Championship Rower ‘WOW’s at Newport Aquatic Center

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Deborah Cowles, elite rower who know competes with WOW, Women on the Water, group at the Newport Aquatic Center.
— Photo courtesy Deborah Cowles ©

More than 30 years ago, after admittedly non-competitive 18-year-old Deborah Cowles told her boyfriend that she had decided to become a competitive athlete, he did what any supportive boyfriend should not have done: He laughed.

Cowles responded accordingly — she dumped him in world record time.  

After a stint at Santa Monica City College, Cowles matriculated to California State University, Long Beach, where she earned her degree in business, with a marketing focus.  Looking for a way to stay in condition, she tried out for and made the women’s novice rowing team, her initial goal being a way to quickly make friends.  

“By the time I’m cut, I will have my new friends,” she rationalized.   

But Cowles was not cut. Her coaches told her that her rowing ergometer (a fitness, strength, ranking and race preparation tool) time was more than one minute faster than all of the novice rowers, and all but four of the varsity girls. They promoted her immediately to the varsity squad. And just as importantly, she did make new friends.

Come summer break 1985, however, all of her crew training and racing buddies departed to wherever students go, leaving Cowles to work out alone. A friend at the boathouse suggested that she try solo rowing, and it was love at first scull.

One intense year later, Cowles found herself in her first U.S. National competition.

Unbeknownst to Cowles, her first race matched her against Olympic gold medalist Holly Metcalf. From the first stroke at the blast of the starter’s pistol, the proven and powerful veteran and the powerful, but blissfully ignorant neophyte fought literally bow-to-bow for 2,000 meters.  

Metcalf squeaked a victory by less than two inches, “which is virtually nothing,” Cowles said.

“Had I known Holly was a gold medalist, I would’ve been too nervous to race,” she recalled.   

Later that day, the national coaching staff chose Cowles as one of four female scullers to be developed into the national team.   

Cowles continued training and racing successfully at the elite national level until 1995, at which time she decided to toss oars, get married, have a family and start her successful real estate sales career.     

To modify a cliché: “You can take the girl out of the rowing, but you can’t take the rowing out of the girl.”

Three decades into the sport, Cowles still energetically competes and works out five days a week on the water and in the gym at the Newport Aquatic Center. Though her speed admittedly has diminished since quitting competition, she still exercises with an Olympian’s enthusiasm, intensity and love of sport that young athletes would be smart to emulate.     

Through the NAC, Cowles and 40 of her fellow female rowers ranging in age from 30 to well into the 70s compete for WOW: Women on the Water, a group of gals dedicated to the rowing sports. The WOW squad ranks in the top third in local races. Cowles, herself, will participate in at least three national seniors races annually.   

“WOW provides all of us mental, physical and emotional support,” Cowles said. “And working out gives us all a higher quality of life. Plus we laugh a lot.”

While not racing on the bay, Cowles races around town coordinating real estate deals for her company, Homes by D.K. Cowles. She donates a percentage of her commissions to the Newport Aquatic Center from any transaction referred to her from the NAC.

Cowles’ largesse obviously helps to keep Newport’s rowing community afloat.

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