To the rowing community,
Early in my rowing career, I was focused solely on improving myself and my abilities in order to excel. Now, my focus has somewhat shifted. With the 2020 Olympic Games less than eight months away and as I near the sunset of my elite rowing career, I’ve also begun to think about how I can help to improve the sport.
By all National Team and Olympic Team standards, I came to rowing very late in life. There’s nothing unique about trying something new as an adult. What made my experience particularly rare was that I would go from novice to making the National Team in less than three years, and then become an Olympian another three years later. I can definitively say that the sport has completely changed my life.
After a two-sport NCAA division one collegiate career at the University of Virginia as a softball and volleyball player, I picked up rowing for the first time after a Google search landed me on the learn-to-row lessons at Riverfront Recapture rowing club in Hartford, Connecticut. I was 25 years old at the time, working my dream job at ESPN.
A few months later I joined an elite rowing group. Having held an oar for all of three months, I was by far the worst rower among my peers, which was comprised of National Team members, medalists, and “real” Olympic hopefuls. I was still learning how to correctly pick my boat up out of the water.
During my first winter training camp, we traveled to South Carolina along with the clubs’ top high school rowers. At times, I wasn’t skilled enough to work with the elite adult athletes, so the coach put me in with the fifteen-year-old rowers who proceeded to destroy me on the water.
There I was, a former D1 college athlete and high school All-American, and these girls, who were all 10 years younger than me, had absolutely embarrassed me.
Fighting back the tears alone in my hotel room, I thought to myself, “Why am I here? And what am I doing with my life?”
A few weeks later I doubled down on defeat and decided to enter the 2011 USRowing National Selection Regatta to compete for a spot on the U.S. National Team. I lined up against Olympic medalists and World Champions and perhaps unsurprisingly, finished dead last. Some would have thrown in the towel right then and there. Instead, the disappointment fueled me.
When I started working at ESPN, I had it all planned out and was on the path to become a successful television executive. Five years into that promising career, I was faced with the ultimate decision of having to give up one dream to pursue another. I knew that if I wanted to be successful in rowing and if I was going to make the Olympic team, I would have to prioritize it above everything else.
I started using more of my resources, putting more of my time and energy toward my training, recovery, and extra sessions on the water. That summer I rowed with any and every club or athlete that would let me. My strategy was that the more opportunities I had to fail, the faster I would learn.
The commitment paid off. In April of 2016, almost exactly five years from that South Carolina training camp spent getting pummeled by high schoolers, I competed at the U.S. Olympic Trials in the women’s double sculls event.
When my partner, Ellen Tomek and I crossed the finish line in first, I was overwhelmed by the realization of having achieved this huge, audacious goal I had set for myself. I remember hugging my parents and letting it all sink in, relieved, overjoyed, and proud.
To live out that dream and follow through to make it happen, was empowering. It opened up a whole new world of confidence for me and my understanding of what I was capable of accomplishing.
It made me feel like a badass. I was proud of who I was as a person, beyond just who I was as an athlete.
It made me feel like a badass. I was proud of who I was as a person, beyond just who I was as an athlete.
That new self-confidence I found was a breakthrough for me.
Growing up, sports were a safe haven for me, a place where I could be who I wanted to be, and feel good about that person. I was fast. I was strong. When I had a ball in my hands, I felt invincible.
But outside of sports there was an increasing sense of unease and confusion about the world around me. I grew up in the south, spending the majority of my teen years in Louisiana in a conservative community and fairly conservative family.
Realizing I was gay was one of the toughest things I have ever faced. I think in my own way, I was a bit homophobic, which for a very long time fueled the gripping self-hatred and shame that kept me in the closet for years.
Where I am from and at the time, “gay” basically meant that you were going straight to hell. For a long time, I kept my sexuality quiet because I couldn’t even accept myself after being conditioned to believe that being gay was wrong, a disorder and an imperfection. I didn’t come out to myself and others until college, and even then I was still weighed down with an unshakeable shame. However, largely in part through my continued involvement in sport, my self-esteem continued to grow, I found community, and that shame began to transform into self-acceptance and confidence.
