“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.
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.
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.
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.