Finding Gold on the Water

Published: Jun 3, 2024

Two men in a rowing boat that is in water paddling oars in front of a backdrop that says USRowing
Mark Couwenhoven ’20 (right) competing at the 2019 U23 World Rowing Championships. (Photo courtesy of USRowing)

Push, pull, push, pull. On goes this routine of synchronized oar movements as rowers—nestled in long, tapered boats—move through the water with precision and speed. The trim boats glide through the water with seemingly effortlessness, and as a child, Mark Couwenhoven finds himself entranced. 

One day he’ll learn just how much effort this smooth process takes, but for now, Couwenhoven watches his older sister and her fellow competitors shoot through the water with dolphin-like gracefulness. 

“I went to my sister’s races and became enthralled with rowing—I knew that it was what I wanted to do when I got older,” Couwenhoven ’20, biology, recalled. 

Nearly two decades later—and after countless pre-dawn hours on the water—his childhood dreams of competitive rowing came true when Couwenhoven landed a spot on the 2019 and 2023 USRowing national teams. 

“I was excited to represent the United States and UMBC,” shares Couwenhoven. “When you race, practice, and put in so much work and hard training—medaling at the games and seeing the rewards of that training makes it all worth it.”

But Couwenhoven’s journey to the top echelons of the sport hasn’t come without its challenges and tribulations. The sport, and life along the way, came with its difficulties but Couwenhoven found support at UMBC and in other areas as he pursued his podium and personal goals.

A Rower’s Journey

Couwenhoven began his competitive rowing career during his first year of high school, a passion he continued all throughout his academic career. He learned that what he once considered as “effortless” required a lot of practice and training. 

“Rowing is very hard to start. It’s not a very natural movement. You can be an elite rower that has been rowing for years and still have technical flaws. I don’t think the difficulty really ever deterred me from the sport because I enjoyed learning about it,” says Couwhenhoven. 

A man sitting in a rowing boat in water. One oar is in his hand
Mark Couwenhoven representing UMBC during the 2019 Dad Vail Regatta. (Photo courtesy of Couwenhoven)

As a high school student, he frequently made the USRowing’s youth national teams. During the school year, the Parkton, Maryland, native strengthened his rowing skills as a member of the Baltimore Community Rowing Club and continued his training in Philadelphia at rowing camps during the summer. 

“I stayed committed to rowing when I got into college and I took it to the next level,” said Couwenhoven, who originally enrolled at the University of Delaware and joined the men’s crew team where he helped the varsity lightweight eight team secure a victory at the Dad Vail Regatta, the largest regular intercollegiate rowing event in the country. However, Couwenhoven’s athletic pursuits took a backseat when his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2017. 

After learning about his mother’s diagnosis, Couwenhoven moved back to the Baltimore area to help her through the illness. The transition back home didn’t discourage Couwenhoven from his academic and athletic pursuits. “It was a tough time, but I very strongly wanted to finish my education and continue with rowing,” he said. 

An International Champion Emerges  

Couwenhoven started the process of transferring to UMBC in 2018 and “enjoyed the campus and the community,” he said. “Being at UMBC allowed me to be close to my mother, focus on my academics, and find a way back to rowing.”

Even amid her chemotherapy treatments, Cowenhoven’s mother did all that she could to support her son’s rowing ambitions. 

“While that was definitely a strenuous battle, she never let it stop her from doing the things she loved. [My mom] would wake up with me in the mornings and we would carpool down to the boathouse.” 

Mark Couwenhoven holding up a trophy and smiling aftering winning the men's single event at the 2019 Dad Vail Regatta.
Mark Couwenhoven poses after representing UMBC and winning first place in the men’s single event at the 2019 Dad Vail Regatta. (Photo courtesy of Couwenhoven)

Couwenhoven’s father was also there every step of the way in his rowing career, cheering him along, he says. “My dad was there at every race to help me and I really could not have achieved all of this without his support.”

