World Champ: Darien’s Caroline O’Brien strikes rowing gold

Darien’s Caroline O’Brien (left) and teammate Sarah Maietta row to the gold medal during the World Rowing U-23 Championships in Poznan, Poland, in July. — USRowing photo

Darien resident Caroline O’Brien is a 2018 world rowing champion in the Under-23 lightweight pairs division.

Competing at the World Rowing U-23 Championships in Poznan, Poland, in July as part of the U.S. Women’s National Team, O’Brien paired with teammate Sarah Maietta to win the gold medal, beating out Germany, Italy and Hungary.

O’Brien and Maietta are all smiles as they hold an American flag during the medal ceremony. — USRowing photo

After winning the preliminary race by 18.04 seconds, the duo faced a tighter challenge in the finals, leading by just 2.75 seconds over Germany at the midway point of the race, before ultimately winning by 9.33 seconds ahead of second-place finisher Germany with a race time of 7:43.62.

“Off the start of the final race it was a bit windier,” O’Brien said. “We knew we could still win based on our performance in the previous race, but it was going to be tougher based on the conditions and atmosphere. We knew it was our final race, and we wanted to give our all and make sure that our final race was our best.”

O’Brien, a rising junior at Georgetown University, is a 2016 graduate of Darien High School.  The six-foot tall O’Brien competes in the lightweight crew division, which means a rower cannot weigh more than 130 pounds. She began rowing competitively as a high school sophomore at Saugatuck Rowing Club in Westport with her identical twin, Elisabeth.

After successful high school racing careers, both sisters were recruited to row for Georgetown, where last year Caroline O’Brien was named MVP of the lightweight rowing program.

Despite her collegiate success, however, the road to the USRowing National Team was not easy.

O’Brien, at the urging of her Georgetown coach, attended a camp held over the winter at the University of Virginia where national coaches assess rowers, then watch to see how they perform in their spring college season.

Darien’s Caroline O’Brien receives her gold medal. — USRowing photo

As the months passed, O’Brien patiently waited for a call that she had made the national team. And waited.

“Beginning of June, I still had no call or anything with them,” O’Brien said. “So I started setting up a summer job. After the summer training program started for the rest of the girls, I got a call and the coach said one girl had to drop out and that there was an open spot at the camp. So I went from having a summer camp job, to switching to training with these girls who had already been there for a week.”

Once at the USRowing training camp in Boston, O’Brien paired with teammate Maietta, who rows for Boston University, to compete in a two-person boat.

In order to make the world championships, the duo competed in a final qualifying race in New Jersey before heading to Poland to compete in the world championships, where rowers lived with local host families.

The U.S. team ended up winning a total of five gold medals at the event, the highest amount of any team competing.

The medal ceremony with O’Brien and Maietta in the center. — USRowing photo

Now back home in Darien, where her gold medal hangs in her room, O’Brien is preparing for her upcoming rowing season at Georgetown; she will be team captain this year as a junior. And she hopes to get a chance to defend her title at next year’s world championships.

“The whole time I felt like I was in a different world — it was so cool, even over the loudspeakers, all the different languages and people in their uniforms, there were so many different colors and flags everywhere it just felt very surreal,” O’Brien said. “And it made me want to go back as soon as I possibly could, because it was so cool meeting so many people with the same passion: They were all there to row, but they all got to that point in a different way, whether it was through their school program or they had been doing it since they were really little. It was cool hearing how everyone else got to that point.”