Rio Reflections with US Rowing’s Meghan O’Leary

Five-one-hundredths of a second.

That’s by how much Team USA rowers Meghan O’Leary and Ellen Tomek beat two-time defending world champions New Zealand in the women’s double sculls at the 2016 Olympics Game, earning the last spot into the finals.

The race was harrowing for USA for sure, but the moments immediately afterward didn’t necessarily prove more relaxing: Since the race was so close, O’Leary and Tomek  had to wait to make sure they had qualified. Even the caption crew for NBC initially called third place for New Zealand before the official results came through that allowed USA to proceed to the final.

While the high of that victory was undone days later when the team finished last in the double sculls final, O’Leary is still proud to be an Olympian and have made it into the final in the first place. The 32-year old, a former two-sport athlete in softball and volleyball at the University of Virginia, didn’t actually try rowing until 2010. Only months after attending a beginner’s rowing class on the water, she went to a national team identification camp, and then six years later, she found herself in the biggest rowing competition in the world.

And now, she hopes to use her incredible story and platform as Olympic athlete to do something bigger for women’s sports.

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 19: Rowers Meghan O'Leary and Ellen Tomek attend the 37th Annual Salute To Women In Sports Gala at Cipriani Wall Street on October 19, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Women's Sports Foundation )
NEW YORK, NY – OCTOBER 19: Rowers Meghan O’Leary and Ellen Tomek attend the 37th Annual Salute To Women In Sports Gala at Cipriani Wall Street on October 19, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Women’s Sports Foundation )

Excelle Sports: You went to Rio as part of Team USA, which saw an incredible  summer of women excelling in athletics. Now, months later, some major political events have happened in the U.S. that could threaten women and the relevance of women’s sports. Do you feel a responsibility to help protect women’s sports?

Meghan O’Leary: This is a question that I’ve posed to myself as well, in terms of feeling that we’re in such a unique time. We’re coming off of an Olympics where female athletes dominated and were featured and highlighted in the media. Maybe not more than in the past, but still there’s so much progress being made. But now, how do we continue that momentum?

I worked for ESPN for five years on the other side of [the coverage], and now that I’ve been its subject, I want to step into this role of an advocate a little more. You’re given a stage, you’re given a platform of going to the Olympics and being an Olympian. No matter if you’re a gold medalist or not, just having that experience, people will listen to you. I felt that obligation. 

I want to take advantage of that and be an advocate for the things I believe in. But a big part of that is continuing to push this conversation and discussion that needs to be had–yes, females in sports, but also the quality of how women are talked about in the media, talked about in everyday society, etcetera. Coming off the Games,  that’s been this sort of emotional, mental wrestle for me. How can I help continue that conversation? How can I become a better advocate and keep these important issues at the top and not let them get buried? Especially in the wake of the election, serious things are happening and we need to be having serious conversations.

ES: How can the media improve its coverage of women athletes? For example, when some reporters talk about women athletes, they frame them around one fact  to sum up their entire personality. Are we moving past that?

MO: The trend is perhaps finally changing. We need to continue to push for that. These aren’t just female athletes, they’re athletes. There are still instances, even where we’re covering them as athletes, when their feats aren’t considered as great. Katie Ledecky has this world-record shattering performance, but she’s the sub-headline to a silver medal for Michael Phelps. She’s hands down the best swimmer we’ve ever seen in history—not female swimmer, but the best swimmer. She’s surpassed Phelps, I personally feel. So we still have those conversations where we start to celebrate female athletes for their athletic prowess—and not with the caveat, ‘Okay, what they did was cool, but maybe it wasn’t as cool,’ sort of thing.

@nike making me feel like a big deal during our @teamusa gear fitting session. #justdidit ???

A photo posted by Meghan O'Leary (@meghanoleary1) on

As an interesting anecdote, there’s the [Olympic] rowing coverage. What the women’s eights did was unbelievable and was a huge story and it’s fantastic that we have that to shine a light on rowing. But separate from that, in watching some of the rowing coverage–the water was really bad. The conditions were really rough.

Often times during the women’s races, the announcers–and not all the announcers, there are different feeds, but some that I watched–would say, ‘Oh, this boat, this crew is having a lot of trouble, maybe they’re not as technically proficient, look at their blade-work, it’s a little sloppier.’ But often times in the men’s races, they’d be like, ‘These conditions are really rough, really giving these crews a hard time.’ That’s a little bit of change in how you’re covering the athlete and what’s happening. It’s the same day, same conditions, but yet the approach is different. It’s subtle, but it’s huge.

We’re giving more coverage and we’re giving more spotlight than we have before, but now the question is, how are we talking about these athletes? When we talk about female athletes, it’s, ‘They’re an athlete but they’re also a mom and they also save children around the world’ instead of ‘wow, they are unbelievable.’

ES: What is your biggest moment from the Rio Games?

MO: Our semifinal race was hands-down the best race of our lives and my life. It’s something that I’ll hold on to forever. [Laughs] To swing from that to have such a devastating, disappointing final was really tough but I guess it fully captures that Olympic experience. The highs can be unbelievably high and the lows can be unbelievably low. That’s just part of it. That semifinal was just incredible and I know it was probably the biggest upset in the regatta, and probably in the top five in terms of best races. Of course I’m biased, but I think anyone that saw that race would probably agree [laughs].

ES: In rowing, there are individuals and eights. But in doubles, it’s just you and Ellen Tomek. What was that partnership like in Rio and having each other to count on in the emotional turnaround from the semifinal to the final?

MO: We’ve spent so much time working [together]. Rowing is one of those sports where you spend 90% of the time training for 10% competition time. That’s when it’s worth it, that sort of race. To be in that partnership, it’s such a focused trust and a focused bond.

I remember, I gave a call to her in the last 750 meters of that semifinal race and said, ‘We just have to go now.’ And I knew that’s all I had to say, because of where we were exactly, the time we’d spent together and the trust and that deep connection we had. I knew we were going to do it, because I was going to give all of myself and more, not only for myself but for her.

There’s no relationship stronger than the two-person boat, whether it’s double or pair. It’s hard to articulate sometimes. After a race like that [semifinal], I remember just sitting in our room and just looking at each other. We were so pumped. We felt it in each other, and we knew, we’re going to do this. And then on the flip side, you share that disappointment. You’re hurt, you’re disappointed in each other, you’re disappointed in yourselves. I think that as much as that the trust and the good things that come with that bond, it’s also felt just as intensely on the other side of it. 

ES: So what’s next? Is it rowing, is it fulfilling this drive to become an advocate? Is it both?

MO: I think it’s both. Ellen and I had talked about the world championships. They’re in the U.S. for the first time in over 20 years. Going into the Olympics, Ellen was like, ‘I’m done.’ [Laughs] You know, I caught the bug, she’s been doing it a little bit longer than I have. After the final–well, we didn’t have a final, we felt like we didn’t have a race. We just felt so unsatisfied. Not because of the result, but because we knew the potential we had going in.

We had such an amazing year working with this coach whom we only started working with this past year, and we want to see if we can’t get a little more out that. Just squeeze a little more juice [laughs]. There’s still a little more there. We’re going to give it another go, at least that’s the plan right now. 

In the meantime, it’s taking advantage of the platform. I remember being afraid of the question, ‘Do you think that as Olympians you’re obligated to do community service or speak up?’ This was phrased to a group and some people said no, but I felt pretty strongly. You do have an obligation because people will listen to you and things need to be said right now. So I do want that to be part of our journey, whether it’s a year or another four years for going to Tokyo.

Let’s talk about things that need to be talked about. 

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