Let the Games Begin

It is the night of the Opening Ceremonies of the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. The draw for our Heats came out yesterday afternoon. Tomorrow morning at 11:10am local (10:10am EST), we’ll line up against Poland, China, and Belarus.

Shit just got very real and the Olympics are about to begin.

We have been in Rio for a week now, training and preparing for our competition which begins tomorrow. Although this is my first Olympics, I can honestly say I haven’t found myself overwhelmed or too caught up in the immensity of it. Don’t get me wrong, I am of course in awe of being at the Olympic Games and achieving this dream. The fact that we begin our competition the day after Opening Ceremonies demands a certain level of “all business” attitude. Don’t worry, I am loving every minute of it and trying to capture as much of the experience as I can. I have even let a few tears drop as I’ve read the unbelievably touching emails and notes of support that friends, family, and strangers have sent me, reminding me of how far I’ve come and what it took to get here. Those words people have shared with me, said to me, and given to me, more than anything else, have been what has made this journey incredible.

As with any big competition in a new place, the past week has been focused on establishing a routine, recovering from travel and getting enough sleep, figuring out what food I like to eat, the transportation system, and just going with the flow as the inevitable hiccups pop up here and there.

We got our last practice rows in this morning. Now the fun begins. Most rowers don’t walk in Opening Ceremonies because we are the first week of competition, and as I just mentioned, we compete first thing in the morning. We still dressed up to be with our fellow United States teammates in spirit. It just means the Closing Ceremonies will have to be twice the party.

Ellen and I wearing our Ralph Lauren Team USA Rio 2016 Opening Ceremonies outfits back at the Village in solidarity with our teammates walking tonight.

It’s been several years put into making this day become a reality. So, here we go. Let the Games begin.

Every Day Counts.



Once and Always an Olympian

“Once an Olympian, always an Olympian; never former, never past.”

I remember when I first read the motto of the United States Olympic Committee. It was the winter of 2012 in a presentation given by the USOC to all 2012 Hopefuls. I had only about 16 months of rowing under my belt at the time, and was merely thrilled just to be a part of the USRowing Training  Center group selected to travel and spend the winter at the Chula Vista Olympic Training Center for the build-up to the 2012 Games. London was a big stretch, but if I could get close, I knew Rio would be a realistic goal.

And a reality it became. A couple of weeks ago, Ellen Tomek and I crossed the finish line first in the Women’s Double Sculls event at the U.S. Olympic Trials, becoming some of the first American rowers to punch our tickets to the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.

2016 U.S. Olympic Trials; Women’s Double Ellen Tomek (left), Meghan O’Leary (right). Photo courtesy of USRowing

I remember waiting until I saw Ellen put her hands over her head before I allowed the surge of emotions to erupt from inside of me. I yelled with everything I had left, a wave of adrenaline coursing through my body as I threw my fist in the air, grabbing Ellen’s hand with the other. We did it. Pure joy. Relief. Then disbelief. And finally, numbness. Those moments after a race are always fuzzy, and everything seems to happen quickly–a blur of images passing through your brain, sort of like those dreams you have when you’re half awake, half asleep. Reality, but still a foggy existence.

The race itself was well executed. We went out hard and stayed strong throughout the entire 2,000 meters, wanting to put as much space between our boat and the next before we crossed the line. In the end, we posted a 12+ second margin over the next finisher, the largest margin of any of the Olympic Trials events. Admittedly, we were ridiculously nervous going into the Final. Anything can happen in the Olympic Year and the opponents in the boats next to us were strong, had trained hard, and wanted it just as bad. We respected and honored that, and knew that nothing could be taken for granted. When the light flashes from red to green, it doesn’t matter how many National Teams you’ve been on, how many medals you’ve won, if you’re the favorite or underdog, or what your erg score is. You’re the fastest if you cross the line first. No one deserves to win, you earn it.

As we paddled to the medals dock, I scanned the crowd for my parents. I can now honestly say that just as those Proctor & Gamble sob-inducing “Thank You, Mom” commercials portray, all I wanted to do was hug my parents and thank them for their endless support and for unconditionally encouraging me to chase this wild dream. Never once did they doubt me when I told them I was quitting my job to earn next to nothing in pursuit of becoming an Olympian. They traveled across the country and to international regattas to watch me compete in a sport they knew barely anything about (but have now become super fans). There is true energy that comes from harnessing the belief and support of the people around you.

