McAllen Memorial graduate Kathia Nitsch and Brownsville St. Joseph graduate Maria Valencia celebrate with their teammates and coaches after helping the Texas Longhorns capture the first NCAA rowing national championship in school history Sunday, May 30, 2021, in Sarasota, Florida. (Photo courtesy of Texas Athletics)

McALLEN — Kathia Nitsch always wanted to compete for the Texas Longhorns growing up as a talented multi-sport athlete in McAllen, but never foresaw how she would compete in the orange and white.

Nitsch, who enjoyed a decorated high school track star as a champion hurdler during her time at McAllen Memorial, advanced to the 2019 Region IV-6A meet in both the 110- and 300-meter hurdles before knee injuries ended her track and field career.

That setback, however, helped the former Mustangs standout find her true athletic passion.

“I didn’t row in high school and it was actually kind of a funny story how I got into it,” she said. “I had suffered from some knee injuries while running track. My dad came up to me one time and was like, ‘Hey, maybe we can sign you up for this Texas camp and a few other rowing camps to see if you like it, and then wherever you go to college, you can try to walk onto a team there.’”

Nitsch acclimated quickly to rowing and excelled while experiencing her first taste of the sport. She stood out enough to gain recruiting interest from a number of programs, including the Longhorns.

Nitsch embraced the sport and walked onto the rowing program at Texas and became a key contributor early in her collegiate career, helping the Longhorns capture the NCAA Women’s Rowing National Championship against a highly competitive field on May 30 in Sarasota, Florida.

“It definitely is really special and I’m still kind of on that high from a few days ago,” she said. “All throughout high school, my goal was to be an athlete at Texas, so to finally attend school there much less to bring home a national championship was definitely really special, and to do it around such amazing girls, teammates and coaches was just even better.”

Nitsch, a sophomore, helped power the Longhorns to the first national championship in program history alongside redshirt senior and Brownsville St. Joseph alumnae Maria Valencia after the team’s 2020 season was completely derailed by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Robbed of their chance to compete and with their international teammates prevented from traveling home, Nitsch and the Longhorns got to work, determined to emerge from the lockdown as one of the nation’s top teams.

Texas sophomore and former McAllen Memorial track star Kathia Nitsch found rowing after knee injuries ended her career as a champion hurdler. (Courtesy Photo Texas Athletics)

“It was really hard. We couldn’t go see other friends and we couldn’t go to class. But one thing that we had was working toward that one common goal,” she said. “Each person played an equally important role, like even the teammates that weren’t on the travel squad for the national championships who were just as important because had one of them gotten COVID, then we would have been out. Everybody on the team played an equally important role.”

Nitsch and the Longhorns rebounded with a strong 2021 campaign and dominant run to the NCAA Championships.

She served as the stroke, the rower responsible for setting the stroke rate and rhythm of the boat, for Texas’ fours team that seized first-place finishes in every regular-season meet as well as the Big 12 Championships.

Nitsch’s group earned third place during their race at the national championships, finishing behind Washington and Stanford with a time of 7 minutes, 7.186 seconds. Another third-place finish by the Longhorns’ second eight squad in the grand finals placed the team within striking distance of the national title with one race to go before a rain delay stalled the competition.

“The second eight and four raced their hearts out and put us in a position to win it,” Texas head coach Dave O’Neill said after the national championship races. “Admittedly, they were a little disappointed with the result, but we are all proud of their efforts.”

The lengthy weather delay forced the Longhorns to huddle underneath their team tent to await the final race of the day together, allowing Nitsch and some of her fellow teammates the rare opportunity to send off Texas’ first eights team.

The group needed a first-place finish in the final race in addition to Stanford finishing ahead of Washington to win the national championship via a tiebreaker.

“There were lightning delays, so we got to see all of our teammates come back off the water, which never happens. It was just a really special moment when we all got together as a team and really hyped them up and got them excited for their race,” Nitsch said. “I think they knew, but our coach didn’t tell them what happened with us and didn’t tell them what they needed to do.

“They kind of got the vibe that maybe things hadn’t gone perfectly, but then we were able to send them off from the dock, which is something that usually doesn’t happen because we’re still racing when they’re already sent off,” she added. “When you get like 20 girls all sending them off, it was a really special moment. We did our little Texas chant and that’s when we had so much confidence in them. I think they gained a lot of energy from us being able to push them off and just send them on their way to their race.”

The Longhorns pulled off a climactic comeback down the stretch, surging past Stanford during the final 500 meters to beat the Cardinals by about 1.5 seconds and clock in with a winning time of 6:17.387.

“There was no shortage of drama in the last race,” O’Neill said. “When they started to move with 500 meters to go, I had a good feeling they were going to pull it off. The toughness, composure and teamwork that went into that sprint was fun to watch, and I’m really proud of everyone on the team.”

For Nitsch, who never could have predicted her role in securing an NCAA rowing championship as a hurdler at Memorial, the team’s triumph shows the value of determination and hard work.

“For me, it was never a goal to be a rower, and the road to accomplishing something like that for yourself isn’t straight. And it’s you probably won’t end up where you want to be,” Nitsch said. “I always have thought that if you continue to work hard, trust the process and rely on everyone around you, then you can be really successful in anything you do. It may not be what you originally intended, but as long as you’re working hard and you’re passionate about something, then something awesome will come out of it.”

“I think a lot of times, like, being from the Valley, it’s like, ‘Oh, I’m from the Valley. I can’t do it.’ That is the mentality that I saw in some of my teammates growing up, and I just hope that this proves you can do it in anything, even in rowing,” she added. “Being from the Valley definitely shouldn’t limit anybody, but, if anything, should encourage athletes or students to do more.”

Email: amcculloch@themonitor.com

Twitter: @ByAndyMcCulloch