When Grace Malacrida first saw her more than a decade ago, she had an immediate thought.
She hoped Kendall Chase would give up basketball for rowing.
Long story short, Chase did just that and then some – she eventually put the rest of her life on hold with a passionate commitment to her new-found and unique sport, and made the U.S. Olympic team. The 2012 Mullen graduate had been in Princeton, N.J., since 2017 training for the Games that didn’t happen the past year because of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, but recently left for Hawaii to train in open water before heading to Tokyo for the much-anticipated competition later this month.
“This one is really special,” Malacrida said of Chase.
Special enough to be in the Straight Fours for the U.S. Team that will be competing on the Sea Forest Waterway in the middle of Tokyo, a 2,000-meter sprint … and not too shabby for a land-locked Colorado kid, a rower raised in Evergreen (after being born in San Francisco) in the Rocky Mountains.
Chase, 26, is Mullen’s first Olympian since Charlie Gruber, a five-time All-American distance runner for the Kansas Jayhawks who competed in the 1,500 meters in the 2004 Games in Athens.
In recalling her introduction to rowing, Chase, as a schoolgirl, said her soccer teammates also played hockey with a girl “who rowed and told them I had a good physique for rowing.” On her way to blossoming to 6-feet, 185 pounds, she also visited family in California, where she viewed people “launching off docks and it turns out it was rowing.”
It was quite a change for a Mustangs student-athlete who had been preoccupied with basketball, but a believable one.
“Kendall had an incredible work ethic and a huge desire to be successful, and I’m not surprised she’s in the Olympics,” Mustangs girls basketball head coach Frank Cawley said. “She just wanted to succeed, worked hard, did anything you ever asked her to do ... a first-one-in, first-one-out-type of kid.”
Cawley knew Chase “had her heart set on varsity, but she wasn’t there yet and decided her best interest was to start rowing. I totally supported it.”
Said Chase, who also displayed foresight: “I had always been decent at most sports, well-rounded, but when it came to rowing I was a lot better. One of the reasons I was drawn to it was I didn’t feel like I had the same upward mobility with basketball that I saw I could have with rowing.”
She joined the Mile High Rowing Club and her rise was mercurial. Malacrida recalls Chase being eager to learn and wishing, after her penchant to attend basketball camps, for a chance at the University of California-Berkeley Camp.
Success followed on all levels. Chase was decorated variously as a youth; was good enough to earn a scholarship to Cal-Berkeley, where she won Pac-12 Conference titles as well as NCAA individual and team honors; was a World Junior Silver Medalist; and won five championships as a World Under-23.
“She’s just an exceptional athlete,” Malacrida said.
Chase said she looks back on her Mullen days that “seem like centuries ago … it’s a most-awkward time for anybody, but you don’t realize it.”
She said she usually ate lunch by herself in her car or with her brother (Owen, also a rower) in class as “ I didn’t have a social group per se. Mullen gave me the education I needed moving forward. It’s one of the best high schools in the state and its athletics are another little boost.”
Unfamiliarity with rowing was a factor while she was a Mustang, Chase said, as “it was a little looked down upon or frowned upon because no one really knew about it.”
Chase understood, saying a Colorado rower “is a little bit of a funny situation. There are not a whole lot of bodies of water out there.”
After playing volleyball, basketball and golf as a freshman, and basketball and soccer as a sophomore, her switch the ensuing summer set up regular, back-and-forth trips from Mullen to club practice and regattas, mostly at Cherry Creek Reservoir and on charter buses or plane rides to other states.
“The rowing world is pretty big and -- at the same time – small,” she said.
However, her determination has been obvious in traveling the world for competition and spending about five years in Princeton, where she said she “was ready not to be here anymore.”
Chase has endured her share of injuries, including a broken rib, and had a convincing bout of COVID-19 that sapped her strength.
“It definitely has been a tough journey,” she said. “You have to live and deal with the injuries and setbacks.”
She also had a short stint at the University of Pennsylvania, where she had thought her possible oath could be doctor. She had built her own major at Cal, focusing on health and illness, and plans to stay within the medical field after rowing.
First, though, will be a run at Olympic Gold. The U.S. usually fares very well and Chase wants to be part of the latest wave. Heats will be July 24 and the finals on July 28. Her father, Greg, has set up a watch party.
“I’m glad I stuck it out and finally achieved it – making the Olympic Team and competing,” Chase said. “The goal is to get a medal. I definitely think it’s possible … which color, I don’t know. But if we put in the hard work, we’ll set ourselves up nicely.”