At the Rio Olympics, my evolving comfort level with being more open about my sexuality became very apparent. A friend invited me to a party celebrating LGBTQ Olympians and I immediately agreed to join him. Cameras flashed and reporters asked questions, as I opened up during an interview, sharing that I had never really come out publicly until that moment.
When I walked away, I said to my friend in shock, relief and excitement, “Wow, that felt really good!”
In many ways, achieving what I had on my journey of making the Olympic team helped me to fully embrace who I was. And as I have continued to grow as a person, along with my success in rowing, so has my awareness of the problems that exist within the sport.
While rowing has given me so much, it is also a sport with a lot of issues.
I am white. Most all of my teammates are white. Rowing is traditionally thought of as an elitist sport, historically reserved for the Ivy League rich, white kids who come from affluent backgrounds. The sport as a whole looks nothing like our country and that’s a reality we should all want to change.
The beauty of a sport like rowing is that it doesn’t matter your sexual orientation or the color of your skin, if you come from generational wealth or if you’re a first generation American; if you put in the work and pull hard, you can be a great rower. Sport is the great equalizer. People of all races and backgrounds should feel that they have a place in the rowing community, and yet our sport isn’t the easiest to access.
There are a number of barriers of entry with rowing. You need a substantial amount of water and space to house expensive equipment, coaches, motors for coach launches, trailers to transport boats, and the list goes on. Due to operational costs, clubs often charge very high membership fees and high schools or communities can’t afford to support a local rowing program.
To be an advocate for positive change and work to create more access, I became an ambassador with the Women’s Sports Foundation and joined the board of USRowing.
In 2016, I started to become acquainted with Row New York, a non-profit organization that in-part, provides opportunities to row for young people regardless of background or ability and who otherwise might not have the chance to compete in the sport.
Row New York is in the heart of New York City and they are walking the walk to diversify our sport and in that process, are changing lives for the thousands of young people who have matriculated through the program since it began in 2002. I have seen it firsthand and felt the powerful energy of a boathouse made up of rowers from many different backgrounds.
Recently, my boat partner, Ellen and I went to Queens to row with some of the young athletes there. After we finished on the water, one girl approached me with a list of prepared questions–everything from what we ate before races to what we thought about at the starting line. Her dream is to be an Olympian and she had a plan, inspired by her involvement with Row New York.
I told her, “Girl, you got what it takes. Just keep working hard and you can do it.”
And I meant it. She can be an Olympian thanks to the opportunities she is receiving through an organization like Row New York.
Many of the other girls talked about wanting to row in college, knowing that their hard work could earn them a scholarship to help pay for tuition.
Organizations like Row New York are setting the standard for change in our sport, but it’s up to the rest of the rowing community to use this example and help bring that change across the country. Being from Louisiana, I have a dream to help create a similar program in New Orleans.
To do this, we need coaches and athletes to donate their time, boathouses to lend their resources and donors to support youth development.
We need to change the face of our sport and the exclusivity that’s been emblematic of our community for too long. This is how we build a space where every type of person can feel safe, grow, be successful and achieve their dreams.
At 35 years old, my career as an elite athlete will soon near its end, but my contribution to rowing is far from over. I am incredibly proud that I lived my dream of becoming an Olympian and forever grateful for the skills and life-changing confidence that I developed in that process. However, now I have another mission, which is to help ensure that our sport progresses to reflect the world we live in today, and that the rowing community is one where all kids and all people have the resources and opportunities they need to cross any and all finish lines.
I am ready – Are you? ,
About the author:
Meghan O’Leary is an American rower who competed in the 2016 Olympic games. She is also an advocate, promoting equality in sports.
About the sponsor and the charity:
Row New York was founded in 2002 based on the premise that the discipline of competitive rowing combined with rigorous academic support yields powerful returns. Row New York has provided access to rowing for many inner-city teenagers.
