Meghan O'Leary

Elite Athlete and 2016 Olympic Hopeful: Passion for the adventure. Embracing the unpredictable. Enjoying the ride.


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Resolutions to Rio, Take 2

Wow, so it’s already March. I figured it was about time to put down my “2014 Resolutions” so that I have something to reflect on and keep me honest as the months creep closer to another year passing. With the Sochi 2014 Olympics having just wrapped up (and the Sochi 2014 Paralympics about to begin!), I thought what better time than now to revisit my goals on the road to Rio 2016.

It’s interesting how with the turn of a year, so many people want to hit this huge “start over” button. “This year I am going to completely stop (insert terrible habit),” or “I’m going to start this brand new (insert latest diet or fitness trend).” That is all well and fine, but I like to avoid this idea of erasing last year’s “faults” or completely overhauling my daily routine. Yes, the beginning of the year does signify a new beginning and in a sense, the turning of a page. We live and we learn and we make daily improvements. This attitude should not be limited to December 31st and January 1st.

Obviously, I’m a little late to the game in “setting my resolutions” for 2014. I’ve never been one to get all hyped about “New Year’s Resolutions” but I do like to take the time to think about what it is I want to accomplish in the coming months: how can I work toward becoming a better athlete, friend, daughter, partner and just overall a stronger person? What do I want to do this year that gets me closer to where I want to be next year? What do I want to learn about myself and about the world? These are the questions I tend to ask myself when deciding what kinds of goals I wish to set for the year and beyond.

As a fun practice I took a look at a post I put out a few years ago in January of 2011, Resolutions to Rio, when I first picked up the sport of rowing. Literally, I had just began training and it is very evident in those goals. As I laughed at the 2011 version of myself writing down those goals, I also couldn’t help but appreciate the value of them. As ridiculous as they are to me now, they were so meaningful at the time. And the best part? I blasted through every single goal I set that year from the erg standards, to buying my first single, to making it to the National Team Training Center in Princeton. So while I was laughing at my 2011 self, I was giving her a big pat on the back.

Now it’s time to tackle a bigger plate in 2014. I won’t bore you by delving into the non-rowing components of my 2014 resolutions. But for all you rowers and elite athletes out there, perhaps this will inspire you to take a look (or a second look) at your own plan, how far you’ve already come and how you are working toward becoming the best version of yourself that you can this year. And if you’ve already slipped on your “2014 Resolutions,” don’t give up. Every day is a new start to something beautiful, something meaningful. Every day counts.

Resolutions to Rio, Take 2:

Stay Healthy. If I’ve learned anything in my time training at the elite level, it is the importance of staying healthy. With the amount of volume a sport like rowing demands of the body to be successful, injury is common. Obviously it’s not a contact sport where we are throwing our bodies against the ground or at other people with the risk of broken and dislocated limbs, but the number of hours the body is working and in constant, repetitive motion, can lead to serious overuse injuries. Those injuries like strained and torn muscles or broken ribs (the worst!) can put a rower out of the game for several weeks to several months, severely impacting their ability to train and be ready to perform when competition starts.

At this level, everyone works hard. Sometimes it takes a lot more mental strength to say “I need to cross-train this session” or even “I need the afternoon off” when you may not feel well. I’m no spring chicken and don’t bounce back from things like I used to when I was 18 years old. Listening to my body and not being stubborn (stupid) like I have in the past, will be critical to staying healthy and being able to train day in and day out without the jarring disruption of an injury.

I have made it a habit to spend a solid 20-30 minutes before practice to properly warm up and run through a routine of strengthening exercises. In the same way, I spend another 30 minutes cooling down and stretching after practice to make sure any muscles that might have tightened up are settled down and loose. Creating and sticking to habits like these can make the difference between standing on the medals podium or watching from the stands.

Manage the Emotional and Mental Ups and Downs of Training. This is a big one. Rowing has frustrated me and tried my patience in ways that no other sport has in my entire athletic career. Now only in my fourth year of rowing, I still continue to learn a great deal every day, which in turn only shows me how much more I have to learn. Every elite rower is a perfectionist in some way; it’s what draws us to the sport, it’s what keeps us addicted to the sport. We are all pursuing the perfect stroke, the perfect training plan, the perfect recovery techniques, the perfect race. Frankly, it can be a bit maddening.

