Kate Bertko ’06 is small for a rower. At 5 feet 7 inches, she’s a head shorter than her friend and former teammate Caroline Lind ’06, a two-time Olympic gold medalist. That didn’t stop Bertko from often beating Lind when the two would compete while training.
“If you were my size, you would dominate the world in everything,” Lind remembers telling Bertko. “She had a determination that I had never seen before. She would close her eyes and grit her teeth and just go.”
When Bertko arrived at Princeton, however, doctors grew concerned about the very thing propelling her to victory — her heart. They diagnosed Bertko with Long QT syndrome, which can cause sudden chaotic arrhythmias after exercise or stress. Bertko was told her career was over, but she was not convinced.
What if the doctors had it wrong? Not much is known about the hearts of female athletes, says Bertko. She was determined that her health shouldn’t hold her back, says Lori Dauphiny, head coach of the women’s open crew.
“It was hard with her health issues to know,” says Dauphiny. “I didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize her health.” Dauphiny decided to accompany Bertko to medical appointments as far away as Philadelphia.
“It’s a lot for a freshman to deal with,” she says. “It’s hard to have that opportunity taken away, and it’s hard to navigate the health-care system.”
Dauphiny coached the “feisty” Bertko to represent herself better before people of authority, and Bertko came to see Dauphiny as someone in whom she could confide. The pair formed a close bond.
“She had the most significant impact on how I’ve developed as a good human being,” says Bertko of Dauphiny, crediting the coach with teaching her how to treat others and how to be brave.
Ultimately, Bertko was found to have the less-serious heart condition atrial fibrillation, which has been corrected. While Bertko has suffered other setbacks — a late cut from the London Olympics roster, emergency abdominal surgery for twisted intestines, and a recent switch from open to lightweight — she remains “the toughest person out there,” says Lind.
Bertko finally will have the opportunity this summer to compete in the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro: With teammate Devery Karz, she won the women’s lightweight double sculls in the U.S. Olympic Trials in April.
“If ever there was a person who belonged competing in the Olympics, she’s definitely one,” says Dauphiny, holding back tears. “She’s definitely one.”