Rowing Olympic Veterans Meghan O’Leary & Ellen Tomek Talk About Resiliency
by Peggy Shinn
Cicely Madden, Alison Rusher, Meghan O'Leary and Ellen Tomek compete during the Women's Quadruple Sculls at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on July 23, 2021 in Tokyo.
TOKYO — During the Olympic Games, headlines are teemed with feats of medal-winning glory.
What we hear less about is those who fall short.
With 11,090 athletes competing in 339 medal events here at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, the only hardware most athletes will take home are the pins they exchange with athletes from other countries. And some athletes will be lucky enough to try again in four years — or three more years until Paris 2024.
Meghan O’Leary and Ellen Tomek are two rowers who came close to winning Olympic medals in previous Games, then fell short again in their final trip to the Games.
At the Olympic Games Beijing 2008, Tomek finished fifth in the double sculls with Megan Kalmoe, then sixth in the same event in Rio in 2016, this time with O’Leary. Tomek missed the London Games with a rib injury.
Tomek and O’Leary, now in their mid-30s, competed in the quadruple sculls in Tokyo, with Tomek as stroke, O’Leary behind her, and Olympic rookies Alie Rusher and Cicely Madden in the bow. In a sport and discipline that requires exquisite timing for a boat to be fast — with each sculler pulling on two oars each — these women had only rowed together for six weeks leading up to the Tokyo Games.
The boat had power, they said — and so much potential.
“This boat is super talented,” said Tomek after they finished last in the consolation final. “That's why it's so disappointing because we've seen some crazy speed, probably the fastest speed I've ever been in a boat, like close to a world record pace. That's why it hurts so much.”
They were excited about the potential of what they could achieve in the Tokyo. The U.S. women’s quad had won an Olympic bronze medal in London (with Tomek’s former teammate Kalmoe rowing in that quad).
But once in Tokyo, Tomek, O’Leary, Rusher, and Madden had tough race after tough race, finishing last in their heat, last in their repechage (consolation heat), then last in the B Final — for tenth overall.
“Unfortunately for me, there's a little bit of unfinished business,” said Tomek. “That's just something that I'm going to have to move past and work through away from rowing instead of trying to accomplish within rowing. I don't know if I like have the words for it right now.”
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Tomek is 37, O’Leary 36.
The two have been through the highs and lows of long elite athletic careers, with Tomek learning to row in 2002 and O’Leary learning the sport in her mid-20s after a successful college career as a three-sport athlete (basketball, volleyball, and softball). Together, the two won two medals at world championships (silver in 2017, bronze in 2018).
They also learned to move through rough water too.
“While we don’t have an Olympic medal and likely never will, I promise you we would clean house in the resilience category,” O’Leary posted on Instagram on the eve of the double sculls B final in Tokyo. “And maybe that’s our legacy.”
After their race, the two rowers elaborated on resiliency and how what they have learned will help them bounce back from this disappointment.
“What I hope that Ellen and I can take away is that we didn't accomplish a goal, but maybe we can take the learnings from this and help others ahead of us be able to accomplish their goals, and speak to some of the things that limited us from doing that,” said O’Leary.
They hope to make suggestions for future changes — although O’Leary did not want to go into her ideas just yet.
“I think that that speaks to resilience and not just taking your own shame or your own embarrassment and having to go away with it, but instead looking it in the face and saying, ‘That sucks.’ I want it to be better for the people after me, and here's how that can be done.”
O’Leary advised Rusher and Madden to remember this loss and disappointment and use it as fuel to improve in the future.
Olympic rookies, Alie Rusher, 25, rowed at Stanford and won a bronze medal in the women’s eight at U23 world championships in 2018, and Madden, 26, finished sixth in the double sculls at 2019 world championships. Rusher’s parents both won medals at the 1988 (dad) and 1992 Olympic Games (mom).
Tomek reflected on her career and what helped keep her going — another definition of resilience.
When Tomek and O’Leary first started rowing together in 2013, they began writing down everything that went right and everything that went wrong in the boat. Then they made another list noting how they could replicate the things that went right and how to ensure that the things that went wrong either did not happen again, or how they would talk about how they could better respond to them. The tactic helped fuel improvement.
Tomek also made “pro” and “con” lists when people doubted her. Some told her that injuries would derail her career. Others would comment that she would “fly and die” from the start.
Instead of letting the “cons” undermine her goals, Tomek wrote “pros:” “I am a fast starter, but how can I become a better sprinter?”
“Or my pro is I can push myself hard to the point of injury, my con is I get injured,” she added. “So how do I stop that from happening?”
Tomek believes these lists helped prolong her career.
“You make that list, you learn from it,” she said. “I feel like that's what allowed me to keep going because you keep things in perspective and you realize that there's so much more you can learn and give even when you feel like you've done it all.
“Just like today on the racecourse, there's so much that went right,” Tomek said. “But there's a lot of things that went wrong. How do we learn from that?”
An award-winning freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered six Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.