Meghan O’Leary is about to be an Olympian.
O’Leary, 33, sits in a rowing shell behind her teammate Ellen Tomek, 34, thoughts teasing at the edge of her consciousness: “You could go to the Olympics, you could do it.”
She brushes them aside and focuses on what matters: getting to the finish line first.
It’s April 2016. O’Leary and Tomek wait at the starting line of a 2000 meter race course in Sarasota, Florida, surrounded by other crews vying for a seat on the plane to Rio de Janeiro.
A buzzer cuts through the air. Off the start, Tomek and O’Leary are behind. Their boat, a double, carries two rowers with an oar in each hand. It is lightweight and responsive; each athlete’s movement has immediate effects, so they must bring a balance of power and finesse. United, O’Leary and Tomek take 10 hard strokes and break away from the pack. They tear across the finish line 12 seconds ahead of the next boat, a margin so great that it is almost unheard of in professional rowing.
O’Leary screams and throws her fist into the air; her childhood dream has come true, she’s an Olympian. A few years before, she didn’t even know how to row.
A two-sport graduate from the University of Virginia, in 2010 O’Leary hung up her softball mitt and volleyball shoes, moved to Connecticut, and worked as a production coordinator at ESPN. The job was everything she dreamed of — but she was restless. The words of the UVA rowing coach reverberated in her mind: “Come on, Meghan. You can be an Olympian in rowing.” She sat down and googled “rowing lessons.”
That search would change her life.
When O’Leary pulled into the parking lot of a boathouse in Hartford, Conn., nerves tore at her. She thought, “What am I doing here? This is crazy.”
Most people might have flipped their car into reverse and driven home.
“Practice was uncomfortable,” O’Leary acknowledged. “But I think that’s what kept me coming back; the humbling aspect of it.”
To say rowing humbled her might be an understatement. Later that year, O’Leary bought a boat and travelled to Sarasota for the first time. She trained alongside a junior team and, in her own words, “got her ass kicked by a bunch of thirteen-year-olds.”
A few weeks later, O’Leary entered the USA Senior Team National Selection Regatta, or NSR, where she finished 31st out of 33. Despite these early struggles, O’Leary persisted. In 2011, she opted for a part-time position at ESPN and eventually left the company to become a servant to rowing. She returned to the NSR with months of training and advanced from 31st to fourth. She went from a rowing non-entity to a member of the National Team only a few months after picking up an oar for the first time. Then, she found a partner and coach in Ellen Tomek.
Tomek had been racing for Team USA since 2006 and had competed in the 2008 Olympics. Rowing with a such a seasoned veteran was intimidating, but O’Leary knew she was lucky.
“For Ellen to be patient and willing to take an athlete who had promise and potential, but who was in no way polished, was I think a risk for her,” O’Leary said.
But O’Leary’s inexperience was more of an advantage than a burden.
“If she had a question I could explain it the way I learned it,” said Tomek. “Selfishly, I was helping to mold my own doubles partner.”
Tomek is the thoughtful yin to O’Leary’s fiery yang; they balance each other.
“I can bring her up and she can cool me down. She takes a logical approach while I tend to be a little more emotional,” described O’Leary.
In their boat class, the double sculls, communication and respect are essential.
“Small boats are sensitive,” said Kate Bertko, the current coach of the Stanford lightweight rowing program and a competitor in the lightweight double at the 2016 Olympics. “It is important to have high standards, but also compassion for yourself and your partner.”
O’Leary and Tomek currently live together. They wake up at 5:30 each morning and arrive at the Stanford Boathouse an hour later. After 45 minutes of stretching and core exercises they hit the water for an average of 18,000 meters, alternating between steady rows and intense pieces.
Their dedication is fueled by recent failure.
Less than two years ago, beneath the watchful gaze of Christ the Redeemer, O’Leary and Tomek lined up for their last race at the Rio Olympics. They had the race of their lives in the semifinal, where they beat the 2-time gold medalists from New Zealand and claimed a spot in the final. But that blustery August day, their oars soared into the air and plunged abruptly back into the water, killing momentum. The Americans finished sixth overall.
During the Closing Ceremonies, as a downpour soaked the Olympic stadium, emotions cascaded over O’Leary. “I was like ‘oh god this happened’,” she remembered, “You get so focused on the grind, living day to day, that you don’t have time to pop your head up. It washed over me as I was sitting there in the rain.”
Both athletes considered retiring, but they had unfinished business. Motivated by their Olympic experience, they won a silver at the 2017 World Championships, the first U.S. women’s double to earn a medal in 27 years.
That achievement came after Tomek spent months recovering from injuries and while O’Leary was drowning in her responsibilities as interim president of USRowing, the sport’s governing body in the United States. They spent months not being able to row together.
“Last year was tough, on so many levels,” said O’Leary. “But we were able to work through it by trusting. When we got back in the boat, we committed to make the most of the time we had because it was shown to us that we could easily not have that opportunity. It refreshed our appreciation for each other.”
Although historic, their second place finish was a strange experience for Tomek.
“I thought I would have felt better, that it would have made all my accomplishments mean something more,” she said. “It really didn’t, it reaffirmed something I knew all along.”
Recently, Tomek was named the 2017 USRowing Female Athlete of the Year and O’Leary starred in a Lincoln Motor Vehicle Commercial. The women are celebrated in the rowing community, but they aren’t resting on their laurels — Tokyo 2020 is in their grasp and they want to bring home a medal. Together.
“We believe in what we’re doing. Last year was such a crazy year, and to be successful when we shouldn’t have been, why not keep going? Why not build on this?” said O’Leary.
Tomek echoed her partner, “We’re going to work until we can’t anymore.”
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