Richardson, Female Scholar-Athlete of the Year

First, Columbia University sent Karen Richardson a rejection letter. Then Brown. Duke, where her sister Christina is a rising senior, placed her on the waiting list.

Late in her senior year at Gar-Field, Richardson was an athletic, academic and social success. But the rejections left Richardson feeling inadequate. She’d done everything she was supposed to do to get into college, and it didn’t seem to matter.

When Virginia, the only other place she really wanted to go, added a $2,000 athletic scholarship to her acceptance package, it was more than enough.

“When Virginia wanted me, that felt really good after being rejected so much,” Richardson said while relaxing at Lake Ridge’s Oxford Boathouse recently. “I was so sick of the heartache.”

For Richardson, the entire ordeal sharpened an already acute sense of the world around her.

“When I applied to Columbia early, it was just to see,” she said humbly. “You never can predict. I had good academics, extracurricular activities. When the rejection came, I was like ‘who are these kids getting in and what do they do?”

“When I saw they were [doing things like] going to Africa to volunteer for the summer, I was like ‘I guess this summer swimming program isn’t stacking up.'”

Now, the same 18-year-old that appreciated Gar-Field for things like its diversity recognizes the limitations present in her hometown and life to date.

“The way you live is your world,” she said. “I think Woodbridge is the world.”

Though she was born in California and lived briefly in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, Richardson is curious about the rest of the world. A top priority at Virginia is to meet people with — and experience life from — a different perspective.

Of course, she wouldn’t mind helping the Cavaliers row past Duke and the sister she idolized when she was younger.

Richardson credits her family for nearly all of her success.

Strict enough to have scheduled weekend house cleaning and loose enough to encourage ‘dinner theater’ as a way of dealing with the day’s troubles, the Richardson family is so fun-loving and supportive that Karen and Christina’s friends adopted the Richardson home as their own.

“I’d walk in, or Karen would walk in after practice,” said Christina, “and there’s our friends, leaning on the counter talking to my parents. I love going home. Our house is just a fun place to be.”

“I know it’s a cliche, and I know a lot of people probably say this, but I think I have the best parents in the world,” said Karen.

Bill Richardson is a retired Marine who is now a senior manager for a pharmaceutical company. Karen says he’s strict with a humorous touch. She wrote a paper for a school assignment about how he’s been the guide for her life.

Karen describes her mother Linda as caring and sensitive, level-headed and down-to-earth.

“After the punishments, she was the one to cry too,” laughed Karen.

Karen and Christina say their parents’ unique approach to raising them included support in just about anything they tried.

“We’re not necessarily traditional,” said Bill Richardson, “in that we let them find their own path. We’ve always encouraged them… They’d get scolded for saying some things, but the only word they’d get in trouble for is ‘can’t’. ”

“They’ve always encouraged us to leave our comfort zone,” said Christina. “They taught us that there is nothing wrong with failing.”

That may be what inspired Karen Richardson to join the International Baccalaureate program when it started at Gar-Field two years ago. Richardson’s papers have been sent to the U.K. and Israel as part of the rigorous academic program with an international focus.

Gar-Field swim coach Rob Knoeppel fondly recalls one of Richardson’s athletic highlights. Richardson, a breast stroker, went out fast and finished fifth at the 2001 Northwest Region Swimming Championships, about six places higher than she was seeded. Her reaction stayed with Knoeppel.

“She hit the wall, turned around and looked at me,” he said. “She looked at the scoreboard, then put her hand on her face and started crying. It was probably the highlight of my coaching career at Gar-Field, and I’m not exaggerating.”

Richardson was also the coxswain — rowing’s form of a on-board coach — on the Indians’ girls varsity eight that finished second in this year’s National Capital Area Scholastic Rowing Association Championships. The finish was unprecedented for Gar-Field, a coming together of talented girls who mentally and emotionally got on the same page at race time throughout the season.

But to truly know Karen Richardson is to understand that there’s more to her than just academic and athletic success.

“I think I’ve got two different sides to me,” she said. “Thrown in an academic situation or a crew atmosphere, I have a big drive to succeed. When I’m with friends or family, I’m very laid back. I’m almost the comedian.”

That’s the Karen who turned the day’s awkward experiences into dinner-time performances. It’s part of what makes her as likable as anyone at Gar-Field. But Richardson also spouts wisdom rarely heard from a teenager. She’s been that way since she arrived at Gar-Field, a school of 2,700 students.

“I think I really tried to step into my first day as a freshman with that leadership [role in mind],” she said. “In order not to be swallowed up in that whole peer pressure thing, you have to know from the first day that you’re not going to be a sheep and follow everybody.”

Even when she observes people she thinks have chosen the wrong path in life, she’s wise enough to note that she doesn’t know their predicament. “I can’t judge them,” she said.

On the bus en route to a swim meet with Osbourn this year, Richardson passed out cards to every single girl on the team, plus coaches. The cards were inscribed with quotes that Richardson had looked up. The Gar-Field girls went on to defeat Osbourn for the first time ever.

“She really understands how to relate to people,” said Knoeppel. “She gets it.”

Richardson maintained a long-term outlook on getting good grades.

“When you get a bad grade on a calculus test, you can’t hold onto it for the rest of the day, or the rest of the week,” she said. “You have to put it away and take on the next thing.”

“She understands the effort necessary to get the things that she wants,” said Knoeppel, “which is not always true of high school kids.”

As she enjoys her last official summer as a child, she keeps in mind some more adult advice.

Life can be overwhelming. But, she says, “you’ve got to take it all in and have fun. Celebrate your successes and learn from your failures.”

COMING THURSDAY: The Potomac News & Manassas Journal Messenger’s Male Scholar-Athlete of the Year

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