Rio De Janeiro 2016. It’s on the mind of every Team USA member competing there this August. In particular, this is what’s on the mind of Team USA rowers Meghan O’Leary and Ellen Tomek. For an Olympian, the road to the games in Rio is a long one full of bumps, twists, and turns. Meghan and Ellen were kind enough to spend a few minutes away from their training in Princeton, New Jersey to talk with us on the phone. Between talking about some of the controversy surrounding this year’s games, understanding the struggles of being an elite rower in the US, and learning their backgrounds, there was plenty to talk about. Here are some of the highlights of the conversation:
How did you guys get started in rowing?
Ellen: “I started rowing at the University of Michigan my freshman year as a walk-on athlete. I went to a tryout where they tested our fitness and rowing potential. I made the cut, stuck with it and eventually was put on scholarship.”
Meghan: “Ellen basically came straight here to the Princeton Training Center right after college. I had a little bit of a different path; I played volleyball and softball at the University of Virginia. I graduated and went to work full time with ESPN. It was a couple years later when I had just moved to Connecticut. I wanted to do something new and ended up just Googling rowing. This was about six years ago, the summer of 2010. I literally didn’t know anything about the sport. They have a great rowing program at the University of Virginia and ironically, the head rowing coach had actually approached me while I was still at school and said ‘hey, you should try rowing.’ I think it kind of planted the seed. So I signed up for some learn-to-row sessions, absolutely fell in love with it, and I haven’t looked back since. I threw myself into it and managed to find myself at the National Training Center a little over a year later, in fall 2011.”
When did you know you were good enough?
Ellen: “I made the Beijing Olympic Team in 2008, just two years out of college. The first year that I was training with the squad I made the 2007 National Team. I ended up in the women’s double for the 2008 Olympics and 2009 National Team. After that, I was injured for quite a bit and ended up missing out on the London Games, but decided that I wasn’t done training. Once Meghan and I started rowing together in 2013, we knew we had potential and could be competitive internationally. We made it our goal to develop the boat together over the course of the full quadrennial. Even back when we started rowing together, three and half years ago, we always believed we had the potential to go to Rio and to win a medal.”
How many women were you competing against during trials?
Meghan: “The women’s double is a Trials boat, which means it is an open event and anyone can enter. It’s interesting and unique to the sport of rowing. Over the last few years there have been a variety of competitors and contenders trying to win the double and represent the United States in that boat. We have represented the United States in the women’s double since 2013. We may have been considered the favorites going in, but there were definitely a lot of great athletes there. There were seven other crews that we were competing against us for the right to represent the United States as the Olympic Women’s Double in Rio. It definitely wasn’t a sure thing going into the regatta, so we were nervous and are very proud of what we accomplished.”
Where does the money in the sport of rowing come from domestically and internationally?
Ellen: “We are supported by non-profit organizations, USRowing and the USOC. We earn a modest monthly living stipend that maybe covers rent and groceries. The lack of funding is in part due to rowing not being a mainstream sport, so there’s not as much visibility.”
Meghan: “Rowers are superstars in Great Britain, New Zealand, and many European countries. Several of those athletes make real salaries and have endorsements and sponsorships. They are sort of like the equivalent of the NBA and NFL stars we have here in the U.S. In many countries outside of the U.S., rowers can keep rowing for much longer because of the income potential, whereas here in the States it can be difficult to maintain a long career in the sport due solely to the need to support yourself and your family.”
Are you nervous about going to Rio for the obvious reasons?
Meghan: “You prepare for so long and train so hard that you want to be able to show up to the Olympics and perform at your highest level. You put in all these hours and then be faced with something you can’t control like the water quality or Zika, is frustrating but we can’t dwell on it. It’s scary, but the best thing we’re trying to do is not stress about it and prepare in the best ways we can: lots of bug spray, long sleeves, and minimizing exposure to the water, all that stuff. It’s funny how some people have asked “Well, did you ever consider not going to Rio?” and we of course, answer ‘absolutely not!’ You don’t put your whole life into this only to say ‘no, thanks.’
Getting to know these Olympians was an awesome experience. Medi-Dyne is proud to have Ellen Tomek and Meghan O’Leary as Athlete Ambassadors. Medi-Dyne wishes team O’Leary/Tomek the best of luck in the Rio games!! Go Team USA!
Be sure to tune your TV to the Olympic Rowing Event on August 6-13 to cheer on Meghan, Ellen and Team USA!