DJ Kristyles is donating $50 to Row New York in honor of the first 50 shares of Meghan’s letter. The Unsealed will match the donation if we get 50 new subscribers and Facebook followers by 11-23-19.
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I have learned over my Fifty-Eight years of life, and more specifically over the last 10 that FDR's words about fearing only fear itself ring true; to me, they do, anyway. And, at the same time, how the words of the 23rd Psalm comfort me and my abundant faith in G-d allows me to fear only fear, knowing full well that He is always with me. Growing up in a Non-Orthodox, yet Observant Jewish family nicely brings both together and not only makes me feel more protected but commands me to believe so. You see, I have lived a different kind of life, as we all have to some degree, but mine changes daily. Not that I am ANY BETTER than anyone else, in fact, probably less so... I stray from my stories often. I shouldn't, but since my Stroke in 2012, I have somehow developed some sort of ADD, so please bear with me, the end will justify the means and I will *try* to stick with my story; for you, my readers. I moved my family of the ex-wife and four children Cross-Country in 2002 to be closer to my dad who was turning 75 that year, and while I could not afford both financially as well as mentally to move back to Southern California (where he and my mother lived), I chose the Midbar (Hebrew for Desert) of Arizona. Within just a few short weeks of moving here, I woke up one day with some of the most severe abdominal pain I had ever experienced. I found a local doctor and made an appointment to see him that day. I arrived at the appointment and was ushered into an examination room by their PA (Physician's Assistant), who is supposed to be the same as a Doctor, but not really (?). I was examined and Prescriptions for a Pain Medication and an Antibiotic. They continued to treat me in a like manner for almost six months when I ended up in an Emergency Room, where a CT Scan was performed and Colonoscopy was scheduled. I was then diagnosed with a grapefruit-sized obstruction and abscess in my colon that would require surgical intervention. Surgery was scheduled for two days later, on a Friday in Mid-March 2003. I arrived at the hospital at the designated time, 5:45 am; was admitted to the hospital; told them about ALL my allergies (including a BIG ONE, an allergy to a particular anesthetic agent), and taken to a room where I was put into one of those awful gowns and told that they'd be "right back" to take me to surgery. They promptly came back at 10:30 in the morning and took me to yet another room... to wait some more. At 11:45 the Anesthesiologist came in to talk with me. He informed me that he was going to use Propofol for my induction and that he was planning on using the EXACT ANESTHESIA TO WHICH I AM ALLERGIC to maintain me through surgery! "NOT ON ME, YOU'RE NOT", I exclaimed! "I'M ALLERGIC!!!" On my wrist sat a red band that clearly said ALLERGIES: CEVOFLURAINE. I then proceeded to give him a list of anesthetic agents that I knew to be safe. He tapped me on the knee and said: Okay, Smart guy, put yourself to sleep and quickly left the room. I awoke from the anesthesia on the following Wednesday evening. In addition to the NINE small incisions from various attempts to perform the procedure of removing 18" of my diseased colon through a scope, I also had one 6" cut in my belly that began around my navel and continued to just above my groin. I also began experiencing severe shortness of breath. The staples were ripped out of my skin by the Butcher Surgeon two weeks later, but my breathing difficulties continued. After being examined by one doctor after another, I finally decided to be examined by The Mayo Clinic. Over a ten-day to 2 week period, I was examined by multiple physicians, underwent numerous tests and procedures and was finally ready for my Report Appointment. I would learn the results of all of the tests and procedures and hopefully have a clear diagnosis and prognosis. The verdict had come in. Diagnosis: Terminal COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease Causation: Bacterial Pneumonia due to Malignant Hyperthermia caused by induction of Detrimental Anesthesia Prognosis: 5% chance of Five-Year Survival I then took my report to a highly regarded Pulmonologist for Follow-Up Care, but not before enrolling in Rabbinical School in New York City. I had, (since age ten) always wanted to be a Rabbi. It was now or never. On the advice of the Pulmonologist, I began taking Prednisone (a Steroid) that would open up my Bronchioles and make it easier to breathe. The normal dosage for a man who is 5'9" and weighs 150 pounds (before I got sick, I weighed 174 pounds, all muscle, by the way) is <100mg per day. My STARTING dose was 100mg THREE TIMES a DAY. the dosage was increased every few months for the following THREE YEARS, when, on Sunday, September 9, 2007, at the weight of 340 Pounds (the Steroids had been increased to 250mg Four Times a day), I collapsed and at Mayo