Embracing my amazing parents after the Olympic Trials Final. Many thanks to Lisa Worthy (Lisa Worthy Photography) for capturing this special moment.

I’ve struggled to put this post together over the past two weeks, part in because of the chaos that ensues after you make the Team, but mostly due to the residual disbelief that has lingered. It hasn’t fully sunk in that I’m headed to Rio later this summer and will have the honor to represent the United States on the World’s biggest stage. It hasn’t hit me that less than six years ago, I went out for a learn-to-row session at a small community rowing club only to have it change my life forever. The little girl that wrote down as one of her goals for an assignment in the second grade, “to be an Olympian when she grew up” is still pinching herself to wake up from a dream.

Since winning Trials, Ellen and I enjoyed a little bit of temporary fame before diving back into the grind of long and grueling days of training. We were invited into New York City for the Team USA 100 Days Out Celebration where we got to be on the Today Show, meet other Olympians, listen to a speech by the First Lady, and be interviewed by the media. It was a great time. It was absolutely exhausting. I don’t know how the really “famous” athletes handle their fame and still successfully train. We did our best to soak it all in, but the job isn’t done yet. The goal wasn’t just to make the trip, the goal is to return with a medal.

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As I already mentioned, it will probably take until the flight to Rio for it to really hit me that I’m headed to the Olympic Games. But I’ve got time. Being an Olympian isn’t something you are for a few days of competition, it stays with you for a lifetime.

Every Day Counts.

Olympian Meghan O'Leary and two-time Olympian, Ellen Tomek Photo Credit: Lisa Worthy Photography
Olympian, Meghan O’Leary and two-time Olympian, Ellen Tomek
Photo Credit: Lisa Worthy Photography

Fight Fire With Fire

Nine years ago today, I failingly fought a fire that eventually destroyed my college home of two years. The battle ended when my roommate, teammate, and one of my closest friends, Elea (who is half my size) grabbed me and basically threw me out of the burning house. This led to an oxygen party in the back of an ambulance with our other roommates and teammates, Michelle and Coty. We were probably all still in shock, but were actually able to smile and laugh at the ridiculousness of the situation as we passed around the O2 mask.

The memory of that night still plays so vividly in my mind. Thankfully, I had no serious injuries, but was forced to stay overnight in the hospital. I didn’t spend a minute alone as teammates, coaches, and friends poured in at all hours, sitting with me and just making sure I was okay.

My roommates and I lost nearly everything in the fire, save for a few items salvaged from the soot and ash. Never has one single event in my life dramatically shown me the power of the human spirit and importance of community. The support we received from the University of Virginia, our family, friends, teammates, and complete strangers was humbling, if not overwhelming at times. To say my life and perspective on what is important to me changed after that night, is quite the understatement.

Nine years later, I can still recall the claustrophobic feeling of being surrounded by flames and the extreme intensity of the heat on my body. Of greater impact, I have not forgotten all of the wonderful people who demonstrated true generosity and were there for me when I most needed it. I’ll also remember watching on the television from my hospital bed that night as UVA took down Duke in OT with a last second jumper courtesy of Sean Singletary. Wahoowa. It’s the little things, you know?

There are a handful of events in your life that will have significant impact; hopefully most will change or affect you in a positive way, but it’s up to you to make that decision.

If you take anything away from this, it’s to spend some time and think about what is truly important to you and to acknowledge the great people in your life. Quit stressing over stuff that really doesn’t matter. Hug your parents and call an old friend. Your life can and will change in an instant. How will you react?

Oh, and buy a fire extinguisher.

January 2016 at the OTC

When you arise in the morning think of what a privilege it is to be alive, to think, to enjoy, to love …  – Marcus Aurelius

This morning was an especially quiet and serene sunrise over the lake as a thick, unfamiliar fog settled in. My standard routine is to hustle into the boathouse to organize my things for practice and to begin my warm-up in preparation for another full day of training. I couldn’t help but be drawn first down to the lake.

On most days, I’m lucky to be the first one to the boathouse in the morning (which means it is still dark with just a hint of the sun peeking over the surrounding mountains). It’s beautiful here and quickly became one of my favorite places to train. Since arriving for this year’s camp, I hadn’t yet taken the time to fully appreciate being here and all that that means.

