Different strokes

Meghan O’Leary was restless.

At 25, she was far too young for a midlife crisis. But O’Leary is an athlete, and an athlete — more than an athlete, a competitor — needs to move with power and speed and purpose. To pursue victory.

She had done this with volleyball, softball and basketball at Baton Rouge’s Episcopal High School, earning The Advocate’s Girls Athlete of the Year Award in 2003. She played varsity volleyball and softball at the University of Virginia. That background helped her land a job with sports broadcasting giant ESPN, initially as a production assistant, then in the programming department.

It didn’t satisfy the yearning.

Verbs that had defined O’Leary were exceedingly active ones. Run. Shoot. Throw. Hit. Spike. Slide. Block. Attack. Defend. Yet, living in Hartford, Conn., in 2010, O’Leary began her life’s latest chapter with the most sedentary of actions.


The website was for a local rowing club. She had never pulled an oar before. Now, in the sport’s New England heartland, she gave it a try.

And, something … clicked.

“It sucks you in and grabs hold of you ... and you just become addicted,” O’Leary said. “I’d heard about that before I got into it, and absolutely can personally testify. Obviously, I’ve changed my life around it.”

Changed? Transformed is a more accurate word.

O’Leary set a goal: Make the U.S. Olympic rowing team. She switched to working part time so she could train. She got close in 2012 but fell short. So, earlier this year, she left her job and moved to Princeton, N.J., where she now works out full time at the Princeton National Rowing Association facility with others pursuing the same dream.


“There are certain points in your life when you do something and you just feel ‘I have to do this,’ and you just know without a doubt — be it a job, be it a relationship, be it whatever it may be — you have found something that you’re so passionate about that you have to do it,” she said. “I want to really go after this.”

One stroke at a time.

It begins with the “catch,” the moment the oar blades enter the water. The rower’s legs are bent, arms straight, torso leaning forward. Then, legs straighten, the body moves back, the arms pull in to the chest, putting every ounce of energy into oar handles which, when this is finished, are moved down to lift the blades.

The blades turn parallel to the water and return to the front of the boat as arms straighten. The body leans forward, and legs bend, moving the rower forward on the sliding seat. The blades are again perpendicular to the water. Hands lift, and blades re-enter the water.

That is the stroke, which rowers perform hundreds of times in a race. Done right, the racing skull resembles a bird gliding gracefully over the surface of the water, its wings moving with unhurried purposefulness.

“What is the perfect stroke? In three words, it’s a fine balance,” O’Leary said. “It’s a balance of strength and power meets a balance of finesse and relaxation. It’s the drive of the legs while maintaining a relaxation in the upper body. There are kind of conflicting forces sometimes, and that’s what makes it difficult. It’s not just going as hard as you can.

“You’re never going to have a perfect stroke, but the closer you get, the more you want to keep pushing to get there.

“People say they watch rowing, they watch racing and are like, wow, it looks so easy. Well, that means they’re doing it right. But inside, they’re dying. It hurts more than anything you can describe, but the challenge is to make it look easy because of that perfection in … such a technical, demanding sport.”

O’Leary knows about pain. She has twice broken the same rib because of the exertion of the stroke, an injury she describes as fairly common in the sport. It takes a lot of strength to break a rib from pulling oars.

In a race, those oars get pulled 34 to 40 times per minute. The repetitiveness makes rowing vastly different from O’Leary’s former sports. No reacting to an opponent’s move, no feints, no improvisation. Mental and physical energy are focused on the stroke, on getting it right, on getting the most out of it.

Some might find it boring. O’Leary relates it to a saying used by golfers: To those who don’t play, no explanation is possible. To those who do, no explanation is necessary.

“A lot of people, they’ll say there is something spiritual about it,” she said. “I was surprised at how much I fell in love with it.”

O’Leary is on the water three times a day. She earns some part-time income writing for the sport’s national governing organization, USRowing, gets help from her parents, Dan and Kathy O’Leary, and a racing sponsor. She gets no stipend from USRowing, but is on the team’s health insurance.

She isn’t alone, of course. Among those trying for 17 positions on the women’s Olympic team is Olivia Coffey, whose parents live in Baton Rouge. Her father, Calvin, was a rowing silver medalist in 1976. Her mother, Maggie, is on the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine faculty.

Coffey rowed in high school in Massachusetts and, like all the other top U.S. rowers but O’Leary, in college.

“It’s incredible that she’s at this level three years after starting,” Coffey said.

Three years in, three years to go, all of it invested to make a mark in a sport that offers neither fame nor riches, only the most intangible of rewards — satisfaction.

That, of course, is not guaranteed. O’Leary has considered there will be no prize at the end of this grueling journey.

“A year into this of making the decision, I have learned so much about myself … about pushing through boundaries,” she said. “Just the pursuit of what I’m doing has made it worth it so far.

“I think that’s what keeps me going, the fact that I know every day I get to wake up and even though I’m working my butt off and it’s really, really hard, at the end of the day I’m getting to do what I’m passionate about and (what) a very small percentage of people have the opportunity to do.”