With anything we put a significant amount of our time and effort in, it’s important to remain level. Don’t ride the highs too high and don’t let the lows bury you. Particularly in a sport like rowing, you’re going to have days that make you feel like you are ready for the world stage, only to be knocked down by days that will absolutely destroy you physically, mentally, and emotionally.

I’m still navigating the ways of finding my peace with the tough days. I think it’ll be important to remember the enjoyment of the small victories and to use those as armor for those particularly rough workouts. Once you reach a certain level, progress can become seemingly unnoticeable. Overnight transformations are rare in rowing but it’s the subtle, day-to-day improvements that lead to the big changes. It’s difficult to give yourself a pat on the back, but constantly giving yourself a kick in the ass sometimes proves more detrimental to moving forward. When I first started rowing, I was delighted by the smallest improvement; that’s the joy of a steep learning curve. When you achieve a certain level of “success,” the expectations for yourself become that much higher and in turn, the pressure you put on yourself is that much heavier. It’s how good athletes become great athletes. Never settled, never satisfied. Balancing this mentality with the ability to not get dragged down by an “off” or frustrating day, is a challenge for so many athletes (finger pointed at myself, “this guy”).

As I continue becoming a better athlete, I’d also like to become better at taking each day in stride. Rather, as I become better at taking each day in stride, I will become a better athlete.

Win the 2014 USRowing National Selection Regatta #2. This is a little more concrete, black and white than the previous resolutions may be. Winning the USRowing National Selection Regatta #2 in the women’s double is the first step toward qualifying the women’s double and thereby representing the United States at the 2014 World Rowing Championships. It all starts with this first competition which will take place May 14-17th on Mercer Lake in West Windsor, New Jersey. I predict that the fight for securing spots in the women’s double will become even more competitive over the next several years. Selection procedures have slightly changed this year (2014 Official Selection Procedure), and some would feel the new procedure makes it even more challenging for athletes outside of the Training Center to find their way into a camp boat (eight, quad, and four).

Meghan O'Leary and Ellen Tomek, USTC Women's Double. Photo courtesy of row2k.com

Meghan O’Leary and Ellen Tomek, winner of 2013 NSR #2. Photo courtesy of row2k.com

Basically, if you are an openweight woman training outside of the USRowing Training Center in Princeton, in order to secure a spot on the National Team, you either win the women’s single or the women’s double. Okay technically, you can also win the pair, but I’m not sure the last time an outside women’s pair won an NSR. It’s been a very long time. If you’re a top sweeper, you’re most likely already in Princeton. Since the single and double are no longer deemed “priority boats” and specifically not being developed in Princeton, it only makes sense that outside athletes would be gunning for those three coveted spots.

As a result of some of the structural and procedural changes, most of the nation’s top scullers are training outside of Princeton right now; with more good athletes than there are spots to be filled. This is a GREAT thing because it means the depth of U.S. women’s sculling is growing stronger and stronger, as it needs to, in order for us to be competitive in the women’s single and double internationally. I predict the National Selection Regatta #2 will be a super competitive field this year.

Qualify the Women’s Double for World Championships. Next up? You guessed it. Qualifying the women’s double at a World Cup means you don’t have to take the boat back to U.S. Trials to then qualify for the World Championships. In the United States, you have to place in the top six at a world cup to automatically qualify the women’s double for the World Championships. Top four gets you funding. As part of this qualification goal, I’d like to take home a World Cup medal. Last year, Ellen Tomek and I brought home bronze from World Cup 3 in Lucerne. This year: bronze or better. The qualification world cups this year will be World Cup 2 in Aiguebelette, France (June 20-22) and World Cup 3 in Lucerne, Switzerland (July 11-13).

(L-R) Meghan O'Leary, Ellen Tomek; 2013 Samsung World Rowing Cup III Women's Double Bronze Medalists

(L-R) Meghan O’Leary, Ellen Tomek; 2013 Samsung World Rowing Cup III Women’s Double Bronze Medalists

Medal at the 2014 World Championships. The last and most important leg of the 2014 racing season: the 2014 World Rowing Championships in Amsterdam, Netherlands (August 24-31). Last year was my first time to compete as a member of the United States National Team at the World Rowing Championships. My boatmate, Ellen Tomek and I won the B Final, placing 7th overall in the women’s double event. Both of us feel strongly that this was an underperformance, and that if we had raced our best, we belonged among the top four boats in the A Final. Were we good enough to be World Champions last year? No; the Lithuanian double (gold) and Kiwis (silver) put up the best race of the regatta and perhaps the best race the women’s double event has seen in several years. Seriously, if you haven’t watched it yet, you need to check it out HERE.

