Meghan O'Leary and Ellen Tomek compete in the Women's Double Sculls Semi Finals on Day 4 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Lagoa Stadium on August 9, 2016.
Meghan O’Leary wasn’t thinking about the Olympics when she started college at the University of Virginia.
She had been a three-sport athlete growing up and played both volleyball and softball for the Cavaliers from 2003 to 2008, but softball was on its way out of the Olympic program and she didn’t think she was good enough to play volleyball at that next level.
Sometimes life moves in unexpected directions, however, and that’s certainly true in O’Leary’s case.
She ended up going to the Olympics in a different sport altogether — rowing — and said everything leading up to that point helped prepare her for that unexpected success.
“I was being challenged throughout my young adult life into my young athletic career to have to pick up new skills,” she said. “That’s what helped translate to picking up something brand new like rowing and navigating my way through a technical sport and the technical development required to get to the point where I was competitive. Being a two-sport athlete and on the scout team for the basketball team constantly challenged my athletic skills in very different ways and led up to my success in rowing.”
A native of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, O’Leary went to Virginia as a Jefferson Scholar, a prestigious merit-based full scholarship for which students must be nominated and only a few dozen are chosen from thousands of nominees. She wanted a school that would provide her not only with a robust academic experience but also a high-caliber athletic experience and the opportunity to engage with the broader campus community.
Among the skills she already possessed but had to quickly hone at school were time management and focus.
“Balancing a rigorous academic schedule — with my scholarship I had to maintain a high GPA — and being an elite athlete in two sports, at the time it was a lot,” she said. “And prioritization. As you start to grow up you start to figure out what’s important to me, where do I want to spend my time, what’s going to lead me to achieve my goals and lead a fulfilling life.”
O’Leary played volleyball in 2003 and 2004 then switched to softball from 2005 to 2008, while double-majoring in religious studies and sociology. A five-time member of the Atlantic Coast Conference Academic Honor Roll, she chose her majors based on a strong interest in going into media after graduation, and O’Leary did go on to work in production and programming for ESPN.
Being a Jefferson Scholar and an athlete, O’Leary said, she was exposed to a wide range of people and experiences. There’s a strong service culture at Virginia, she said, that she also appreciates for influencing her ability to grasp the bigger picture and be a civically minded adult.
Beyond that, she just had a good time.
“The teams I was on, we never won the ACC or anything like that but we had fun,” she said. “I grew up in sports and to fulfill that dream of playing a Division I sport, let alone two, it was a dream. I was able to compete at a high level and experience the ups and downs and winning and losing.”
O’Leary didn’t start rowing until 2010. At that point several years had passed since longtime Virginia rowing coach Kevin Sauer saw O’Leary and mentioned that with her athletic ability and height at six feet tall, she should give the sport a try. That planted the seed.
“He told me, ‘You could be an Olympian one day,’” she said. “That having been a dream of mine since I was young it was sort of like, huh, here’s someone who sees potential and he knows a thing or two. Maybe I should listen to him.”
She knows that it sounds like a ridiculously quick ascent when she tells people she Googled rowing lessons in 2010, was invited to the national team’s training center a year later and was in consideration for the 2012 Olympic team — because it was. But challenges such as being asked to switch from being a right-handed hitter at the plate to a left-handed hitter while on the softball team at Virginia helped get her ready for the demands of learning a new sport so quickly.
O’Leary made her Olympic debut in 2016 competing in double sculls along with partner Ellen Tomek and finished sixth. A year later they won the silver medal at the world championships, followed by a bronze in 2018. They’re now working toward a return to the Olympics in Tokyo in 2021.
For high school students thinking of playing sports in college, O’Leary’s advice is simple.
“Work hard, but enjoy it,” she said. “I think that the pressure on young people to be good at their sport in order to get a scholarship can sometimes take away the enjoyment. I’ll hearken back to rowing, and I think I got as good as I did as quickly as I did because I was really enjoying it. It was brand new, there was no pressure, I was just enjoying it and absorbing things so much more quickly because I was craving the experience rather than feeling the pressure to have to achieve. … Enjoy the process because you only get to go through it once.”