Talk about making a splash. Nicole Mallory’s first experience in a racing kayak at age 11 resulted in a not-so-graceful face plant directly into the water. Years later, and without her Barbie life jacket, Mallory, a third-year physician assistant student, competed in the U.S. Olympic trials in flat-water kayaking in April, hoping to earn a coveted spot on the Olympic team. She placed fourth overall in the 500-meter race and took second place in the 500-meter kayak double with her racing partner, falling just short of making the team.
But hold your applause—Mallory isn’t the only RIT student who has excelled to Olympic levels this year. Rachel Zoyhofsky, a third-year environmental science major, will compete in the U.S. track and field Olympic trials in July in the 20K racewalk. And in the coincidence department, Mallory and Zoyhofsky were both student-athlete standouts in high school—the same high school in Henrietta.
“Rachel and I both understand the pressures that each other is dealing with and the discipline that it takes to reach our goals,” Mallory says.
When she was just 18, Mallory competed in the junior world championships in Moscow in flat-water kayaking. This year marked Mallory’s first attempt at making the U.S. Olympic team—a team that will consist of only one female flat-water kayaker competing in both the 200-meter and 500-meter races.
“There is some fierce competition out there, especially considering most of the other athletes train full time,” Mallory explains. “But I tried my best and improved my time and my overall ranking.”
As it turns out, kayaking is a family affair. Dad Jim Mallory, professor of information and computing studies at NTID, is also a flat-water kayaker and helped Nicole lay a path for competition.
“I started marathon canoeing when I was 12 years old,” Nicole Mallory says. “Then I progressed to competing in the Empire State Games and my first international competition in Lake Placid. Since then, I have worked pretty consistently with national coaches and other kayak athletes. Competitive kayaking is a small community, so I’m pretty well connected.”
Mallory’s car is easy to spot in RIT parking lots—it’s the one with the kayak strapped to the roof—ensuring that she is always ready to hit the water after classes wrap up for the day. Her physical fitness training is six days a week on the Genesee River or Erie Canal waterways in addition to supplemental weight training and running. This, of course, is added to her mental acumen—her reason for coming to RIT—excelling in the physician assistant program.
“It’s like having two full-time jobs and trying to do both well.”
Unlike Mallory, who learned to canoe with a wooden spoon before she could walk, Zoyhofsky, the youngest American to qualify for the racewalk trials in July, first started competing in high school. A love for running prompted her to try out for the Rush-Henrietta High School track and field team and, in a sign from above, she earned the freshman record during her first race. Since then, she earned second place at the U.S. national high school competition and first place at the Junior World Cup trials.
Spectators are familiar with the quirky side-to-side movement and quick pace of race walkers, and Zoyhofsky explains that the mechanics are integral to success.
“You start with the heel, roll to the toe and push off,” she says. “You always have to keep one foot on the ground and shift your weight to pop the hip out. The hip swagger comes with time and practice. I’ll probably need a hip replacement by the time I’m 30 years old.”
Zoyhofsky race-walks 70 miles each week and hopes to be one of three women selected to compete for the United States team in the 20K event in London.
Mallory and Zoyhofsky are quick to admit that at times the sources of their motivation are mysteries, but understand that organization, balance and commitment are integral to their Olympic success—whether it’s at this year’s games in London or the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro.
“Having the opportunity to compete in the Olympic trials has put this all in perspective,” Zoyhofsky says. “Everyone has the potential to be great, whether it’s competing in a sport or excelling in the classroom. I’ve put in too much time and have done too much work to just give up.”