Hospital, was intubated where my organs began failing. Two nights later, on the First Night of Rosh haShana, the Jewish New Year, and while being mechanically ventilated, I went into Full Blown Total System Failure, and suffered a Cardiac Arrest for 14 minutes, followed by a Coma of several weeks duration. During my Coma, I felt as if I was in a box. The box had four dirt walls and smelled like the Morning Dew. In the upper right corner of the box sat a red square with a white X inside of it. "If only I could click on that X, I might stop this program", I thought to myself, but I could not move; I could not stand; could not reach, and could not scream for help. I lay in this place crying out in fear for what seemed like days and weeks and months. Suddenly, my cries were replaced by Psalms. I was reciting Psalms, some of which I had never even read before! And the Psalms turned into Prayers; The Kol Nidre, chanted at the beginning of our Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur; every other prayer recited on this Holy of all Holy Days; the Prayers for the Sukkot Holidays that follow the next week and the Readings for every single Torah Portion of the year. I somehow knew them all. By heart. Without hesitation of memory and obviously without any text to look at. I kept reading and chanting day and night; night and day and resting in between. Really resting. Sleeping... until one day, I opened up my eyes to see my beautiful son Zac sitting at my side on my bed. Covering the holes in my throat and on the side of my neck, I managed to spit out "C'était le rêve de dix minutes le plus étrange que j'aie jamais eu"! I told my son that was the weirdest ten-minute dream that I have ever had in FRENCH, my first language and native tongue. He then told me that it had been over two months, and I was in a Hospice Facility. The night before, I had begun to breathe on my own a minute or so after being disconnected from the machines that had sustained my organs since September. A few days later I was wheeled to an ambulance outside to be transported to the truly amazing HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospital in Scottsdale. The sun kissed my face as I felt like I was pulled up into a body of love. It spoke. In Hebrew: Don't worry, it said. "You and I are going to be okay". I spent the next six weeks learning to do things like eating and holding a pencil; how to shower and dress. I learned how to return to life. Six weeks after leaving HealthSouth, my dad died. In July 2018, my mom joined him. I have had many trials and tribulations over these last twelve years. A Stroke in 2012 took my ability to project my voice loudly; I've been hospitalized many times and know how very precious time is. I do not live for today, rather, I live for tomorrow. I do everything I can do today to help others, and pray that I am again awakened tomorrow to do more good. And if so, great! And if not; if G-d decides to take me tonight, I will hang out with my parents and loved ones forever. I win either way. President Roosevelt was right to believe in only fearing fear. Psalm 23 is even more so, as Faith follows all of us.
Funny my mom passed in 1991 as a 13 year old it was hard but she was much more then beauty. She was a fighter from the beginning and I will never be able to explain her impact. It shows you came from a strong famiy and I'm glad you had both a mom and dad because a lot of people don't. I pray your truth can make a difference
This is trying to scare us with more misinformation then actual information but thank you for giving us your reality. I like it a lot.and people just wash your hand like you should be doing anyway 😂
Great discussion, as well as some interesting numbers which I'm not sure are meant to calm us, or install even more fear. I have many of your same concerns. Just yesterday I scheduled a work trip to Miami for late next week, but am unsure if it will happen or not. And while i say or act like i'm not concerned, sub-consciously, i am quite sure it is weighing on my mind each time i cough, or sneeze, or feel "a little warm", or if someone around me does. One of the biggest fears i have is that with all of the media coverage and the additional testing becoming available, the numbers are sure to skyrocket, and this is going to really set some people off. Our country is going to go absolutely bonkers . We are all guilty of taking limited amounts of information and either talking about it like an expert, or completely overreacting. Here's hoping that the number stat to level out, and then drop. Lets hope that the American people can follow simple suggestions. Lets hope that countries from around the world can work together to come up with a viable plan to slow this train down. And last but not least, lets hope our politicians can come together to provide our country guidance as we all try to get through this. Lets hope they can forget about the presidential race for just a minute to remember what their job really is; to serve the American people. And now is their time to really step up and lead by example.
