There’s a moment while interviewing Aisha Chow when you realise that despite the unusual circumstances of her international career, she is the everywoman of the elite sport. The sole active rower in the Trinidad & Tobago team, Aisha (or Felice, as she is called on her passport) is like every teenager hoping to row for their country. Every university walk-on trying the sport for the first time. Every development rower with potential who hasn’t quite made it to the team, trying to figure out how to find funding, get the best available coaching, how to go faster. Because she is working it out for herself with very little support.
The short version of her story is simple: novice rower who began while in the US at university gives the sport up when life and career intervene post-graduation, and doesn’t return to the water again for ten years. By that point able to compete in master’s races, after a few years of doing increasingly well she finds out that the tiny island nation where she was born has by this point joined FISA. Qualifies for the Rio Olympics, races at the Rio Olympics aged 39, and then decides that she’s going to do it properly for Tokyo. At 42 years old, she’s on the brink of going to her second Americas Olympic qualifying regatta.
And then between the interview full of hope and inspiration and this magazine going to press, something called CoVid-19 intervenes to put all our lives and dreams on hold, postponing the Olympics for a whole year. This is of particular interest to our subject, since Dr Aisha Chow is no ordinary rower. She works full-time as a drug discovery scientist, an R&D team leader in a pharmaceutical company called FibroGen based in San Francisco, a 30-minute drive from her rowing club. If anyone understands the complexities that academic and commercial pharma between them face with 2020’s famous virus, it is this oarswoman.
At this point a film script would have her developing a cure for the coronavirus within an unfeasibly short time and saving the planet. But this is real life, and FibroGen is too small and works too early in the drug development process to be able to do useful direct research on Covid-19. “For the time [being], we have been donating PPE (personal protective equipment) to the local hospitals and donating reagents to local sites to help make Covid-19 testing kits,” Chow explained. She is associate director of a cell biology department leading early-stage pre-clinical research, and after working for the company for 15 years they have just had anaemia drug Roxadustat approved by the NDA after a research and testing programme taking the same number of years. “It’s really awesome to have a claim,” she says. “I had fingers on that drug, and people might end up using it. But it’s such a long process.”
As the shelter-in-place mandate continues through April in California, Chow is at least able to get out in her single. “It’s been fantastic,” she says. “My daily rows have been practically my only foray out of the house.” It has simplified life, which in normal times usually a busy hustle from water to work and back to land training with the length of sessions limited by the time available, and no rest in between. “I get up and row before work, then after work I either bike or erg, and on the weekends I can fit in 2-3 sessions. It’s basically 2 sessions a day on the week, 2-3 sessions each day on the weekend, I don’t take any sessions off because I can’t fit in the volume that way.” Sound familiar, anyone trying to hold down a full-time job and row elite? “My husband’s really supportive and that helps because it’s a lot of time I’m gone He’s a competitive cyclist, he mostly does long-distance mountain-bike endurance races, and since we both train a lot it’s not as if he’s sitting at home waiting for me to get back, he’s out training too. We don’t have kids: a job, kids and training — I don’t see how that’s possible.”
This diary doesn’t take into account the many trips away for regattas, often taken as unpaid leave by Chow. She has about the same non-existent social life as any Olympic rower, but through lack of time more than fatigue. “I guess I’ve decided in the short term I’ve given up everything,” she adds. “It’s really hard to fit in the full work week and my training. My friends have been very understanding but I’m a terrible friend: I never go out for drinks, I never join them for dinner. If we have dinner it’s got to be 5pm dinner, I’m not interested if it’s after 7pm because I’ve got to be in bed by 9pm.” It totals, however, only 18-20 hours a week, and nowhere near the volume of water miles most of her rivals will be doing.
The reason for this is that Olympic training crept up on her unexpectedly, and late in life. Chow had swum and practised martial arts at school in Trinidad, but not particularly competitively, but became a walk-on novice when she arrived at the University of Miami in Florida in the 1990s to study for a double science major. “That was really interesting because my erg scores put me in the Varsity boat in my first semester, which was a terrible experience,” she explains. “I didn’t know how to row.” In fact her coach Joe ‘Okie’ O’Connor said she was the worst rower he’d ever seen in his life — which she agreed with. “I didn’t feel that was necessarily wrong. Everyone was so annoyed with me every single day, all I had was this erg score.”