Last year we were a young crew, having only been in a boat together for a couple of months before racing at Worlds. If all goes well (win NSR #2, qualify at a World Cup…), I’m looking forward to competing this year with a little more experience and better preparation to race how we know how to race. Dare I say that the women’s double is looking to be one of the most competitive events this quadrennial, with a very talented and experienced field of athletes. No race will be a “gimme” or easy pass; and that’s the most exciting part! The United States has never medaled the women’s double at the World Championships. I’d like to change that.

In 2011, I was five for five on my New Year’s rowing resolutions. Obviously it would be fantastic to have a repeat performance and go five for five again this year.

Two months down with lots of work ahead.

Every day counts.


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Fight On

A little over three years ago, I met two people that would come to strongly influence the rest of my life and help shape the beginning of my rowing career. In my few short years of rowing, I’m lucky to have built quite the “rowing family.” Due to my unusual entrance and ascent into the sport, I’ve met a lot of fantastic people that have helped me along my journey in a variety of ways: whether it was learning the very basics of left over right, helping me pick out my first elite racing shell, or jumping into a double with me when it was clear that I was nowhere near their skill level at the time, I’ve been so fortunate to have people give me their time and support. I’ve come a long way in a very short time due to the army of unbelievable people walking beside me.

Pam Besteman and Brian Tryon.

Pam Besteman and Brian Tryon.

Pam Besteman and Brian Tryon became my pseudo-rowing family when I first picked up an oar in the fall of 2010. It was recommended to me to contact Brian by my (Master’s) club coach at the time, Brian Wendry at Riverfront Recapture, who knew of an elite lightweight sculler and his wife training out of the Trinity College Boathouse just up the river.

I was eager to soak up as much knowledge from anyone and especially someone “in the game” like Brian and Pam. I literally had no idea what I was doing or what exactly to do; but I knew I wanted to go after this newly found dream. Brian had several years of sculling experience and was just coming off of his second year as a member of the Senior National Team in the lightweight men’s quadruple sculls. His wife, Pam was quite the rower herself, competing nationally as one of the top lightweight master’s scullers along with several years of collegiate coaching experience. I immediately reached out to see if they might take me under their wing.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Brian and I trained together every day, sometimes twice a day for nearly a year before I would be invited to join the USRowing Training Center in Princeton. Pam joined in on the fun several days a week, oftentimes hopping in the double with me, coaching from bow and even stroke. Brian would later tell me that when I first contacted him, he had figured it was a 50/50 chance I would even show up that first morning we had scheduled to train together. “Who was this girl?” was what had gone through his head. Ha, I showed him.

My introduction to GMS and Guenter Buetter came through Pam and Brian, and with that, I was exposed to an entire group of elite athletes and an elite training plan. The three of us would carpool on the weekends from Hartford to New Milford, CT where GMS is located, sharing grumpy early mornings, excruciating workouts, and exhausted car rides home.

It was with Pam that I actually won my first official race in the “women’s intermediate double sculls” at the 2011 Independence Day Regatta on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia. It was…pretty ugly. But I was ecstatic. My first win! So what if we were competing against mostly college kids? And I’m pretty sure someone asked “who those middle-aged women were” as we were launching to warm-up. The fact that it was maybe my third 2,000-meter race ever and that she was used to 1,000-meter races (Master’s race length) didn’t keep us from celebrating our small victory.

First big "win" in the women's intermediate 2x at the 2011 Independence Day Regatta. (L-R: Meghan O'Leary, Pam Besteman)

First big “win” in the women’s intermediate 2x at the 2011 Independence Day Regatta. (L-R: Meghan O’Leary, Pam Besteman)

Flash forward to present day and they have since moved to California and I to Princeton, New Jersey and more recently, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Although we live in opposite parts of the country, they still remain a big part of my rowing journey.

A year ago, at the age of 38 Pam was diagnosed with breast cancer. I remember the shock that paralyzed me as I listened to the news over the phone. There was just absolutely no way that someone so young, so fit, and so healthy could have cancer.

Like the stubborn, fire-spitting control freak that she is, she took the reins and is kicking cancer’s ass. Along the way, she has found the time to make sure that her experience would somehow benefit others. She created “Beat Cancer Boat Club” which in its early stages, exists as “a community of rowers who have faced Cancer as supporters, survivors, and thrivers.” The goal is to support each and every rower facing cancer, to share their stories and to encourage others to share theirs.