During his time as a Retriever, Couwenhoven recommitted himself to rowing and began competing as an American Collegiate Rowing Association (ACRA) rower, winning the single scull (solo) event at the 2018 and 2019 ACRA National Championship Regatta. He also went on to represent UMBC at the 2019 Dad Vail Regatta, winning first place in the men’s single event wearing black and gold stripes and Old Bay-themed socks. Following these victories, Couwenhoven tried out for the Under 23 (U23) USRowing national team and secured a spot on the U23 men’s doubles team. Couwenhoven and his doubles partner finished in 10th place at the 2019 World Rowing U23 Championships.

“It was always my dream to make the U23 team, and I was thrilled to make it. Our 10th place finish was the best the U.S. team had done in the doubles category since U23 became an event,” Couwenhoven beamed.  

When joining the USRowing team—the governing body that represents the United States in international rowing competitions that include the world championships, the Pan American Games, and the Olympics—Couwenhoven set his sights on competing amongst the top rowers from around the world. Following his success on the U23 team, Couwenhoven landed a spot on the 2023 Pan American Games team. 

His determination, combined with endless hours of training in the water, culminated in Couwenhoven winning a gold medal in the mixed eight rowing event and a bronze medal in the men’s double sculls event at the 2023 Pan American Games, held in Santiago, Chile. 

Although Couwenhoven’s team were successful in securing a gold medal, the team came into the games without having practiced together as a unit due to their individual homebases. The team’s first official practice occurred as soon as they all landed in Chile. 

“We got off to a shaky start in our first heat [in the mixed eight event] and we lost to the Chile team by hundredths of a second,” said Couwenhoven. The team then moved on to the repechage heat, in which first-round losers are given another chance to qualify for the semifinals. 

“We found an extra gear during our repechage and we won by a lot. Going into the final, we all felt confident that we were going to accomplish something great.”

Couwenhoven’s victories contributed to the team’s 10 total medals, the U.S. team’s best rowing performance at the Pan American Games since 1999.

Life Beyond the Oars

While his ascension in rowing continued during his time at UMBC, Couwenhoven remained dedicated to his academic career and credits much of his success in balancing his life as a student-athlete to his advisor Esther Fleischmann, senior lecturer in biology. 

“Fleischmann was absolutely invaluable. Her advising really helped me build that balance that I needed to focus on my academic and athletic goals. She was very supportive,” says Couwenhoven. 

As a biology student, Couwenhoven developed an interest in dentistry, and says that his UMBC instructors helped “prepared me well for the rigors of studying and being prepared for a career in dentistry.” 

Since graduating, Couwenhoven has relocated to Philadelphia where he currently shadows the oral and maxillofacial surgery team at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). He also volunteers at CHOP as a nursing companion for children undergoing treatment. Couwenhoven’s mother, who has now been in remission for five years, inspired his motivation to volunteer as a nursing companion, he said.

A mother and son about to embrace in a hug. The son is wearing gold and bronze medals around his neck, which he won at the 2023 Pan American Games.
Couwenhoven and his mother after the medal ceremonies at the 2023 Pan American Games. (Photo courtesy of Couwenhoven)

“It’s especially difficult to be in the hospital when you don’t have loved ones with you. At CHOP, kids will sometimes have parents that are away because of work or remote-living situations,” says Couwenhoven. “I think of how important it is to be that person that’s there to help them smile—giving patients a positive distraction can turn their day around.”  

For now, Couwenhoven is dedicating more of his time to advancing his career interests, however he hasn’t lost focus of his passion for being out on the water, even if it means waking up at 4:30 a.m. on most mornings to train. 

“Waking up early in the morning and getting to the boat house, seeing the rays of light as the sun rises makes it all worth it,” he says. “When I’m in the water, it’s about getting that really good stroke and I’m reminded all over again that I’m doing something that I really love. I’m looking forward to continuing rowing competitively and pursuing my goal of rowing at the highest level internationally.”

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