Lauren, like you I have to balance my fear and confusion. I work directly with the public and I have an immune system that is partially suppressed as a by product of treatment for Rheumatoid Arthritis. I fear for my Father the most as his body is much weaker than even mine. I visited the Cleveland Museum of Art on Sunday just to learn three people were positively diagnosed on Monday in Cuyahoga county. You aren't alone in that fear. I think that we must turn to hope to keep us in this trying time. We have to...
Terry, As a man who has lived and breathed baseball, your letter was an absolute joy for me to read. What young boy wouldn't want to be in the clubhouse with his Dad? During your time as manager I've been to quite a few games in Cleveland. None though were as special as July 12th 2014. That was the day I celebrated my 30th birthday. Though the day centered around my birthday it saw me doing something for someone else. It was the day I took my Father to the very first professional sports game in his 59 years of life at the time. It was so touching the certificate that he got from the wonderful folks at Guest Services. And although the home team lost to the White Sox that day, it will always remain one of the best days in my heart. Letters like yours only serve to renew my love for the game of baseball. Thanks for sharing it with the little boy still inside of me wanting to throw that 0-2 curveball to the best hitter in the league.
[…] enough, in the email was your letter to your late father, former NBA basketball star Anthony Mason, talking about your struggles after his death. You wrote […]
Sweet Lauren, I agree completely with the promise that Brian asked you to make. Frankly, it is the only way that I know to love; totally, completely, wholly and unconditionally. You deserve nothing less, nor does your future love.
Wow. What a truly moving and powerful story. We often take for granted the small gifts we give each other just by being present. I'm sad for the heartache. I'm glad you stayed and became. Who knows what little girl or boy will be attributing their life's purpose to some kindness you shared. Peace and Sunshine
You’re welcome Lauren looking forward to all the future stories :)
Thank you Tony. I appreciate all your support.
Thank you Tony. I appreciate all your support.
I’m sorry to hear about Brian but he was right you are too beautiful to not receive roses Lauren:)
[…] Here is why you need to stop being nice and start being loud […]
Thanks for this! So what movie set did you get on?
So nice Roger <3
Pat, Your letter touched me in a very profound way. It left me in tears in the middle of my work day. It made me want to share something with you. On a July morning in 2007 a police officer answered a 911 call I had made when my Mother went into cardiac arrest. Between that officer, my best friend and the fire fighters who showed up minutes later they were able to restart her heart, however at the hospital she passed away an hour later. At the end of his shift that officer stopped by my home to check on the situation and cried when I told him the unfortunate news I received only 4 hours prior. He tried to apologize to me. I looked at the anguish in his eyes and asked him directly what for? He described the ways he felt sorry. What I want to leave you with was my reply to him. I told him he had nothing to be sorry for because he answered the call in what was the darkest moment in my life. I told him that he was a hero regardless because it takes a special person to answer calls like that. You are a hero to people Pat. No one can ever take that away from you. I understand the process you're going through as I've been there myself and like you I still struggle with it when no one is looking. You aren't alone in this. I hope your healing process continues on and you can regain the happiness in this beautiful life. You'll always be a hero to those people, because you were there when the call came Best wishes Roger Chamberlain
Ruth, your letter moved me to tears. Once upon a time I was very closed off about the LGBT community but over a course of several years, I turned my fear into understanding and I actively stand with the community for their equal rights because it is the right thing to do.