We are nearly one month into our winter training camp here at the Chula Vista Olympic Training Center. Olympic Trials are in exactly three months; and the Olympics, 196 days away. My journey began four years ago when I received the invite to join the National Team training group in Chula Vista for the London Olympics preparation and build-up. I was the last one to make the list and had no idea what I was doing. I was just thrilled to be among the group. Four years later, and I’ve successfully pursued a path with a good shot at the Olympics–and in my belief, an Olympic medal. This year I’m no longer just happy to be here; I’m here to make a statement and to win Olympic Trials.

Without thinking, I dropped my bag and descended the hill to the dock to take in what felt like a very special and quiet moment.

The past few weeks here have been productive but challenging, and the road ahead promises to only get tougher. It is easy to get caught up in the daily grind, especially at camp. Training at the elite level is an arduous pursuit, requiring a commitment equal to monasticism for success. Train, eat, sleep; train, eat, sleep. Ironically, this absolute focus can at times prevent you from seeing the enjoyment in each day. If you’re not careful, you’ll lose sight of the now and the progress that is found in the present. I feel like a part of me had forgotten this.

What I do is a full-time job and I very much regard it that way. It’s work. As with anything you fully devote yourself to, some days can really kick you in the ass. Mornings like this one remind me to breathe–be still even if only for a moment–and remember that following your dreams is a privilege and every day is a gift. You’ll never go wrong in honoring that simple, yet elusive truth.

Every Day Counts.

Foggy sunrise over Otay Lakes, Chula Vista Olympic Training Center.

Winning Is The Easy Part

As I sat on the eight-hour direct flight from Geneva to Newark returning from the 2015 World Championships just a week ago, I ran through my mind the previous several hours, into days, and finally, weeks. At best, all I wanted to do was forget. Forget it all. The brain does this amazing thing called dissociation when faced with stress or conflict. You can block out an incident or time and nearly forget it ever happened. At varying levels, dissociation describes a wide array of mild to severe detachment, including simply daydreaming when bored, to more serious altered states of consciousness, the latter of course linked to much more serious episodes than a bad regatta. Pretty incredible when you think about it.

A week later and the pain of what was, simply put, a terrible World Championships experience has slightly dulled, perhaps only due to a strong will to forget and thanks to the amazing brain’s coping mechanisms. There were lessons learned and I’ll hold tight to those, but revisiting anything else is only an invitation to be stuck in the past, brought down by sharp regret and disappointment. A week later, and it’s time to move on. A week later, and it’s already the start of the 2016 Olympic season. I’m a planner. Let’s get on to what needs to happen next. No time for moping.

They say winning isn’t easy. Whoever “they” are, got that terribly wrong. Winning is the easiest part of what we do. It’s the losing that will test you beyond measure; scrape out of you the emotions and parts you try to hide or pretend don’t exist. They’re those parts that whisper, “it’s not worth it” or “why do I even do this?” in the privacy of your own solitude and suffering.

When things come together just as (you think) they should, perfectly and all to plan, it’s bliss. When you’re riddled with setback after setback, fighting only not to fall apart completely, that’s the real struggle. In a sport like elite rowing, you work 357 days out of the year (and many more before that) in hopes to put together eight days of successful competition. It’s easy to sit back and enjoy the ride of the perfect week, just as you’d imagined it. It’s crippling to be tossed from one end to the next, white-knuckling the grip on your composure as the world around you seems to collapse.

It’s exciting to wake up the next morning, greeted by your smiling reflection, refreshed with the joy of knowing all of your hard work finally paid off. It’s depressing to pull yourself out of bed, weighted down by the burden of disappointment and no realization of the sacrifice you offered to chase the dream. The face in the mirror screams at you, “your best just isn’t good enough.”

It’s uplifting to look forward, to meet the eyes of your family and friends, those that supported you and experienced the victory with you. It’s crushing to keep your head down, eyes shifted to avoid any recognition of the pain for you on your loved ones’ faces, feeling your own hurt compounded by the weight of theirs.

It’s logical to comprehend that your hard work deserves success. It makes sense! It’s mind-boggling to accept that your blood, sweat, and tears amount to nothing. It feels good to take the pats on the back and high fives; it’s deafening to hear the silence of empty consolation, “Get ’em next time.” It’s easy to be reassured, you’re on the right path. You won, so you have to be! It’s halting to be doubted, no stable ground to push up from. Where do you go from here?