Despite feeling bad for her varsity crew, who had to cope with her catching crabs all the time, including in races on rough water, she loved it. “Rowing was so much more fun because it was so much harder than anything I’d ever tried: I couldn’t get the coordination so I just wanted to do it more, but in college I just didn’t get the rowing stroke. My first two years there were a lot of crabs, but we’d often end up winning anyway.” What she doesn’t mention was that she was mega-strong, and her sudden promotion from the freshman novice crew to the varsity had come about when she finished second in the whole squad on her first ever 2km erg test. That bagged her an athletic scholarship to join her academic one, along with a baptism of fire in having to learn to row on the job in the top crew of the club.
By the time Chow graduated the team had become a force to be reckoned with locally, and varsity eight champions at the Southern Intercollegiate Rowing Association regatta. But science beckoned for the Trinidadian, and she stopped rowing for the next eleven years, first at Duke while earning her PhD in pharmacology and cancer biology, and then while working in post-doctoral research for Fibrogen. By chance a friend mentioned that her local area had a rowing club, and Chow joined, starting off on the competitive masters team before deciding to learn to scull.
Bair Island Aquatic Centre is technically in Silicon Valley California, south of San Francisco. It’s a large chunk of ocean water around which islands curl, shared by ferries and wildlife, and Chow had just a couple of lessons before trying to figure out what to do on her own. “I’ve only actually flipped three times ever, and it wasn’t when learning to row, it was when I felt more comfortable and was learning to pull harder. There were some funny swirls near Bair Island so you can flip in a current.”
Soon trying her hand at singles competition, she discovered she is not good at steering. “My first race, which was probably a couple months after I got in a single scull, I spent most of the time not in my lane. The launch guy was just going crazy, ‘This way! That way!’ so I was just happy to finish. I still haven’t quite figured out how to go straight — I tend to drift to port a little bit.”
Swift progress followed, from local to regional to national success including at Royal Canadian Henley and the Head of the Charles, with a age-group C.R.A.S.H.-Bs hammer thrown in. Apart from processionals, Chow’s post-college racing had been at 1km masters regattas, so Canadian Henley was quite a shock. “I was terrible, because I was used to rowing 1km, so I could row 1km and things were going fantastic, yay! and then I would just die at 1000m and then just ramp across the line.” But by 2015 she had started to master the international distance a little, which was fortunate, because in early 2016 she was about to start competing for her country.
“The opportunity to try out for the Americas Olympic trials in 2016 was unexpected: I wasn’t preparing for it at all,” sayd Chow. “The way it happened was that Trinidad [and Tobago] had joined FISA in November of 2015, because they had a Trini guy who’s living in the UK, I think a para-athlete, who was interested in going to trials. That’s why they joined, for him – but that didn’t pan out. Someone who was in touch told me about this, told me Trinidad joined FISA. So I just wrote someone and said ‘hey I heard you guys joined FISA, and now you don’t have an athlete. I’m a rower’ – and basically they said yes.”
Previously training for 4-8 hours a week as a masters rower, Chow upped it to 12 hours a week, started seeing a coach once a week for the three months leading up to the FISA Americas Olympic Qualification Regatta, came third, and went to the Games supported by the Trinidad & Tobago Olympic Committee. “It had been a decade, decade and a half since I’d rowed 2kms. I was really unprepared, I didn’t have a race plan, I didn’t have the fitness. It was quite an adventure, a bit of pressure. But I wanted to represent my country well and I was very unprepared.”
The Games were great fun, rooming with the T&T track and field stars and feeling as if she was in an odd way reconnecting with her home nation. She and the T&T rowing federation president between them decided to use the Trinidad and Tobago flag — red, black and white depicting fire, earth and water — for the blade colours, and she created her own unisuit design for racing. For the Olympics she’s given a team uniform, usually the sprinters’ version of a unisuit, though she can’t go back to the island for fittings so if it’s too baggy she will just wear her own design.
But pressure came from the deeply unrealistic Trinidad journalists, who seemed to expect her to pull a fairytale victory out of nowhere. “As unprofessionally executed as the races might have been, that wasn’t so bad because it was just a race. The part that was more overwhelming was just all the stress around the Trinidad media. “Oh, can she get gold?” and I was like ‘No I can’t get gold!’ and dealing with the expectations and feeling like I don’t want to let my country down, that was more anxiety-inducing. Normally the only one I let down is myself.” She finished fourth in the D-final, which on the rough whitecaps of Rio was extraordinary for a masters rower who had only started sculling a few years before, and along the way developed an appetite to try and do it properly for Tokyo, a last flourish before retiring from international competition.
