibroGen, in 2005 and has progressed from a normal Scientist to Research Scientist, Senior Scientist and now Principal Scientist. Fibro- Gen focuses on the discovery, development and commercialization of novel therapeutics to treat serious unmet medical needs.
Chow’s scientific work indoors did not limit her and she began rowing again 10 years after her stint in Miami with the intention of only rowing recreationally.
“Was competing at the Olympics ever a goal of mine?” she questioned herself. “I think it may have been an occasional not-so-serious daydream back in my college days, but one that dissipated once I finished college and started down my current career path. When I returned to rowing many years later as a Masters (age 27 and up) rower, I certainly did not have international competition in mind.
But what I’ve discovered is that the competitive spirit doesn’t die, and I still love the challenge and reward of training and the thrill of racing.” Soon enough, Chow began racking up gold medals, pushing her sights higher, eventually competing in the US Masters National Regatta in 2014. There, she proved herself to be the fastest female Masters rower in the US with five gold medals. The Head of the Charles Open Club Women’s Single winner (2014) continued to challenge herself by entering elite (2000m) racing events alongside National Team contenders. At 2000m, elite sprint rowing events are twice as long as Masters sprint events.
In the fall of 2015, after multiple golden performances, TT joined FISA (World Rowing Federation) and Chow became enticed by the possibility of competing for her native country. Even though she was encouraged by several American coaches to train for the US National Team, Chow admitted that, “the prospect of competing for TT resonated in a way that the idea of competing for the US didn’t.” In March 2016, Chow took her first attempt at qualifying for the Summer Games by competing at the Latin American and Caribbean Olympic Qualifier Regatta in Valparaiso, Chile.
“There, 21 Latin American and Caribbean countries were competing for six (Olympic) spots,” Chow explained. “The preparations for Chile were somewhat hectic. Trinidad only joined FISA in the fall of last year and arrangements for me to compete at the qualifier were only just being made in January of this year. So, I had just a few months to prepare training-wise and to also make arrangements for equipment.” She added, “I wouldn’t have attended the Olympic Qualifier if I hadn’t thought I had some chance of qualifying. However, when I arrived in Chile, it was definitely a bit daunting to be among so many wicked, fast women and seasoned competitors. I knew that if I were to have any chance of qualifying, I would have to take my racing performance to a higher level.
“I decided that if there was a good time to truly test my limits, the Olympic Qualifier was surely it! In fact, if I had rowed my previous personal best time (7:56 minutes) that would not have been enough to qualify. So, I searched myself to try to find some additional speed.
I ended up rowing a new personal best time (7:49) in the semi-final to qualify for the finals and for Rio!” Stunned upon securing her Olympic berth, Chow still quite doesn’t believe it. Presently, working with FibroGen and serving as president of a non-profit aquatic centre (Bair Island) where she trains, the avid marine athlete is now trying to fit in as much training as possible, without hampering her other responsibilities. During the week, Chow tries to fit in two training sessions – one at 5am and another after work at 7pm – and then on the weekends. She is coached by Kristin Goodrich (technical coach) and Marlene Royle (training coach). In addition, she receives guidance from coaches at her club and at other clubs, who have previously helped with training plans, technical coaching, video analysis, strategy, and equipment.
“Rowing is a strength-endurance sport that uses all the major muscles - legs, back, arms, core – and it’s incredibly demanding. Basically, by one minute into a race, most rowers hit a wall of lactic acid pain and then they just have to keep going for another five to seven minutes. It’s an incredible mental challenge. On top of that, rowing is a very technical sport – any uncontrolled motion can upset the boat, so while in intense pain, you have to stay zen enough to row precisely and gracefully even while your muscles are screaming in pain.
Getting to the point where you can get your mind and body to cooperate is a fun journey.” Chow also praised Merryl See Tai, president of TT’s Rowing Federation, for providing all the required logistics for the Qualifiers and ahead of the Games.
She concluded, “Though securing a top position would of course be amazing, given that I will only have been training seriously for the Olympics for seven months, my aims are a little more modest than that. The Caribbean has generally not been heavily represented in Rowing at the Olympics so, now that I have this amazing chance to represent TT, I’m working to make what gains I can, in the short time I have left, to show the rowing community what speed can come out the Caribbean!”