This past fall, I raced the 49th Head of the Charles Regatta with a Director’s Challenge Mixed Quad representing “Beat Cancer Boat Club” with three great friends: Brian Tryon, Mike Sivigny, and Michelle Nielsen. We raced in support of Pam and we raced in support of all of our friends, family and everyone who knows someone who has won, lost or is currently fighting their battle with cancer. I gotta say, we looked pretty damn good in our hot pink BCBC shirts.

DCM4x Beat Cancer Boat Club (L-R: Michelle Nielsen, Mike Sivigny, Meghan O'Leary, Brian Tryon)

DCM4x Beat Cancer Boat Club (L-R: Michelle Nielsen, Mike Sivigny, Meghan O’Leary, Brian Tryon)

Pam’s “cancerversary” was just last week. I continue to be inspired by her overall life approach and daily perspective. My favorite word to describe her has become “badass” as she most definitely is one. Over the past year, Pam barely missed a beat. She continued to be involved in rowing and her other love, running. Only two months after being diagnosed, she coxed a men’s eight at the 2013 San Diego Crew Classic. At the 49th Head of the Charles in October, she coxed the Grand Valley State women’s alumni eight. After undergoing several months of chemotherapy and while still in the middle of radiation treatments, Pam ran a 10K race in November and then two weeks later, the North Face Endurance Challenge 1/2 Marathon. She says that training and racing allowed her some sense of normalcy during such a crazy time.

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Last summer while I was racing in the National Selection Regattas, World Cup and World Championships, she served as a huge inspiration helping me to manage the ups and downs of competition and training. Being an elite athlete and training two to three times a day is exhausting, but it’s recess compared to undergoing chemo and radiation.

And so in honor of her courageous fight and for anyone else experiencing the same battle, I wanted to share that inspiration.

No excuses. Live each day to its fullest. Fight on.

Every Day Counts.


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Building Something New

The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new. – Socrates

When I first sat down to write this post a few months ago, I could’t help but feel those odd, yet sometimes wondrous feelings of déjà vu. It seems the late summer transition into fall has always brought to me new challenges and significant change in my life. This year was no exception. It is telling that I am just now finishing this post; the past few months of “change” have been quite busy and to be honest, I had a difficult time finding the right words to fully capture all that occurred. Forgive me, this is going to be long but perhaps the most personal post I’ve written.

To back up this theme of change, I need to provide a little background. Four years ago I took a job promotion that moved me to New England and to the Connecticut River where I would eventually pull on my first oar. A year after that move, I made the critical decision to take on the challenge of training at the elite level to see where rowing could take me. I remember it well because it was at the USRowing National Team Identification Camp that fell on the weekend following my twin brother’s destination wedding. (I was that member of the wedding party spending two sessions per day in the hotel gym or running on the beach while everyone else was enjoying the benefits of an “all-inclusive” resort.) Nevertheless it paid off, and a year later I earned an official invitation to train at the USRowing Training Center in Princeton, New Jersey. (Are you following the year by year transitions yet?)

Princeton Boathouse. Courtesy of Aaron Cropper.

Princeton Boathouse. Courtesy of Aaron Cropper.

Boom. Life-changing step and I’m on my way to living the dream. In late October of 2011, I packed up what I needed and made the move away from my full-time job and promising start to a career at ESPN, close friends, and a comfortable home in Connecticut, to a dusty one-bedroom sublet in Princeton.

For most elite female and aspiring National Team rowers, this is the ticket. The cut to becoming one of the 20-25 athletes training in Princeton is a tough one to make. Beyond this initial huge and difficult step lies an even greater one. Not everyone at the Training Center is guaranteed a spot on the National Team. Many will come through the system not having ever made a boat. As with any athletic pursuit at this level, your time is limited, everyone is replaceable and nothing is ever guaranteed. For some, the opportunities are plentiful, and for others, you might have to fight for the one chance you’re going to get.

