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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