Kevin Cullen

She found her compass rowing for UMass

The Merrimack River became a haven for UMass Lowell grad Katrina Walther, who worked long and hard to make it through college. The Merrimack River became a haven for UMass Lowell grad Katrina Walther, who worked long and hard to make it through college. (Kevin Cullen/ Globe Staff)
By Kevin Cullen
Globe Columnist / May 29, 2011

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LOWELL — Katrina Walther was 16 when her parents split up and she didn’t want to be in the middle of it so she just left. She moved away.

“I lived out of my car,’’ she said. “I was young. I didn’t know any better.’’

She went to high school during the day and worked full time at the Taco Bell in Walpole at night.

“They told me I was the fastest American employee they had,’’ she said.

In the summer, she drove down to Cape Cod and worked days at a camp in Truro and nights at the Ben & Jerry’s in Eastham. With her sticky fingers she counted the change that people threw in the cup on the counter, because that’s what she lived on. She worked 85 hours a week and got by on four hours of sleep a night.

When she wasn’t sleeping in her car, she’d stay with some of her friends. One friend’s mother, Maureen Mercier, started asking her questions.

“What about college, Katrina?’’

She was smart, but she spent more time working than she did on schoolwork. She was a kid, on her own, just trying to get by. But by living out of her car, where would the colleges send the applications?

Mercier steered her to Russell Sage College, a private women’s school in New York. The place was beautiful, just what you imagined a bucolic college campus would look like, and Katrina felt bad telling Mercier that while it was all very nice, it just wasn’t for her.

But Mercier kept at her. So one day Katrina Walther drove up to Lowell and walked around the city and then the campus at UMass Lowell. It was gritty. It felt like the real world. It felt like her world.

She applied late, so she didn’t get housing. But she still had her car.

And she kept working, because the only one taking care of Katrina was Katrina.

The rowing started as a lark. Another student suggested she go out for the women’s rowing club. Katrina laughed, because she had never been in a scull or a shell and couldn’t tell you the first thing about rowing. But she surprised herself and everybody else when she showed up.

“One of the things I really missed in high school was playing sports. I wanted to, but I couldn’t because I was too busy working to support myself,’’ she said. “So I started showing up to row. It was a treat.’’

By her sophomore year, she was settled into on-campus housing and had a job as a resident assistant. She worked security at dorms on the side. She got off work at 1 a.m. and was up four hours later to make it to the Bellegarde Boathouse on the Merrimack for crew practice at 5:30 a.m.

“However tired I was, however much I had to do that day, everything settled down once I was on the water,’’ Katrina said. “There’s something about being on the water when the sun is rising. It’s the most beautiful time of the day. You zone out. You hear nothing but the noise of the oar breaking the surface of the water, your breath, the rhythm. It’s melodic.’’

When she slept in her car, she would look up at the darkened overhead light and wonder when life would be normal. When she rowed, everything fell into place.

“They say you can learn 90 percent of the sport, the stroke, in 10 minutes but you spend the rest of your life trying to master the last 10 percent,’’ she says. “Kinda like life, when you think about it.’’

When rowing went from club sport to varsity three years ago, Katrina assumed she’d get cut. And when the new coach, Veronika Platzer, first saw Katrina, she remembers thinking, “I’m going to have to cut this kid.’’

“Half the time she showed up, she’d fall asleep rowing,’’ said Platzer. “I had never seen anyone fall asleep rowing. I didn’t think it was humanly possible.’’

Platzer put Katrina on an indoor rowing machine, to test her strength, and she pulled a paltry 110 watts. Platzer had already rehearsed her speech: “Kid, I don’t think this is your sport.’’

But something bugged Platzer. She couldn’t put her finger on it.

“She’s got no business being here, but she shows up every day. There’s got to be a tiger in this kid,’’ Platzer said.

She challenged Katrina, and Katrina got back on the machine and pulled 200 watts.

“I can do this,’’ Katrina told her.

Instead of cutting her, Platzer made her a captain.

Later, Platzer found out about Katrina’s life story from other students.

“She never gave me an excuse,’’ Platzer said. “She never said, ‘Well, the reason I’m so tired is I’m working 80 hours a week.’ I will never complain about work or sleep deprivation again because of this kid. It’s an honor to coach her.’’

Katrina Walther, a great athlete and a better person, graduated from UMass Lowell yesterday, with a degree in graphic design and psychology. She learned a lot in college. But then, she had already learned 90 percent of what she needed to know about life by working in a Taco Bell and sleeping in her car.

She has the rest of her life to figure out the other 10 percent.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at

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