Kathleen Grace Noble ’18 is thrilled to be the first rower to represent Uganda at this summer’s Tokyo Olympics. But she says it can’t compare to her greatest accomplishment: “I still think of making the first varsity as a novice walk-on at Princeton as my biggest sporting achievement,” says Noble.
Noble came to Princeton thinking her formal athletic competition was over. The daughter of a missionary doctor and a teacher, Noble grew up in Uganda and set the country’s 50-meter butterfly record of 30.80 seconds in 2012.
As a freshman, she joined the club swimming and squash teams but craved a higher level of demand and commitment. Her freshman roommate Katie Mirabella ’17 encouraged Noble to row as a sophomore. Despite her inexperience, Noble’s varsity boat placed fourth at nationals in 2015.
There was “no particular reason that I managed to achieve that other than I worked really hard,” says Noble. “That’s something I’ve always been very proud of.”
Her meteoric rise continued when a Ugandan rowing coach discovered her, and she left Princeton for a semester to train in Uganda for the 2016 Under-23 World Championships.
“It was very challenging in many ways,” Noble says. “To go from the Princeton boathouse, which is one of the best facilities in the world, to our little container where we keep our boats and sometimes duct-tape our boats together — it was such a different experience, and very humbling and very inspiring.”
The world championships were part tragedy, part comedy. Uganda was indecisive about sending her, so she stopped training at one point to travel. In the three months before the competition, she got in a boat only 13 times, including her two warm-up rows. And then she had to borrow a boat when none arrived from Uganda.
“It was such a mess,” Noble says. “But I was very happy to be there.”
Fast forward five years and Noble is a far more prepared rower, though the Ugandan rowing program still faces huge challenges. Noble has juggled working — first as a wilderness-therapy guide, then in cancer research, and finally in physical therapy — while training with a Utah high school team under coaches Linda and Ahsan Iqbal, the latter of whom will travel with her to Tokyo for her first race July 23. She qualified in single scull by winning the African Olympic qualifier in Tunis in October 2019.
As a lightweight woman in an unlimited weight competition, Noble is aiming more to inspire than to win.
“It’s been cool to put a spotlight on rowing in Uganda, and it’s encouraged a lot of people to feel like it’s actually possible,” she says. “That’s been a cool part of it, to see how the rowing community in Uganda has been excited about me competing.”