Exclusive From the Field to the Water: How Meghan O’Leary Picked Up Rowing and Took It All the Way to the Rio Olympics
Meghan O’Leary attended the University of Virginia (UVA) where she competed in varsity softball and volleyball. It would not be until she began her professional career post-college that Meghan picked up an oar for the first time and fell in love with being on the water. Since that moment, Meghan has transitioned to training full-time, competing in World Cups and World Championships around the globe, and competed as a first-time Olympian this summer in Rio de Janeiro.
Meghan and her partner Ellen Tomek compete in the women’s double sculls and first became acquainted with the Women’s Sports Foundation when they applied to our Travel & Training Fund grant to help them finance and achieve even higher performance and rankings. They received a grant in 2015 and, following Rio, we celebrated their accomplishments at the 37th Annual Salute to Women in Sports alongside 70 fellow champion female athletes. WSF caught up with Meghan to learn more about her start in rowing, her experience transitioning from one career to another and more.
Women’s Sports Foundation: You were a varsity athlete at the University of Virginia in softball and volleyball and did not pick up rowing until after graduation in 2010. What inspired you to start rowing and to take it beyond just a hobby?
Meghan O’Leary: I was a volleyball and softball athlete at the University of Virginia and they actually have a very successful, very strong women’s rowing program. The varsity teams would sometimes use the weight room at similar times and my team’s schedule often overlapped with the rowing team. I think it was in the weight room or it was during winter training when we were all inside, that I caught the eye of the head coach, Kevin Sauer. I’m tall and I worked hard. I think he would see me doing extra workouts and so one day he just approached me and said, ‘have you ever thought about rowing?’ I told him no. It was not a sport I knew really existed until I went to college and my freshman year roommate was a rower. So, I just shrugged it off, but I think it planted the seed.
A few years later I was living in Connecticut. I was working and just looking for something to do in my free time, something different, something new and challenging and I’d remembered that I was told maybe I could be a good rower. So, I looked it up and I found a local rowing club and signed up for some beginners lessons. I absolutely loved it. I think what I loved about it was it put me so far outside my comfort zone that I just felt like a new part of me came alive in that place. I gravitated toward that and I became addicted to the part of me that was coming uncovered in that process. It was obviously a great decision to pursue it further. I just decided to go full throttle and dive into it and I haven’t looked back since.
WSF: How did you make that switch of going from a local rowing club to then training and going to the Rio Olympics?
Meghan: I asked a lot of questions. I was like a kid in that you don’t know how things work so you just ask questions. You have that innocence about it and I really didn’t know how anything worked in this sport so I was given the gift of just not feeling embarrassed or feeling ashamed of not knowing. I asked lots of questions about how to get better and how to make the National Team. I was lucky enough to have people around me that I think saw in me the drive but also the potential. I wouldn’t be here without them.
Particularly I was connected with a training partner and he had been on the lightweight men’s quad National Team for a couple years and happened to live in the same area. I was introduced to him by the program where I learned to row. He and his wife both rowed and they took me under their wing and put me on the path that eventually led me to the National Team. The best thing was that I was not afraid to ask questions and just go after it.
WSF: You have had the amazing opportunity of working behind the camera at ESPN as well as being its subject on the water. How was the transition from working full-time to becoming an athlete full-time?
Meghan: It was interesting and I did it in steps. When I first got invited to come to the National Team Training Center in Princeton I was working full-time with ESPN and that was the fall of 2011. I went back to ESPN and I said ‘listen, I have this amazing opportunity but I still want to work here. Can I propose an arrangement to work remotely and part-time?’ ESPN was wonderful. They created a position and they were so supportive of this adventure and my journey. I was able to slowly make that transition from full-time to working part-time and starting to train and becoming more of a full-time athlete.
It was a gradual process and I did that for about a year and a half. It wasn’t until the spring of 2013 that I finally realized I really had to commit in order to fully succeed in rowing. I’d gotten to a place where I could see the goal and I understood what I had to do to get there and that I had to make that choice. It was really difficult because I felt like I had to put on hold my dream of working for ESPN and working in TV. I loved it and it was something that I had always wanted to do and that I was getting to do, but here was something that I never actually dreamed of doing and didn’t realize that I wanted to do.
