Meghan O'Leary: My unconventional Olympic story
Ask any elite athlete how she made it to the Olympics, and she will probably tell you a story about falling in love with her sport as a child. I am not one of those athletes.
My Olympic journey began only six years ago when I Googled "rowing lessons" in Hartford, Connecticut. Working as a programming coordinator for ESPN in nearby Bristol at the time, I figured rowing could be a fun competitive outlet. I played volleyball and softball at the University of Virginia, but the rowing coach always told me he thought I was built for his sport. This was a chance to see if he was right.
I'll never forget walking down to the boathouse for the first time. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, which was part of the allure. As a kid, you're not self-conscious. As an adult, you have to overcome that initial fear of looking ridiculous. And, as a 25-year-old, I saw that as the ultimate challenge.
I was invited to join the team at the U.S. rowing training center in Princeton, New Jersey, less than six months later. It was a big surprise. And it didn't take long for one of my fellow athletes to start asking the questions I'm sure everyone was wondering: "Who are you? Where did you come from? What were you doing before this?"
The last one was easy. I had a full-time job -- a dream job at that. I had already worked out a part-time arrangement with ESPN in which I could work remotely when I wasn't training. While my fellow athletes slept and recovered, I answered emails and hopped on conference calls.
By 2013 I knew I needed to let go of one dream job to pursue another. It was clear that the Rio Olympics was within my reach. Thanks to some encouraging friends and family, I took that last step off the ledge and left ESPN to train full time.
That year I was fortunate to be paired up with two-time Olympian Ellen Tomek in the double sculls, and we've been together ever since. While we knew we had Olympic potential, we also knew that a lot could happen in the lead-up to Rio.
It's easy to think your hard work deserves success, but that is not always true. And last fall, we hit rock bottom. We had a terrible showing at the world championships. I was pissed off. Parts of me wondered if it was worth it to continue. I just wanted to forget it all.
But on the flight home, we forced ourselves to list some things that needed to change in order to achieve our goals. It was time to move forward. Ellen and I decided to use our own funds to bring on Olympian Sarah Trowbridge as our coach, and the change was immediate.
We became a cohesive team of three badass women. In April, just seven months later, we crossed the finish line at the U.S. Olympic trials in first. We'd secured our spots on the Olympic team. It's all a little blurry, but I remember yelling for joy -- with everything I had. The emotions were overwhelming and thanks to the media blitz that followed, I had little time to process our accomplishment. An appearance on "The Today Show," and many more interviews -- let's just say these aren't things we deal with on a daily basis as rowers.
On one hand, I was thinking, "This is incredible!" On the other hand, I wanted to crawl into a corner and cry. We're so used to a seven-day-a-week training grind, that the disruption -- and all the attention -- really threw us for a loop.
Honestly, I feel like my decision to pursue an Olympic dream was selfish. I wanted to see if I could do it, so I did. Now that I've had some time to reflect, I find myself humbled by people who tell me I'm an inspiration. I don't think of myself that way at all. The fact that I might inspire people is a huge, unexpected bonus.
Of course, I know the job is not finished yet. Despite the fact that American teams have historically been underdogs in the women's double sculls event, Ellen and I have made it our mission to prove we belong in that elite group. I hope our success in that will be the next chapter in my unconventional Olympic story.