Kate Ruffalo, who describes her rowing experience prior to college as “none whatsoever,” truly embodies the walk-on tradition that permeates through Wisconsin athletics. In her second season with the Wisconsin women’s lightweight rowing team, the Oconomowoc native competes in the Badgers’ top boat, rowing with and against some of the best college athletes in the country.
A four-time track and field letterwinner at Kettle Moraine High School, Ruffalo caught the eye of assistant coach Todd Vogt at Student Orientation, Advising, and Registration (SOAR) where she had her first introduction to Wisconsin rowing. Ruffalo had her reservations, but Vogt, Ruffalo’s mother and two high school friends convinced her to attend the annual rowing open house and tryouts.
“We did a Picnic Point run, and I realized that I had been out of running shape for a while when we did that,” Ruffalo laughed. “Then we did a workout on an erg, and thinking back on it now, I’m like, ‘oh my that was really slow’ but Todd said, ‘that was pretty nice, you should come and practice with some of the other recruited freshmen.’”
Ruffalo enjoyed the sport and decided to stick with it, winning the Knecht Cup with the novice four, while taking first at the Head of the Rock and the Eastern Sprints with the novice eight in her first season. With that success under her belt, Ruffalo set her sights on a spot in a varsity boat for her sophomore year.
Checking All the Boxes
At the beginning of Ruffalo’s second year, Wisconsin rowing alum Dusty Mattison took the reins of the lightweight program. While evaluating athletes at the beginning of the 2015-16 season, the head coach looked for a combination of qualities that she wanted for her varsity athletes.
“We look at how they perform throughout the year, especially during winter training which at Wisconsin can last a while and can be mentally challenging. We look at how consistent they are throughout that training. Then when we’re out on the water we’re doing seat racing, looking for who moves the boat the best and who just wants to be a racer. Who wants to go down the course and not worry about what is happening around them, they’re just going to get the job done.
“For Kate, she pretty much checked all those boxes. She performed consistently in the top four to eight individuals on everything. She won seat races consistently, all the way from some practice ones at winter training and then more official ones through spring training. It just showed that she got faster as she went along.”
These traits, along with her even-keeled personality and unmatched work ethic, earned Ruffalo a place in the first varsity eight. While positions in the boat shift from race to race, Ruffalo has remained a constant, which she attributes to her desire to keep improving.
“I really, really like seeing improvements made on myself,” Ruffalo said. “I really like doing the best that I can. Knowing that I tried as hard as I possibly could and went as hard as I possibly could, and if that is the best on the team or if that’s the 18th best on the team, that doesn’t matter to me. I just like making myself as good as I can and I think that attitude and pushing myself every day helps me.”
“She’s a consistent racer,” Mattison explained. “Looking at her from practice to practice, she was in boats that consistently do well. After that, it’s the boat gelling together, but actually right now she’s sitting at stroke seat. She sets a good rhythm, she’s super aggressive which is what this group needs, and she’s up for the challenge.
“I think the thing that strikes you about her when you first meet her is she just has a quiet confidence. She’s not the most vocal on the team, she just comes and does the work, leaves, and does her schoolwork, which is what you hope for in your athletes. She is a super hard worker. I know her family talks a lot about just getting it done, and if it’s not how you want it, work harder to get there.”
This spring, Ruffalo and the first varsity eight have grabbed a trio of third-place finishes at the Knecht Cup, the Charles River Lightweight Invitational and the Eastern Sprints. Nearly a month since their last competition, the lightweights are hoping to secure the program’s sixth Intercollegiate Rowing Association National Championship title when they race this weekend, June 4-5 in West Windsor, New Jersey.
“Personally my goal is to get better each day, and I think that’s pretty much the goal of everyone that is still here. Ultimately, do the best that we can do. I know that we have a lot of speed in us and I know that we all want it really bad. I think we could do some really, really good things.”
A Simple Plan
Ruffalo did not arrive on campus predicting her athletic success, nor the close bond she formed with her teammates. However, the decision to try out something new has shaped her college experience and her outlook on the future. A psychology major, Ruffalo says she doesn’t have a plan laid out when it comes to a possible career.
“At this point, I really don’t know. I really don’t have a specific, engrained plan. See where it takes me I guess.”
The same go-with-the-flow mentality applies for post-collegiate rowing.
“I don’t really know where it goes, I really don’t know the sport that well yet,” Ruffalo said. “But I think that would be really cool to see what I can do. Why not?”
As for the rest of her Wisconsin rowing career, Ruffalo knows exactly what she wants to happen.
“Win. I want to win.”
Published on UWBadgers.com and in Varsity Magazine
Edited by Paul Capobianco