It was perplexing and I struggled with that decision but I finally just had to take that leap of faith and commit fully to rowing. I have still always worked part-time on the side as I’ve trained and I think that’s just me. We don’t have a lot of time to do that, but I’ve always had something. I think it’s helpful for me to have something else to do to every once in a while and to be able to fully remove my mind from just thinking about rowing.
Working on that side of the sport and then transitioning to being a subject has been interesting because I loved being an athlete growing up and I loved the story-telling of sports. Now to be a story has been a unique switch but it’s been a lot of fun.
WSF: This fall you attended the WSF Athlete Leadership Connection (ALC) development conference. What was the biggest takeaway for you? Was there a particular session or speaker that resonated with you most?
Meghan: Well I will say up front, that the ALC and then the Annual Salute were by far, separate from meeting President Obama and First Lady Michelle and [Vice President] Joe Biden, the most enjoyable and impactful experience that I had this Fall coming off of the Olympics. We have all these opportunities and we get to do a fun list of events after the Olympics but I so enjoyed that. I think it was having the opportunity to truly connect with athletes and be with my peers, but also with people that have lived this life and then gone on to do unbelievable things. To see what they’re doing and the growth that they have had from their experience as an athlete and what they’re doing with that, it was incredibly inspiring and motivating.
As an athlete we are so focused on our goal and that is usually winning. It’s winning a World Championship, an Olympic medal, etcetera, and I think often times it’s hard to take a step out of that and look around you and challenge yourself to become a part of a movement or become a part of something that’s bigger than you. That was really great to be in that space and to hear from people that have lived the life that we are living as athletes and just see what they’re doing. It was truly inspiring.
Out of that I’ve connected with current Women’s Sports Foundation President Angela Hucles and she is also a fellow UVA grad. I think those personal connections and having the opportunity to really talk and engage with such an inspiring group of people was the biggest impact I got from that experience.
WSF: What do you see as the biggest hurdle elite female athlete’s face when trying to train full-time?
Meghan: I preface this with, and we all always say, we are making progress and things are changing. I do think for female elite athletes though, no matter what sport you’re in and no matter what status you are, I think that the number of female athletes that can have long careers are limited compared to our male athlete counterparts. The opportunities aren’t the same but also the opportunities to support yourself while competing aren’t the same. We still don’t have the same exposure in the media so how are we expected to gain sponsorships and endorsements?
Oftentimes, our athletic achievements aren’t necessarily the focus; it’s more about how we look or what we wear or our personality, instead of wow, they’re just a badass and that’s why I should be wearing that logo. I think that there are still some cultural pressures that go beyond the athletic sphere and into the workforce too of what women should be doing late into their thirties versus what men can be doing late into their thirties. I think there are still these social norms that we are working to get past. Like I said, things are changing but there’s still a lot of progress to be made.
WSF: You and your sculling partner Ellen Tomek received a 2015 Travel & Training Fund grant from WSF. Why did you decide to apply for the grant and how did that help you on your journey to the Rio Summer Olympics?
Meghan: This is a great question because without that grant, and I’m not just saying this because I’m speaking to you, but that grant came at such an important time for us. The boat class we are in is not fully supported by our [National Governing Body], by USRowing, and so we don’t receive the equal amount of support, despite strong performances and equal performances, to some of our counterparts.
Because of the way that our system is set up, we don’t receive the support that we need to be able to continue to compete at a high level. We had to pay for our own coach. We had to pay for our own training trips. We had to pay for our own equipment, whereas our teammates in other boats have that all taken care of. To get that grant — it didn’t cover everything — but wow it made a huge difference for us to know that we didn’t have to scramble and to spend all this extra energy and time on either working or other fundraising efforts because that all takes a lot of time and that is important time away from focusing on your training and competition.
The Travel & Training grant helped immensely. It couldn’t have come at a better time for us. We changed coaches and our entire funding situation unexpectedly changed heading into the Olympic year and the Travel & Training grant helped us continue to train at the high level we needed in order to succeed.
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