Winning is the easy part.

We’ve all been there. That is the push and pull of rowing. It’s what sucks you into this sport and refuses to allow you to give up. The pursuit of perfection. The allure of the game-winning goal and fairy tale ending. There are incredible peaks and valleys in sport, especially in rowing. The ability to ride through the highs and lows with a similar approach and steadiness is what will allow for greater success, not promise it. In a race, there is only one winner and en route to victory there is going to be a lot of losing along the way. A lot. Can you survive the beating and retain your belief that you will succeed? I think perhaps it’s this brutal reality that keeps rowing a small, amateur sport.

I like to believe I’ve experienced my share of valleys, but I have a strong inkling that the terrain ahead will continue to bring several ups and downs. In fact, I hope that it does. Bring ’em on. The lows are what truly test you and if you can handle them, you will come out stronger than before. As we look ahead into the 2016 year, the stakes will only be higher and the pressure more intense as we near the Summer Olympics. Every day brings a new challenge. Every day brings victory or defeat.

Every Day Counts.

2015 World Championships Recap

To say the least, the 2015 World Championships was an incredibly challenging regatta for Ellen and me–emotionally, mentally and physically. It was not the overall outcome we wanted nor expected, but at the end of the day, we got Olympic qualification for the women’s double taken care of (mini fist pump) and that was the critical mission. Sometimes things just don’t fall your way and we faced one too many hurdles last week to get on the podium.

From illness to simply “off” rowing, we were nowhere near being in top form. As I’ve hinted before, the women’s double sculls is possibly the most competitive event. You can’t come into any race at less than 100% and expect to do well. These are the best crews comprising the best athletes in the world. Last week, spots 1-11 (2016 Olympic qualifying positions) were separated by only a few seconds. In the double, this equals about the length of the boat, which is a very tight margin in a very deep field. To give you a comparison of similar boat size: in the women’s pair event, the gold medal to bronze medal position was a spread of eight seconds. Eight seconds behind first in the women’s double puts you well into the C Final.

Ellen and I squeaked through Olympic qualification with an 11th place overall finish.
Ellen and I squeaked through Olympic qualification with an 11th place overall finish. Photo courtesy of Row2K.
In the double, any race could go any way with hundredths of seconds determining your fate; we struggled and just didn’t have things fall our way. We came into the regatta a medal favorite after nearly beating World Champion, New Zealand at World Cup 2 in June, but instead finished 11th, taking the last Olympic qualifying spot. The World Record holder and 2015 bronze medalist, Australia finished 10th. Last year’s World Championships silver medalist, Poland didn’t even medal. While only a matter of seconds separates the depth of our field, it doesn’t ease our devastation and disappointment. The silver lining is that in the big picture, we were still incredibly close for having struggled as much as we did. Last year’s World Champions, New Zealand took gold; Greece took silver; Germany took bronze. These crews are top-notch and had a great regatta. I’m continuously especially impressed by Team New Zealand who has definitely figured out how to field a winning team. With their women’s eight taking silver and their men’s eight qualifying their boat for the Olympics with a fourth-place finish, they’ve proven that they not only know how to expertly move the small boats, but can dominate the powerful eights as well.

On a higher note, the United States Women’s Rowing Team qualified EVERY boat for the Olympics. That’s right, we’re a bunch of badasses. I’d say the highlight of the regatta was the women’s quad beating reigning World Champions, Germany in a convincing win. It was impressive and I couldn’t be happier for senior team member and friend, Megan Kalmoe who has been a key figure in that boat over the past several years. She definitely finished out her last World Championships with a bang. Additionally, the women’s eight added a record 10th consecutive World Title to their belts. The men’s team had a rougher regatta, but managed to qualify the four, pair, lightweight four, and lightweight double (which we did not qualify in 2011). All in all, the United States Rowing Team brought home five medals and qualified ten boats for the Olympics.

What’s next? To break it down: While Ellen and I qualified the boat for the 2016 Olympics, USRowing holds separate selection procedures to fill the seats. So yes, exactly what you’re thinking. We did all of the hard work only to have to fight for it again in a few months. Some form of U.S. Trials are scheduled for mid-April to be held in Sarasota, Florida. USRowing has not finalized the 2016 Olympic Team selection procedures yet, so time will tell what that process entails.