(L-R) Meghan O'Leary, Ellen Tomek; 2013 Samsung World Rowing Cup III Women's Double Bronze Medalists

(L-R) Meghan O’Leary, Ellen Tomek; 2013 Samsung World Rowing Cup III Women’s Double Bronze Medalists

Looking back on the 2013 season, I would say it was an overall positive experience. Going into the year, my goals were to continue to improve each day, stay healthy, and perform well enough to make my first National Team. Of course there are other smaller goals along the way, but this was the general intended outcome. After dealing with another rib injury last fall that carried over into the winter, I was quite discouraged. One thing about training in Princeton, is that you are led to believe that you are only as good as your last workout. To some degree, this is true. And when you are injured, you feel completely out of the game. The Training Center can feel like and is at times, a dog-eat-dog environment. As one teammate appropriately describes it (and more specifically, describes selection), it can be a bit of a shark tank. Every day is a battle. The rules of war as well as your known allies and enemies are ever-changing. Get ready for The Hunger Games: Bloody Waters. In my short stint as a rower, I have quickly learned that rowing is absolutely and undeniably a team sport, but it is just as much about the individual.

On the second day of when official team training started back up in Princeton this past September, I found out life would be changing very quickly (again). The women’s double sculls event was essentially being removed from the Training Center in Princeton. My partner from the 2013 season, Ellen Tomek and I had the choice to stay and sweep to contend for spots in the eight, quadruple sculls, pair or four. Or as we had previously decided, remain as a unit and try to develop the double; but in result, be forced to find a new training location.

The reasoning? There would be no resources put toward the women’s double in Princeton, and therefore no opportunities to develop the boat if we were to remain there. I think it needs to be said that this wasn’t really a removal of resources; rather it was an admittance of the culture and structure of the Training Center in Princeton. What was previously hearsay would now be procedure. Over the past several years, separate from individual athletes or outside clubs, the double has never been a priority boat for the United States. Blog post to follow concerning that larger issue.

At the beginning of 2013, I knew I wanted to race the double. I’m what I like to call a “pure” sculler, with very little sweep experience (having never rowed in college). People often ask me, ‘why not go for the eight where you’re almost guaranteed a World Championship or Olympic gold medal at some point in your career?’ The women’s double has never brought home a World Championships or Olympic medal in the history of United States rowing. I guess you could say I like a challenge. What is that they say about the road less traveled? In the double, you are guaranteed to face some of the greatest rowers in the world, and that sounds pretty freaking awesome to me.

A Finals of the 2013 Samsung World Rowing Cup III

A Finals of the 2013 Samsung World Rowing Cup III

I also like the double because of its unique dynamic. It’s just you and one other person. It’s a marriage of absolute trust in and devotion to the other person because without them, you’re not going very far. Literally and figuratively. You can’t fight against them without being punished. There is no right or wrong in the boat; you both will be right or you both will be wrong in order to truly succeed.

And so I digress. Back to the point of all of this. Ellen Tomek and I won the National Selection Regatta #2, won a bronze medal at World Cup III in Lucerne–much to the surprise of well, probably everybody–and then had a mediocre, 7th place performance at the World Championships in Korea. It was a disappointment. I’ve already gone into the reasons as to why I believe we underperformed in a previous post, but a significant one that is relevant to this is that we were not given any priority by our representative body, the USRowing Training Center – Princeton. I say this as a statement of fact, not as a criticism. I knew this going into making my choice to row the double.

The United States is good at making a fast eight. Really good. We can throw together a boat full of rookies and set a new world record. We are beasts in the eight. The Princeton Training Center should and will continue focusing on the boats that can be developed successfully in a camp-like structure. The double on the other hand, requires a lot of time and development and along with that, a coach who can give that amount of time focusing on developing the boat. This is the primary reason for the removal of the boat from the Training Center. You look at the lineups of small boats that have stood on the medals podium and the majority of them have stuck together for years, building the boat over time. And behind them is a coach that has spent countless hours focused solely on them. It’s the same reason the top U.S. singles have trained independent of the Training Center. Specialty requires specialization. The smaller the boat, the more specialization required in order to be successful. Compare it to making a great quarterback or pitcher.

And so at the end of November, Ellen and I packed up our things and moved south to the Oklahoma City National High Performance Center. The months of September, October and November were a whirlwind of travel and decision-making all while trying to maintain a solid training regimen. Stress can be unbelievably damaging to training and a huge detriment to gaining speed. All we wanted to focus on was preparing ourselves for a solid 2014 season, not how we were going to move our lives 1,500 miles across the country.

Devon Boathouse, Oklahoma City National High Performance Center

Devon Boathouse, Oklahoma City National High Performance Center

It wasn’t a flawless transition, but I think we handled it all fairly well and I’m happy to say we’re finally settling into our new home. Separate from the imminent chance of tornadoes, the freak ice and snowstorms, an earthquake, and the four scorpions I’ve already spotted, I think we’ve come to the right place. After the initial shock and oftentimes anger that change so often brings, this move has been a positive “reset” button. Though painful and difficult as it may be, you grow from positive and negative experiences alike.