This led to the delicate balance this career scientist has negotiated through life for the last four years. “I can’t train full-time obviously, I can’t train like other people, but I can be more serious about it.” She’s got professional coaches involved, is now rowing and land-training 18-20 hours a week, and spends unpaid leave time going to competitions, so focusing on the detail is paying off. “There’s a lot of little things serious athletes do which I wasn’t necessarily doing. Like thinking about what time you eat, Having good meals the night before, making sure you have a very carb-rich breakfast, that sort of thing. It wasn’t as if I wasn’t taking things seriously before, but I think it was “I’m not a full-time athlete’, I don’t need to take things as seriously as athletes do.” And I think I just wasn’t cutting it. Her coaches are Olympian and twice world medallist Sarah Trowbridge, who sets the training plan, consults on videoed footage, and goes to competitions with her. And local coach Monica Hilcu, who goes out on the water with her once a week. The rest of the time she is solo, trying to find what will help shave fractions of seconds off her times, and hoping that slightly changes will add up to a measurable improvement.
“I don’t know if how you eat makes a difference, I really don’t know, but on the other hand most professional athletes don’t eat chocolate cake for dinner, for example.” [Little does she realise….] “So I have tried to be more diligent about doing all the little things my coach has said. The things proper athletes do. Warming up properly, cooling down properly, eating healthily, just having a mental strategy for prepping yourself before a race. I have been working on all those little edge things I never used to think were important. I don’t know how much of a difference it makes but it can’t hurt.”
“It’s a lot of sacrifice to half-ass it. I wouldn’t eat after I worked out and my coach said you have to eat, I didn’t know that. As a scientist I’m aware that your body’s primed for protein synthesis, glucose uptake after a workout like that, so I should [have known]”, Chow admits. “I’ve been trying to do the things my coach said all along but I wasn’t necessarily paying attention to. I think we both agree that she wasn’t going to let me get away with doing that, and I needed to commit to doing those things. I’m going in the right direction, so maybe all of it is helping a little bit.”
“My rowing has gotten so much better, maybe it’s not surprising how much having a coach on the water would help, but I’d never really had it before. It’s made a tremendous difference,” enthuses Chow. “My rowing has gotten so much better and it has meant I’ve got faster, gotten a couple of comments that “my rowing is less ugly now”. I always thought ‘how come, my erg score is decent but I’m so slow on the water’ — a lot of it is I just don’t have the technical finesse. Having someone look at me and not let me get away with eg dumping at the finish, in real-time, has been super helpful. Monica has been great, she’s tough but very mother-y.”
Chow doesn’t have much chance for competition practice at the right level, unless she can persuade one of the local crews to scrimmage with her on the slightly bent Bair Island 2km stretch, or on the lake at Redwood Shores where Stanford race. “You can throw the boat on the car and drive it over there. It’s trying to see if I can get anyone to go down there with me — it’s a huge hassle — but people have been really nice about trying to help and even if they don’t want to do 2km they will if I ask nicely.” Nowadays she has dual US citizenship, but wouldn’t dream of turning up at US trials. “Technically I could but it’s not right, I don’t want to interfere with anyone’s shot. That’s not my opportunity, that’s the US team’s opportunity.”
She has a small IOC scholarship clinched after her national rowing federation put her name in for it, and got minor (multi-thousand US$) medal bonuses for silver medals at both the Central American & Caribbean Games in 2018 and the Pan-Am Games in 2019, but these only begin to fill the hole left by her racing expenses. Chow would love to go to the FISA development camps, but can’t take even more unpaid leave, particularly since she is a research team leader. After making the mistake of trying to take her own shell to the 2016 Olympic qualification regatta, she now borrows when abroad, preferably a Hudson or a Fluidesign. ” I didn’t know what boats would be available in 2016 so I shipped my boat, and that was the worst idea. It started off very inexpensive, then at each stage they were like ‘oh you need a customs broker, you need a transport, this and that’. It ended up being more expensive than the boat, and so I ended up just donating it [in Rio]. I’ve been borrowing boats since then.”
Before the 2020 cancellations, it was looking good. 17th, 17th and 23rd at the last three world championships, the last of those reflecting the hugely increased field for the pre-Olympic worlds. Those may sound like a come-down after silver medals in continental regattas, but they reflect reality. “ Pan-Ams went really well, every race was exactly what I wanted to do, it was executed exactly how I wanted my race plan to come off, and then the end result was good. For the world championships my goals had to be different because obviously I’m not a medal contender, so the goals there are to 1) see if I progress relative to the field, and then 2) try and make every race a good race.” While a handful of rowers claim the headlines and glory, many more in the rowing world will empathise with Chow’s experience.
