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Olympics 2012: Chemistry Is Her Coxswain

Sure, athletes are representing countries from all over the world during this summer’s Olympic Games, but that doesn’t mean chemistry can’t have its own representative too. Her name is Amanda Polk, a biochemistry major from the University of Notre Dame and an American Chemical Society member. For the 2012 Olympics, Amanda represented chemistry, and the U.S., as an alternate for a number of women’s rowing teams.

Amanda Polk: Representative of chemistry (and the U.S.) at the 2012 Olympics. Credit: USRowing

Since mid-July, Amanda has been in London, training and standing on call to compete in events such as the women’s pair (in which two women compete per boat, and each has only one oar), the women’s quadruple sculls (four women each with two oars, aka sculls), and the women’s eight (eight women each with only one oar). It’s all been pretty mind-boggling for Amanda, who is participating in her first Olympics. “I am very honored to be representing the U.S. in London,” she told Newscripts. “The feeling is surreal.”

Although Amanda did not compete in an event at this summer’s games—the rowing events ended on Aug. 4, with the U.S. women’s team taking home bronze in the women’s quadruple sculls and gold in the women’s eight—the level of effort required by Amanda during her time in London was still of Olympic proportions. Prior to leaving for London to watch his daughter compete, Amanda’s father, Kenneth, explained that Amanda would be training “with the team exactly as if she would be in the boat.” This practice was necessary given that Amanda served as a first alternate who might be called on at any moment to replace a teammate who had become injured or violated a rule or code of conduct, he said.

Kenneth, who has his own ACS connection (he serves as a special assistant to the ACS executive director as well as chief executive officer for innovation and legal affairs at the society), was thrilled to be among the many in London cheering for the U.S. women’s rowing team. However, as a proud father, he did admit to having “some amount of disappointment” that his daughter had been designated as just an alternate for the women’s eight.

According to Kenneth, unlike smaller boats such as the women’s pair in which competitors are chosen on the basis of their performance in preliminary races, members of the women’s eight are chosen through a selection process. The decision to not include his daughter on the final women’s eight roster was a tough one for Kenneth, especially given his daughter’s pedigree: She won gold in the eight at the 2011 World Rowing Cup III in Lucerne, Switzerland; won gold in the eight at the 2011 World Rowing Championships in Bled, Slovenia; and won gold and set a world record in the eight at the 2012 World Rowing Cup II in Lucerne.

For Amanda, the road to the Olympics was a crazy one. Since graduating from Notre Dame in 2008, she has worked for a financial advising company; curated for Morven Museum & Garden in Princeton, N.J.; babysat; and walked and watched families’ dogs. This past year, however, she completely dedicated herself to training for London, an effort that benefitted greatly from her background in the central science.

“Biochemistry has been surprisingly helpful in my rowing career,” Amanda said. “Since rowing is a very demanding endurance sport, having the knowledge of the many metabolic cycles, especially the Krebs cycle, has assisted me in determining the type of nutrition, vitamins, and minerals my body needs to maintain elite performance. Much of this process is trial and error, but that is all part of being a scientist at heart, right?!”

Because of winning quotes such as this, Newscripts lightheartedly pledged the support of ACS’s 160,000-plus members to Amanda during her time in London, an endorsement that greatly tickled her. “I am very excited and flattered to know that ACS and the scientific community are behind me,” she said. “With all my energies committed to rowing for the U.S., I still share their collective deep passion for science and the improvement of the human condition.”

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