Now it’s time to focus on building something new, building something great.

Every Day Counts.

WRC3ellenandmehug


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NOT for the Weekend Warrior: The Fall Speed Order

Over the next two weekends (Nov. 9-10 & Nov. 16-17) hundreds of rowers across the country will compete in the “USRowing Fall Speed Order” at three locations in three different regattas: the East Coast (Princeton, New Jersey); the Midwest (Oklahoma City, Oklahoma) and the West Coast (Oakland, California) Fall Speed Orders. I like to think of the Fall Speed Order as this sort of super challenge. People make a big deal about the “Tough Mudder” or their latest ultimate CrossFit challenge. Try this for a weekend, all you weekend warriors.

Ring of Fire!

Ring of Fire!

Okay, maybe it would be a bit more “fun” if you were rowing through rings of fire or had paintballs thrown at you from the Harrison Street Bridge (take a minute, picture it…). Or if you could drop little banana peels and mines for someone who was speeding up behind you like in Mario Kart, and then there was a beer and a band playing “Another One Bites the Dust” waiting for you at the end of the race. And people wonder how to make rowing a more spectator-friendly sport?

So WHAT is the Fall Speed Order, you ask?

First, you sit on the erg (ergometer) and withstand 6,000 meters of pain and fury as you plug away at (trying to) pull the best 6K time you can in the fantastic or more likely, mediocre shape that you’re in. You are in a crowded, hot and stuffy erg room with 30 other athletes all trying to finish before you. It’s silent, save for the sharp breathing and occasional grunts as people endure the lactic acid building up in their system. You’ve put together the ultimate playlist on your iPod, but it still doesn’t drown out the sound or the awareness of what is happening around you as you stare at the floor to ceiling, room-length mirror in front of you, taunting you to pull harder each stroke. It’s the fall, so you may be in great shape from training hard or you may be coming off of your summer racing “break” and just enjoying the fall head-racing season. Whatever situation you find yourself in, sitting through 19-22 minutes-ish of pain is never “fun”. To top it off the little man in your iPod shuffle screams at you “Battery Low” and shuts off as you come into your last 1200 meters. At this point, it almost doesn’t matter because the voice inside your head is screaming at you even louder to “JUST. KEEP. GOING!!” Your vision begins to blur as the oxygen deprivation slowly takes over. Finally, with one last heave you pull the meters all the way to “0” and collapse onto your knees gasping for breath–or maybe you look triumphantly around, having finished at the front of the pack–as other people are still slamming themselves up and down the slide, desperately trying to finish their piece.

Oh, you think you’re done? Put that beer down. It’s only just beginning. You spend the rest of the afternoon resting, eating, hydrating and continuously pressing refresh on your computer screen or smart phone to find out what the start order for the next day’s head race–a four to five kilometer piece on the water–will be. If you didn’t get a chance to get on the water before the erg test, you take your single out for a quick late afternoon paddle to familiarize yourself with the course. You squeeze into your compression tights after an ice bath and settle in for a wild Saturday night of Netflix and electrolyte replenishment.

pogies

Pogies!

The following morning you wake up to the sound of the wind roaring outside against the windows. It wouldn’t be a fall speed order without a wind advisory in effect. Oh yeah, and the temperature is a balmy 35 degrees (Fahrenheit) outside. Don’t forget to pack your warm gear and pogies!

The head race is time trial style which means you go off one by one with about 20 seconds between you and the next boat. The fun thing about this is having the opportunity to pass other boats…the not so fun thing about this is having to deal with passing other boats (or the demoralizing feeling of being passed by another boat). Head races are usually not on a straight course and involve some turns, looking around and making sure you don’t cut any buoys that may end up giving you a big fat time penalty. (Hint: if you’re unfamiliar with the course, take a few practice runs up and back taking note of landmarks to point off of, awkwardly placed buoys, etc.) A lot of time is saved by avoiding having to look around and being able to steer a good course. Fear not, the rings of fire won’t be put in until race day.

East Coast Speed Order - Carnegie Lake Traffic Pattern (no, this is not my work of art. Photo courtesy of USRowing).

East Coast Speed Order – Carnegie Lake Traffic Pattern (no, this is not my work of art. Photo courtesy of USRowing).