“Maybe it’s not going to be spectacular but every race is going to be a solid race that I’m proud of, that I did the race plan, I didn’t wimp out any part of it, I didn’t wimp out on the sprint, I didn’t wait too long…. I have to do that even when there’s no shot of it coming out any differently. It’s the difference in my final between coming fourth with a crappy row or coming fourth with a great row. That’s what I’ve been training for. It doesn’t matter if you don’t win.”
Five spots would have been on offer at the Americas Olympic Qualification Regatta and both the US and Canada qualified their singles at the Linz worlds last summer, while in Linz she was top of the rest of the scullers eligible for the continental qualification. “I feel a lot more prepared than last time. I have more international racing experience. I’ve gotten better at putting together a good 2km race, which I was completely incapable of doing [back then]”, says Chow. “My Rio experience was every day I’d do something different: I’d fly out and then die, then the other day I’d go super-measured, there was no strategy at all. This time I want to have a race strategy to execute the best race plan that I can, based on my strengths and my physiology. I don’t know necessarily that it would be beneficial for me to increase my training load per se, but maybe there’s additional technical fine-tuning that I could do. Or get more sleep! I’m always sleep-deprived.”
Chow has been mercifully injury-free, and posting increasingly good water and erg times recently. “I had a few issues which stretching solved, but the only injuries I’ve had in the last 4 years have been bike injuries when I’ve crashed the bike. I’m kind of careful, I don’t do a lot of cleans, I don’t do Olympic lifting, because the chance of hurting myself is kind of high. In terms of training, I keep PR-ing, I’m definitely a lot faster now. My 2k, 5k etc scores are faster and I feel pretty good. I don’t know how long that’s sustainable. At some point you’ve got to plateau and then start tapering off, and I really don’t know when that is. Right now I’m the fastest, fittest I’ve ever been.”
And what of the Olympic ambition? Before the coronavirus struck, we had talked of Chow’s plan to finish her international rowing career in Tokyo, perhaps switch to domestic masters competition in a different sport, maybe cycling. That’s still the intention, albeit 12 months later than planned. “Postponement or cancellation of the Games was inevitable given the pandemic currently wrecking personal and economic havoc across the globe. It is imperative for all of us on our planet to do our part to mitigate this disaster, and to minimise the loss and damage to families and lives,” she says. “So, that must take priority. Hopefully in a year or so we will emerge on the other side. With that hope in mind, I am happy that the Olympics were postponed rather than cancelled.”
“My goal was to train to try to qualify for another Olympics and that is still my goal. Although I had planned on 2020 being my last year training and competing at the elite level, I am still getting faster every year so another year of training may do me good!”
Meanwhile during a lock-down which has postponed racing for the whole of rowing, all she can do is train, and work on her mental attitude for qualification and, hopefully, Tokyo in 2021. “I know what I want to achieve, I know what will make me proud, I know what will make me happy with myself. And remembering that the pain is meaningless, it doesn’t really matter. You’re not actually going to die, it just sucks but it doesn’t matter. Try not to forget that, try not to let it get to me. Remembering that the pain doesn’t have any bearing on what should happen.”
Aisha Chow biography
All open singles unless otherwise stated
- Born June 1977
- 1995 University of Miami (walk-on novice rower)
- 1999 PhD at Duke University (didn’t row)
- 2010 Started Masters rowing at Bair Island Aquatic Center
- 2013 Erg Hammer at C.R.A.S.H.-Bs
- Gold in the Southwest Regionals masters singles
- 2014 500m dash gold at Canadian Henley
- Club singles gold at Head of the Charles
- 2015 Bronze at Canadian Henley
- 500m dash gold at Canadian Henley
- Masters singles gold at Head of the Charles
- 2016 3rd at Americas Olympic Qualification Regatta
- 2016 22nd at Rio Olympics
- 2017 23rd at Lucerne world cup
- 2017 17th at Sarasota world champs
- 2018 Silver at US club nationals
- Silver at Central American & Caribbean Games
- 17th at Plovdiv world champs
- 2019 Silver at Lima Pan-Am Games
- 2019 23rd at Linz world champs
- 2020 Americas Olympic Qualification Regatta (cancelled)