Meghan O’Leary has dreamed of being an Olympian since the second grade.
Her dreams will become a reality this August when the Baton Rouge native represents the United States in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
The former Episcopal multi-sport star-turned rower will compete with teammate Ellen Tomek in the women’s double sculls.
“Qualifying for the Olympics is the dream for any athlete,” O’Leary said.
O’Leary, 31, picked up her first oar in 2010, while working for ESPN in Connecticut.
The former two-sport athlete at the University of Virginia had been in search of something other than “beer league softball” to keep her competitive juices flowing.
“I still had that competitive edge of wanting to do something a little more challenging and maybe something new,” O’Leary said.
In college, the UVA rowing coach tried to recruit O’Leary because of her athletic, 6-foot build and hard-working personality, going so far as to proclaim that she could one day be an Olympic rower.
“I just sort of flippantly was like, ‘yeah, OK,’” O’Leary said.
O’Leary is a sculler, competing in the women’s double sculls. In sculling, rowers hold two oars, one in each hand, as opposed to sweeping, the other form of rowing where competitors hold one oar with both hands.
Despite primarily playing ball sports her entire life, O’Leary adapted quickly to competing in a boat.
“Sculling entails a little more athleticism because it’s a little a bit more coordination so my ball sports definitely helped in that,” O’Leary said.
Just over a year after she picked up an oar, O’Leary was invited to the USRowing National Training Center at Princeton University and was selected to join the national team.
As her passion for the sport continued to grow, O’Leary arrived at a professional crossroads. She had already opted to work part-time at ESPN in order to provide more time for training, but she was still not pleased with her progress in the water.
In Spring 2013, O’Leary decided to pursue rowing full-time in an effort to reach her dream of competing in the Olympics.
“My performance increased dramatically within a week, because I was stress-free, sleeping more,” O’Leary said. “It was the best decision I could’ve made for my dream of making the Olympic team.”
She quickly discovered the unglamorous reality of being an Olympic hopeful. In the pursuit of Olympic glory, O’Leary gave up a comfortable salary at ESPN in exchange for a much smaller month-to-month stipend.
“You don’t pursue it because you want fame and glory and to be rich,” O’Leary said.
But her competitive fire drove O’Leary to persevere through the financial obstacles.
“There’s something that tells you to chase it,” O’Leary said. “You do what you can, and you live humbly, because you don’t really need much when you’re training all the time.”
Her years of hard work paid off in April, when O’Leary and Tomek officially qualified for the 2016 Summer Olympics at the U.S. Olympic Rowing Trials in Florida.
“To cross the [finish] line and to officially win and know that you’re going to the Olympics, you’re sort of overcome,” O’Leary said. “It was this surge of emotion that your body can’t process in the moment. I remember just yelling.”
The triumph of Olympic qualification, however, gave rise to a new slate of obstacles. Officials have raised concerns over the rampant outbreak of the Zika virus in Brazil, as well as water sanitation issues that directly affect O’Leary and all rowers.
But O’Leary has never waivered from completing her Olympic journey.
“It’s scary, and it’s disappointing that those are some of the conditions that we’re facing, but there was never a question of if we were going to compete or not,” O’Leary explained.
Her focus has been on taking preventative measures to mitigate as much risk as possible in Rio de Janeiro, utilizing bug spray and long sleeves to combat the Zika virus and hand sanitizer after getting off the water.
For O’Leary, the rewards outweigh the risks in her pursuit of an Olympic medal.
“If I get Zika, but come home with a gold medal, it’s worth it.”
Photo courtesy of USRowing.