After battling a 15-20mph wind that, even on a course that changes direction, somehow is ALWAYS a headwind, you cross the finish line hearing that glorious call from the referee, “over.” You go immediately from a stroke rate 36 to 0, relaxing your burning legs and slumping over your oars, gasping in the sharp, cold air.

Now your weekend challenge is finally over. Cue the music.

Every Day Counts.


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49th Head of the Charles Recap

Eliot Bridge, Charles River

Eliot Bridge, Charles River

Ah, the Head of the Charles. The world’s largest regatta brings together nearly 10,000 athletes from 37 different states and 23 countries and over 400,000 spectators across two days of competition. People from all over the world converge on the city of Boston to watch over 2,000 boats in 55 different events make the winding 3-mile trek through seven bridges on the Charles River, hopefully finishing in one piece and a little bit faster than all of the other boats. To put it in layman’s terms to the non-rower, it’s the Super Bowl of rowing.

The 49th Head of the Charles Regatta (Oct. 19-20) marked my fourth time attending and third time racing the regatta. My first HOCR race was the fall of 2010 when I had just picked up rowing. I barreled down the course in a coxed four (4+) competing in the Women’s Club Fours division as a member of the Riverfront Recapture rowing club, based out of Hartford, Conn. That’s a long ways away from the 2013 World Championships I competed in this year as a member of the United States National Team. Humble beginnings.

As I have become a more experienced HOCR racer and attendee, I quickly found that returning to Boston for the Head of the Charles is like having a high school or college reunion every year. The rowing world is small and feels very much like a tight-knit family; but for one weekend, we take over the city of Boston and make rowing feel like a pretty big deal. There are actually spectators! And lots of them! Outside of the World Cups or World Championships, this is the biggest race and for many it is the biggest race. From pre-teens to veteran rowers well into their 80s, the Head of the Charles is the ultimate regatta. The fact that Olympians, junior rowers and master’s rowers share the same race course for a weekend is part of what makes the weekend so special.

DCM4x Beat Cancer Boat Club (L-R: Michelle Nielsen, Mike Sivigny, Meghan O'Leary, Brian Tryon)

DCM4x Beat Cancer Boat Club (L-R: Michelle Nielsen, Mike Sivigny, Meghan O’Leary, Brian Tryon)

This year I competed with the University of Virginia in the alumnae 8+ event on Saturday, and with “Beat Cancer Boat Club” in the Director’s Challenge mixed quad (DCM4x) event on Sunday afternoon. Going into the weekend, I thought racing two events would be awesome. And then you race in your first event and realize how much it’s going to hurt the next time. Nevertheless, it still ended up being pretty awesome. UVa won the alumnae 8+ and we managed to set a new course record, I might add. This was an especially cool experience for me since I didn’t actually row for Virginia (I played softball and volleyball at UVa). Beat Cancer Boat Club placed 2nd in the DCM4x, but posted the fastest raw time in the event. Age handicapping put another boat ahead of us by three seconds. It was a blast racing for a good cause and with some of my good friends I don’t get to see all too often.

Outside of my personal experience, this year’s Head of the Charles saw some fast times and great races. Twenty new course records were set on Saturday with racers taking advantage of the fast conditions. The women’s championship eight event saw a tight race between the 2013 world champion U.S. Women’s Eight and the Great Eight filled with some of the world’s top scullers, stroked by U.S. single sculler, Eleanor Logan. The Great Eight came out on top, edging the U.S. Women’s Eight by 1.2 seconds. In the men’s championship eight event, the Dutch national team finished 1.48 seconds ahead of the U.S. Men’s National Team eight to win their first HOCR title in history.

University of Virginia Alumni 8+ HOCR Champions and new course record holder.

University of Virginia Alumni 8+ HOCR Champions and new course record holder.

In the women’s championship single event, Kate Bertko crossed the line 2.5 seconds ahead of 2012 U.S. Olympic single sculler and 4-time HOCR winner Gevvie Stone, to set a new course record of 18:33.015. In the men’s championship single event, Norwegian Double Sculls 2013 World Champion, Kjetil Borch won in a blazing time of 17:12.313, also setting a new course record.

The weather was beautiful all weekend and aside from the windy and less than fast conditions on Sunday, it was perfect weather for fall rowing. It was great to see friends–old and new–and come together with thousands of other people who share the same passion for a sport so foreign to others. I know I can speak for thousands of other rowers around the world when I say that I’m already looking forward to next year’s annual pilgrimage to Boston for the Head of the Charles.

