There’s one photo of Betsy Kimmel shaking hands with Fidel Castro, a gold medal draped around her neck. There are snapshots of the Santa Monica High School graduate with fellow alumni Alex Rousseau and Eric Sato. And there’s one of the Santa Monica native marching around an arena with Team USA, her smile brighter than her neon-pink blazer.
The photos offer slivers of proof that Kimmel fulfilled her lifelong dream.
“My goal my entire life was to make the Olympics,” she said. “I didn’t even care what sport it was.”
In the quarter-century since the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona, Kimmel has settled in the San Francisco Bay Area, worked as a firefighter and taken up water polo. Last summer, she returned home for her the 30th anniversary celebration of her Samohi graduating class.
And with Rio de Janeiro set to host the Olympics next month, Kimmel splashed through her memories of earning a spot on the U.S. national rowing team and soaking in two weeks of international competition and camaraderie.
“I had the best time of my life,” she said.
From a young age, Kimmel was obsessed with sports.
As she worked her way through Roosevelt Elementary, Lincoln Middle and Santa Monica High schools, she played softball, ran track and took up volleyball. Meanwhile, she and her mother would always watch the Olympics on television from their home near 9th Street and Washington Avenue.
The Olympic torch really began burning within Kimmel when Los Angeles served as the host city in 1984. Her mom worked several events throughout the Games that summer, so the Samohi student eagerly tagged along.
“That really pushed me to want to pursue that,” she said.
Kimmel, a four-sport athlete in high school, was probably best at volleyball and held a starting role on the varsity team at Samohi. But she wasn’t good enough to be heavily recruited, so she figured she’d join the women’s team at UC Berkeley as a walk-on.
A different door opened.
“Someone said, ‘You should try rowing,’” she said. “It might’ve been a professor at Berkeley. I don’t remember. I wish I did. Because that was a good tip.”
Kimmel took the advice, tried out for the Cal rowing team and soon snagged a spot on the varsity squad. And her career with the Golden Bears was strong enough to earn her placement at several Olympic development camps, which are often the breeding grounds for U.S. rosters.
Kimmel moved to Philadelphia after graduation to hone her skills with the Vesper Boat Club, where she focused on sweep rowing, a version of the sport wherein each athlete holds just one oar.
Then, about nine months later, Kimmel was invited to Seattle for pair rowing (two people, each with one oar). So she gathered her belongings and moved across the country to Washington state, eager to continue training. But her excitement was flattened when she arrived and learned that the vacancy had already been filled by someone else.
“I just jumped in a single scull to train and I was fast right away,” she said. “I was like, ‘Maybe I should just do sculling.’”
Kimmel’s timing wasn’t so bad after all. Within couple months she was heading back to the East Coast to work with Igor Grinko, an eventual U.S. national team coach who was starting up a sculling training program on the Occoquan Reservoir in northeast Virginia.
Kimmel was starting to find her groove on the water. She qualified for the quadruple event at the Pan American Games in 1991 in Havana, teaming up with Karen Carpenter, Susan Tietjen and Michelle Knox to take first place. She recalled being briefed by the State Department before competing in Cuba and having Fidel Castro put a gold medal around her neck.
“It was incredible,” she said.
‘A HUGE BUMMER’
Kimmel was on the precipice of participating in the world’s most popular international athletics event. She kept up her training and soon accomplished her longtime goal, landing a spot in double sculls for the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona.
Competing in the Games was another story.
As Kimmel tells it, the entire rowing team was training in Europe when an alternate pair identified a paperwork error and argued that it belonged on the actual roster. The scandal yielded a race-off in which Kimmel and her partner, Lindsay Burns, lost a significant lead over the other pair after Burns went into convulsions.
“They passed us at the finish line by a foot,” Kimmel said. “We were clearly the faster double.”
Kimmel and her partner protested the result with the U.S. Olympic Committee to no avail, leaving them as alternates just five days before opening ceremonies. They felt helpless.
“It was a huge bummer, but there was nothing I could do,” she said. “We still had to be ready to jump in a boat in case somebody got injured. I figured, ‘I’m here, I’m on the Olympic team and I’m going to make the most of it.’”
Asked whether she considered trying out for the 1996 Games in Atlanta, Kimmel said her outlook was shaped by her experience four summers earlier.
“You can train for four years, and something like that can happen at the last minute? I felt done,” she said. “I achieved my goal, I made the team and I had a blast. So I quit after 1992. And that was it.”
Nearly 25 years later, Kimmel doesn’t harbor resentment.
She landed a firefighting job with Cal Fire, which she held for three seasons, and then worked in the Oakland Fire Department for 13 years. She and her husband, who live in Lafayette, met on the force.
Kimmel said she was forced to retire in 2010 after rupturing her Achilles tendon and undergoing a problematic surgery. She decided against a reconstructive operation.
And she is now trying to get what she can out of life, spending time traveling, sailing and camping. She’s also gotten into water polo, regularly playing on a women’s masters team in her area.
These days, Kimmel is well past the point of dwelling on what could have been in 1992. She’s just glad she was there at all.
“Those two weeks in Barcelona were the best, just making the Olympic team, being with all the athletes and getting to experience that international scene,” she said. “That’s what I always wanted.”