NEW YORK -- Ask Ellen Tomek and Meghan O’Leary what they did differently to win the United States’ first world championships silver medal in women’s double sculls, and they try not to laugh.
“We probably had the worst year of training we’ve ever had, in terms of time in the boat,” O’Leary said.
“I had an elbow injury in early January, and the plan was to take six weeks off and then come back,” Tomek said. “But I didn’t get back rowing until late June. I was in physical therapy, training on a stationary bike, doing cross-training indoors. I stayed far away from rowing and the rowing stroke.”
Wait a second — spending time apart helped the team bring home a world silver medal?
Far from it. Tomek and O’Leary, who teamed up in 2013, credit their years together with allowing them to turn a negative — Tomek’s injury — into almost a positive.
“I definitely had to take a more mental approach this year, because I knew I was going to be fit, but I was not going to be rowing fit,” Tomek, who began rowing her first year of college at the University of Michigan, said. “I did a lot of visualizing, and by the time late June hit, I was so ready to be back in the boat. Every day was so exciting and it was really easy to dive right into it. Plus, it was a very short timeline, and it made (training) even more focused because of that.”
For O’Leary, the months away from double sculls may have been even tougher. For a while, she wasn’t sure her longtime partner would make it back to the water in time to train for the world championships, held late September in Sarasota, Florida.
“There were times I wondered if I was going to need to find another partner, and I started having those conversations, which is a scary place to be,” O’Leary, who didn’t take up rowing until after graduating from the University of Virginia, said. “When she came back we had that opportunity and were so grateful for it; we took advantage of that focused time in June, July and August to make sure everything was fine-tuned for September. It was a whirlwind year that came together because after all of these years, we had everything in place.”
On Wednesday, USRowing recognized that whirlwind year at its Golden Oars Awards, held at the New York Athletic Club in Manhattan: Tomek’s female peers on the national team voted her Female Athlete of the Year. It marked the culmination of a long journey for the two-time Olympian, who also battled back from an injury to a back muscle that caused her to miss out on two world championship teams and the Olympic Games London 2012.
“In rowing we don’t get to race a lot, and it’s a lot of team boats as well,” Tomek said. “You don’t get to stand out individually that often and to be recognized among a group of very hardworking and talented athletes, it’s a huge honor and I’m very humbled.”
O’Leary didn’t leave the event empty-handed. The rowing community voted her the fan’s choice for national team Athlete of the Year, in honor of her world silver medal and other contributions to the sport.
“Nowadays social media (is the biggest) way to engage with fans, and I’m a little bit more on social media than Ellen is,” O’Leary said. “I also stepped in as interim president (of the USRowing board of directors) for three months earlier this year, so I kind of see this as a recognition from the community for the work I put in there, and I’m very grateful.”
Tomek and O’Leary’s silver medal is deeply satisfying on several levels. Not only is it the best finish ever for a U.S. women’s double sculls since the world championships started in 1962 and the first medal of any color by the U.S. in 27 years, but the athletes — who are both 33 — were the oldest rowers in the final. Both also were disappointed by their races at the Rio Games, where they finished sixth, and had briefly considered retirement.
“Of course, that crosses your mind,” O’Leary said. “You go through those periods (asking), ‘Is this working? Is what we are doing going to lead us to achieving our shared goals?’ I think staying committed, staying true to (the plan) is what finally brought us to the historical silver-medal performance. I like to think of the world championships as this incredible achievement, but actually nothing special happened. We finally executed and it was the culmination of so much work and so much time.”
Patrick McNerney, chief executive officer of USRowing, hopes Tomek and O’Leary continue to compete through the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
“When I think of our women’s program and what they represent, we’re on the right path,” McNerney said. “Athlete retention is critical, and for me as CEO, I want to help make sure we have the infrastructure and support to keep them in the mix and part of equation for Tokyo.”
To that end, Tomek and O’Leary plan to relocate to California and spend much of their training time in Oakland, where members of the men’s team currently train.
“We want to create the best environment for success we can,” McNerney said. “These two women committed themselves to each other and to the sport, they stuck together, they made it to Rio and now they’ve won the (world) silver. We have higher expectations for the next three years.”
The athletes, too, want to continue their run.
“We finally did what we knew we were capable of doing for so long,” O’Leary said. “You can’t help but say, ‘Hey, we figured it out, why not see if we can build on this?’ We are starting to look ahead to see what we can do next year.”