For now, we’ll regroup, get healthy, and recover. After a few weeks rest, we’ll dive into full training again to prepare for the Big One. There will be changes to how we approach next year to address some of the things that we learned from the year and particularly our World Championship experience. We did a lot of things right this year, but every year is a learning experience; I like to think that as long as we learn from those mistakes and make sure we’re improving upon them, we’re headed in the right direction. I’ll take 11th this year if it means we get it right next year.

Thank you again for the continued support. 331 days until the 2016 Olympic Games. 331 days to get it right.

Every Day Counts.

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Photo courtesy of Row2K.

2015 Pre-Worlds Training Camp: Erba, Italy

Ciao from Erba, Italy!

We arrived early last Thursday morning into Milan and traveled the short hour by bus to our pre-Worlds training site in the small town of Erba, Italy. We are staying in the “Leonardo da Vinci” Hotel where we’ve been enjoying the friendly staff and delicious meals. It’s an older, but well kept establishment, perfectly situated less than a 15-minute walk (or 3-minute drive) to Lago di Pusiano where we’ve been putting in our training miles, making last-minute tweaks and sharpening up for the big dance next week in Aiguebelette at the 2015 World Championships.

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After less than a week here in Erba, the group will pile into a caravan of coach buses this afternoon and make the 5-6 hour trek through the Alps to Aiguebelette, France. The lake there has restricted access until only a few days before racing begins so all of the national teams have been training in various areas scattered throughout Europe. We are currently sharing Lago di Pusiano with a small Team Cuba and the local resident Italian junior rowers. The training center is beautiful with a picturesque view of the mountains directly across the lake. The main building is a simple structure of concrete and glass–modern in style and practical in execution–cleaner than any boathouse I’ve been in. We need more boathouses like this back in the States! The lake is small, but perfect for rowing, with old churches, quaint restaurants and homes surrounding the water’s edge. Except for the occasional slow-moving work boat–and the one day a seaplane landed on the water (which was pretty cool)–there isn’t much other traffic to manage outside of coach launches and other rowers.

I’ve passed the time outside of the boat mostly enjoying a new book, napping, and wishing I could remember the little bit of Italian I learned while studying here one summer during college. It’s been too long since I’ve had the time to read with heavy hours of training separated only by eating, sleeping and working in my free time. I managed to leave (forget) my computer charger at home…something I’ve never done before. Ever. It truly has been a blessing in disguise. Fortunately, Amanda Polk (3-seat of the W8+) has been sharing hers with me when I need it. Not staring into the blue screen of a computer has lent toward more time spent truly resting, reading a book (on actual paper), and allowing myself to disconnect and fully focus on the challenge that lay ahead. It’s a simple concept, but one that can easily go overlooked. Less Facebooking and Tweeting, less Instagram scrolling, less mindless distraction and less stress. I realize the irony in this as I stare at my screen to type this very post😉 The point being: there is real value in putting on the blinders, disconnecting a bit and allowing yourself the space to truly focus. Energy is finite and every bit counts in a 2,000-meter race.

Reading during a rainy afternoon in our hotel room in Erba, Italy. Laundry on the left and enough Clif bars and snacks for a small army on the desk.
Reading during a rainy afternoon in our hotel room in Erba, Italy. Laundry on the left and enough Clif bars and snacks for a small army on the desk.
For our last evening here in Erba, the hotel staff fixed us a delicious send-off dinner, capped with a little birthday celebration. I haven’t had the joy of blowing out candles for the few years now that I’ve been traveling as a part of the National Team as my birthday always falls over the World Championships trips. They prepared an amazing shortbread pudding cake with fresh berries and a framed ‘Happy Birthday Meghan’ message. Favorite moment? They wheeled the cake in while blasting some ’80s music. Well done, Italy. You know how to make a girl feel special.

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This is only the third time I’ve experienced the ritual of World Championships prep and my first encounter with an Olympic qualification regatta. While the stakes are in theory, higher, the focus, approach and end goal are all the same as any other major international regatta. My partner, Ellen Tomek and I have put in more miles and gone to greater lengths this year to make sure we’ve left no stone unturned and no step missed on our journey toward putting the United States Women’s Double on the podium. Aiguebelette is a big step, and one step closer to Rio.

Every Day Counts.

Elite Athlete and 2016 Olympian. Passion for adventure and appreciation for the journey. Making every day count.

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