Every Day Counts.


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Zig Zags: A World Championships Recap

“The shortest distance to your destination is a straight line, but the fastest way to get there will involve many zigzags.”- Brad Hudson, Elite Marathon Performance Coach

One of my friends sent me this quote after our fourth place finish in the semifinal race of the women’s double at the 2013 World Rowing Championships in Chungju, South Korea. It didn’t say “you did your best” or “you’ll get it next time.” I didn’t need to hear that. What was screaming inside my head was something along the (PG rated) lines of  “Well, that sucked and wasn’t what you wanted. So what are you going to do about it?”

It was a terrible race and in result we had not advanced to the A Final. To say we were disappointed is a severe understatement. Devastated? Getting closer. Part of me wishes I could say we had caught a crab off the start or a digger in the last 250 meters after having led the race the entire time; but the reality of it was that we just had an entirely bad race. We’ve all been in that place at some point in our athletic, academic, or professional careers where your performance–good or bad–just wasn’t enough. You were beat by someone who was better than you on that day.

Women's Double post B Final Win and 7th place overall finish. (Ellen Tomek, Meghan O'Leary; photo courtesy of Curtis Jordan).

Women’s Double post B Final Win and 7th place overall finish. (Ellen Tomek, Meghan O’Leary; photo courtesy of Curtis Jordan).

The great thing about sport is that for every failure or loss, there is an opportunity for redemption. Our B Final race (click to watch race video HERE) was finally a race we could be proud of. Nobody wants to be in the B Final, but if you find yourself there you better show up like it’s the Olympics. Ellen and I finally raced our race, posting a solid time in headwind conditions that would’ve put us in contention for a possible bronze medal in the A Final. We executed our race plan and finished strong, dominating the field in a fashion that proved we belonged with those top finishing crews.

While I would much rather have come home with a medal and feeling as though we had our best regatta, coming home with a few lessons learned and the bitter taste of dissatisfaction is a powerful thing. If you allow it, an experience like that can be a huge blow to your confidence, casting a dark shadow of self-doubt and self-loathing. But if you refuse to drown in your own sulking, recognizing the takeaways from a less than positive experience will end up taking you even further than you envisioned going before.

And so after a couple of weeks of rest and recharging, it’s back to work and preparing for the 2014 season. The bitter taste of defeat and disappointment still rears its ugly head every so often, but only to drive me to work that much harder to make sure that next year is different.

Every Day Counts.


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A Birthday in Chungju

Another year older. Another year wiser. And hopefully another year faster, given my current surroundings. Spending my birthday in South Korea gearing up for the World Rowing Championships that kick off tomorrow (August 25th), makes for a memorable one.

While there were no cake and candles, I was lucky enough to have balloons and banners on my big day! Thanks to my teammates for making me feel like a special old lady.

Balloons for the Birthday girl!

Balloons for the Birthday girl!

I celebrated with a row and more race prep this morning. Oh, and it was college uni day! I managed to snag a Virginia top even though I didn’t row for UVa. Go Hoos!

College uni day! Ellen Tomek sporting the Michigan Blue and Meghan O'Leary representing UVa.

College uni day! Ellen Tomek sporting the Michigan Blue and Meghan O’Leary representing UVa.

I spent the afternoon resting and hanging out with my roommate and boat mate, Ellen Tomek. Fret not, I ended the day appropriately with a dining hall full of Americans, Germans, Brits and Aussies singing the “Happy Birthday” song.

August seems to be the popular month for National Team birthdays as there have been several celebrations in the short time that we’ve been here in Chungju as well as the days leading up to our trip. Other August babies include: Amanda Polk from the women’s eight (8/2), Will Daly from the men’s lightweight four (8/2), Lauren Schmetterling from the women’s eight (8/3), Katelin Snyder from the women’s eight (8/16); twin brothers Grant and Ross James from the men’s four and men’s eight respectively (8/17), Bryan Volpenhein, head coach of the men’s team (8/18), Zack Vlahos from the men’s eight (8/19), Megan Kalmoe from the women’s quad (8/21), and finally me, bringing the month of celebrations to a close on the 24th. Just in time for racing.

And finally, the Sunday draw came out! http://www.sportresult.com/federations/FISA/download/World_Rowing_Championships_Chungju,_Korea_SS_2013.08.25.cp.pdf

Racing starts tomorrow. Go USA!

Every Day Counts.

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