London's Hometown Heroes: Natalie Dell
Dell places her bronze medal on Korean War Vet Ed Ackerson during a homecoming celebration at the VA in Bedford, Mass.
BEDFORD, Mass. – The homecoming reception for Natalie Dell in Bedford, Mass., was not just a celebration of the Olympic bronze medalist’s return from the London 2012 Olympic Games, it was also a celebration of the Veterans Affairs employee’s return to the Edith Nourse Rogers Memorial Veterans Hospital.
The 27-year-old project coordinator for mental health studies focusing on depression and post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans telecommuted while training with the U.S. Olympic Rowing Team in Princeton, N.J., for the last two years.
“This is the homecoming I would’ve dreamed of, so it’s great to have it here and have all the support,” said Dell, who helped the women’s quadruple sculls team finish third in London.
Large crowds gathered under four tents pitched on the sprawling hospital grounds for the free cake, cookies and a chance to rub Dell’s bronze medal. It was hard not to be touched by Dell’s genuine enthusiasm and gratitude for everyone who approached her for an autograph, handshake or hug.
In fact, Dell took so much time greeting people lined up for her autograph that she had to apologize profusely when her when event organizers were forced to rush the back half of the line through the queue due to time constraints.
The first Penn State alum to row in the Olympic Games said her humility comes from the fact that she failed to make the national team straight out of college.
“Most of my (Olympic) teammates were from Princeton, Yale or Harvard — schools with big rowing legacies — and I didn’t have that,” said Dell, a former track and field athlete who first took up rowing in college. “So when I graduated, it took me three years to train on my own and make the team, and that’s something that they didn’t have to do. And I hated it, I hated being on the outside looking in so bad because I wanted to be there.”
But now, Dell — who earned a master’s degree in public health from Boston University before going to work for the VA in 2009 — said she is glad that she started a career at the VA before making the national team.
“I have something to come back to, and it’s not just something, it’s a life, and it’s a good life, and the VA has given me that,” she said. “The life that I lived here for three years has given me an incredible network of people and I’m so excited for my life and I am so lucky.”
In the winter of 2009, Rani Elwy, a research health scientist at the VA in Bedford, had a job opening for a project manager, and she heard Dell would be a qualified candidate.
“I needed someone organized, hardworking and someone with tons of initiative,” Elwy said in an interview during the Aug. 22 celebration, “and when I met Natalie I knew she had research experience already, but when I learned about her drive and her Olympic rowing drive, I knew that those kinds of people are very rare and the kinds of skill she had at rowing would be great for her job.”
Dell was completely up front with Elwy about her Olympic dream, but she just didn’t expect it to come so soon after starting her new job. Dell said she started getting bigger, stronger and faster after she took the job at the VA. In August 2010, Dell informed Elwy she made the national rowing team and had to move to New Jersey to train.
Dell worried Elwy would be less than accommodating, but Elwy was committed to keeping Dell on her team as well as the rowing team.
“We knew it would happen, I wasn’t totally unprepared, but I had to quickly do the paperwork,” Elwy said of putting in a request to allow Dell to telecommute. “(The VA does) believe in accessible working situations. … Basically we had to grin and bear the paperwork, but we had people supporting us.”
Dell, who worked part time while training in New Jersey, said it was a huge help to be able to take her mind off rowing by doing work for a few hours between her morning and evening workouts. But her work life couldn’t completely dull the stress of trying to make an Olympic team. Dell said during the last two weeks of training she kept her bags packed at all times just in case she did not get selected for the Olympic Games.
“I was ready to be one of them, and I was not afraid to fail,” she said. “I packed up my bags two weeks before the final cut and I was ready at practice that that might be the final day. I mean I tried my hardest and I did my best and I was totally fearless because I just thought, ‘If I don’t make it then I have this (job) to come back to.’
“The final day I still kept going. The final day I was still there. The final day I unzipped my suitcase because everything was still packed and I took out my last uniform and I put it on, and I came back that day as an Olympian.”
Nobody was more thrilled than Elwy.
“She tried to keep rowing private, but toward the end she would say, ‘I’m not sure I’m going to make it, I’m not sure this is going to work out, I might be coming back sooner than I thought,’” Elwy recalled. “So when she made it I was over the moon. My whole family got up at 4:30 in the morning and got around on our computer screen to watch her row. It’s been very exciting.
“It’s a huge sense of pride. I know what she’s been through.”
And once she was at the Olympic Games, Dell wanted everyone she knew to feel what it would be like to experience the Games first hand. She carried a camcorder nearly every step of the way and recently posted a 14-minute video on her Facebook page documenting her trip from the first-person perspective.
“There are so many people I really wish could be there and share the experience, you want everybody in the world to see what it’s like,” she said. “Being an outsider for so long I always wondered what it would be like (to be on the inside), and I wanted to share that.”
She also wanted to experience as much as possible while she was in London, getting to the Team USA administration offices at 7 a.m. on many mornings so she could get tickets to events such as synchronized swimming (which Dell said was her favorite event to watch), track and field and the women’s soccer gold-medal game.
Rather than chase celebrity athletes, Dell said she got more of a kick out of meeting a coach from Republic of Botswana and female athletes from Iran and Burundi.
“Those are the people I wanted to meet,” she said. “I did not meet any celebrity athletes, but I saw a lot of them. But I was eager just to meet athletes who were just humble. I did meet the Rock though, and that was awesome.”
During her homecoming celebration, Dell met three elderly veterans at the VA who were in wheelchairs, including Korean War veteran Ed Ackerson of Belmont, Mass.
“Would you mind if I have you wear my medal since you can’t feel it?” Dell asked Ackerson, who suffers from Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and cannot lift his arms. “I’m going to put it around your neck.”
“Now you’re going to insist I give this back now aren’t you?” the 69-year-old said.
Dell, who plans on working at the Bedford VA for a few months before transferring to San Francisco to live with her boyfriend, did in fact insist on having her medal back a few minutes later.
“Good luck to you in Rio, by the way,” Ackerson said after parting ways with the bronze and before Dell baulked at the thought of training for four more years.
“Oh my,” she said. “I’m retired.”
From that “job” anyway.