Kelly Mitchell has always been a leader. Taking charge was natural for PLNU’s Senior Director of Philanthropy since attending elementary school in San Diego. So, when it came to the 1984 women’s U.S. Olympic rowing team, Mitchell was voted co-captain and earned the right to represent the women’s Olympic rowing team— although she was surprised, her peers knew she had earned it. 

Mitchell would be the first to humbly say she wasn’t the best-performing athlete in every sport, but she was the best strategist. It’s the number one quality for a coxswain in rowing — the position that faces the rowers and steers the boat as they call the shots for the rest of the team. Mitchell possessed those qualities and is now able to forever call herself an Olympian

Mitchell with the 1984 women's U.S. Olympic rowing team.
1984 Olympic Opening Ceremonies

Growing up, Mitchell was always excelling in sports teams. She was team captain on both her cross country and softball teams, and before long began to set her sights on becoming a world-class athlete.

“The first time I really registered the Olympics in my head was in 1972,” Mitchell recalled. That year she was 12 years old. “I remember running around the block 26 times thinking, ‘I’m going to run the marathon.’ Little did I know, at that time, women weren’t even running the marathon.” 

In June of 1972, that started to change. Title IX was passed into law nationally that no longer allowed discrimination, based on sex, in educational programs, extracurricular activities, or any other institutions that receive federal funding. That meant young women like Mitchell who had athletic aspirations in rowing gained equality not only in college athletics, but soon on the world’s biggest athletic stage: the Olympics. 

“If you see someone do something then you can start believing that you can do it, too.”

Mitchell began rowing two years later in 1974 at her local ZLAC Rowing Club in Mission Bay, the oldest women’s rowing club in the world — and a club Mitchell’s grandmother rowed for in her younger years. Mitchell explained she was just 5 feet 4 inches tall at the time, and around 90 pounds. She wanted to row with her cousin, Lynn Silliman, who at just 16 years old won a bronze medal on the first-ever US Olympic women’s rowing team in 1976.

“There’s something called ‘See, believe, achieve,’” Mitchell said. “If you see someone do something then you can start believing that you can do it, too. Seeing [Lynne] do that made me think I should try out for the Olympics.” 

Mitchell won several junior championships and rowed crew at San Diego State, and then transferred to Santa Clara University where she became the coxswain for the men’s crew team. 

“At the Olympic level, so much of it is confidence,” she said. “And I have to say, to have eight Santa Clara guys think you walk on water does something for your confidence, right?” 

Ahead of the 1980 Olympics, Mitchell was invited to a long, ruthless camp where they craft the official roster for Team USA. After multiple rounds of cuts of over 100 rowers and 15 coxswains — and after rushing to graduate two semesters early from college — she makes her first Olympic team. 

Mitchell shaking hands with then-president Jimmy Carter
Mitchell with then-President Jimmy Carter.

However, the 1980 Olympics didn’t happen. The US Olympic Committee agreed to boycott the Moscow games in protest of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, led by then-President Jimmy Carter. The US-led boycott included over 60 countries. Mitchell remembers being flown to the White House lawn with her rowing team to receive her Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civil award, for her honorable sacrifice. 

“This is it,” she thought. “I had [gone] home, and was never going to compete again. But I still loved the sport.” 

As life went on, it began to seem as if her Olympic dreams were in the rearview mirror. She started coaching a junior team in San Diego and got a job as a developer. But in her prayers, she was still paddling towards her Olympic dreams. 

“In my prayer time, [I felt God] say, ‘Kelly, try out for the national team again,’” she said, “I just felt God was really moving me in that direction. So, I went back [in 1982], just on prayer alone.” 

Even though she doubted her chances, Mitchell made the first round of cuts for the coxswain position. And the second round. And the third. But when she went to look for her name on the final list posted outside of the boathouse, her name wasn’t there. 

“I realized God didn’t care about the end result, He wanted me to be faithful in my journey.”

“I’m crying, and ranting to God. ‘God, you told me to try out for this team!’” Mitchell said. “Then, it was the most spiritual experience I’ve had. It was like the heavens opened up. I felt a voice as clear as my own voice say to me, ‘I told you to try out, I didn’t tell you you would make it.’”

Sculling team rowing in a boat.

The moment Mitchell felt His presence the most was when her dream didn’t come true. “I realized God didn’t care about the end result, He wanted me to be faithful in my journey,” she felt light and free. “That’s what I learned in 1982, [to] just let go of the outcome.”

She returned home with an acceptance that she truly was done with rowing. But the following year she felt another nudge from God. Mitchell tried out again for the national women’s rowing team with the hopes of medaling at the upcoming 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. This time, she made the final cut. 

“They selected me as the co-captain,” Mitchell explained.  “Coming from a place where I thought that I would never be selected again, to being selected as the co-captain was a pretty amazing journey for me. It kind of meant more to me in some ways than the Olympic medal itself.” 

Mitchel receiving her olympic medal.
Mitchell receiving her Olympic medal in 1984

On their home turf with over 10,000 people chanting U-S-A — including Mitchell’s family, friends, and former coaches — Mitchell’s boat crossed the finish line second, and earned a silver Olympic medal. At the time it was the best that the United States had ever done in that event.

“I remember being on that podium and thinking, ‘This is not my medal. This is so many other people’s medal,’” Mitchell said. “It took so many other people to get me there; it took all those women fighting for Title IX to get women in the Olympics in 1976

Mitchell sitting by the water.

The thing about the term “Olympian” is there’s never “former” placed in front of it. Mitchell will always be in the rare air that so few people around the world can claim. She went on to become the San Diego representative of Southern California Olympians, was one of the first hired in the creation of the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, and currently leads fundraising efforts at PLNU, where she has worked since 2009. 2024 marks 15 years of Mitchell’s service at PLNU. 

Now, Mitchell does pilates and pickleball to stay active, and she still rows a few times a year with her ZLAC teammates. The women in her Olympic boat went on to be successful doctors, international pharmaceutical saleswomen, educators, and entrepreneurs.

“The best friends I’ve made are from my rowing, and it’s a lifelong connection with these folks,” she said. “And the fact that these people selected me to be their captain is amazing to me.”

Jordan Robinson (Ligons) (16) is a former PLNU women’s basketball student-athlete who studied journalism and women’s studies. Currently, she’s a freelance sports journalist, TV host, and WNBA podcaster in Los Angeles, CA.