SportTechie’s Athletes Voice series features the views and opinions of the athletes who use and are powered by technology. SportTechie caught up with rower Meghan O’Leary to discuss her winding path to the Olympics, her use of wearable technology, and her hope to generate more interest in her sport.
Meghan O’Leary was a three-sport star in high school, playing volleyball, basketball, and softball and was named the national Wendy’s High School Heisman winner. She received a full merit-based academic scholarship from the Jefferson Scholars Foundation to the University of Virginia where she continued with two of those sports (volleyball and softball) at the Division I level. Three years after graduating college, O’Leary tried a new sport: rowing.
O’Leary and her women’s double sculls partner, Ellen Tomek, reached the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, finishing in sixth place. They won a silver medal a year later at the 2017 World Rowing Championships. O’Leary also starred in a Lincoln commercial, racing a car in her single scull. Now, O’Leary and Tomek are looking ahead to Tokyo 2020.
Before focusing on rowing full-time, O’Leary worked five years in programming and production at ESPN. She is currently a vice president at startup software company InstaViser, an ambassador for the Women’s Sports Foundation, and a board member of USRowing. She recently wrote a passionate essay about how she feels rowing could do much more as a sport to raise its profile, comparing its online popularity to pygmy goats, of all things.
“I googled ‘rowing + Hartford,’ where I was living at the time when I was working for ESPN. I literally googled it to find a local boathouse or boat club that was providing lessons because I had never done it before—ever—and realized that I needed basically entry-level Tee-ball, if you will.
“Kevin Sauer, the head women’s rowing coach [at Virginia], had approached me [in school]. It just so happened that volleyball and softball both would overlap with the rowing team, whether it was at U-Hall or the weight room. I was the tallest softball player—I was not the tallest volleyball player—and so I just stood out. I was a hard worker, and he just approached me and said, ‘You know, you should try rowing.’ This was my fourth year, I think. I was like, ‘I’m kind of busy.’ I never actually trained, but he kind of planted the seed. I got to know Kevin. I got to know some of the rowers. I never tried it at U.Va.—which is too bad because they have a wonderful, excellent program and are two-time NCAA champions, I believe.
“I almost didn’t get out of my car to go to the lesson because I felt sort of embarrassed. Here I am, this great athlete. I very nearly didn’t embark upon this crazy adventure because I was telling myself, ‘Oh, I’m being silly. I’m 25. Why am I trying a new sport?’ But I did.”
“[In July 2010,] I went to what was called a national team identification camp. I went to this one-day thing, and I was the oldest one because it’s mostly college kids. I told myself, depending on the results of that ID camp, I’m either going to do this or I’m not … I made the cut, and that was, for me, the impetus of ‘I have the potential, now it’s up to me and explore that and see what I can do with that.’
“Flash forward to the following year, and I had bought a racing shell, never having been in one. That’s like buying a NASCAR racing vehicle without having been in a Toyota. There’s a jump but it’s a commitment of ‘now I have to learn how to use it.’ I found an elite training group. This was all still while working at ESPN, so having to balance what it means to train ‘professionally’—at a very high level—while full-time-plus job for a live 24/7 sports network.
“I had raced in a national selection regatta earlier that spring, in April. Four or five months later, I went from last in that national selection regatta to fourth in the Pan Am trials. It was an incredible big swing of a learning curve and really throwing myself into it and doing what I could. All of that progress then led me to get a direct invitation, by September of 2011—at this point it’s been about 13, 14 months since I just started the sport—into the national team training center, an offer to move to Princeton and be with the Olympic training group.”
“I negotiated going part-time with ESPN but kept my job. I went through [London 2012] Olympic selection knowing I wasn’t going to make it, but I got a lot closer than I thought I would. But I got to see what it was like and realize that I could actually do this. That set me up to make my first [national] team in 2013, and I’ve been on the team ever since and Rio was my first Games.
“[In April 2016,] I crossed the finish line at Olympic trials and we officially made the team [for Rio 2016]. My partner and I, we were the first athletes named to the rowing portion of the Olympic team. We won by a lot, but it was still such an incredible adrenaline rush. You dream of these big things as a kid, right? This was something I dreamed of in sort of this esoteric sense—but never in rowing. It was a very raw and very unpredicted [experience]. As a kid, you live through ‘Oh, what would it be like?’ You kind of already live it a little bit, but because this was something I never envisioned, it made it all the more raw.”
“In the seven and a half years [on the national team], I wouldn’t say reliance on technology but learning how to use technology to really improve. At this level, it’s the tiny improvements, right? I have a Whoop now. We have all this data that we track from every workout. And for us, because it is such a physiologically demanding sport, it’s in the very tiniest of margins that you gain from being very exact in your zones that you’re working in with your workouts.
“For us, with how much demand that we put on our bodies, the recovery side is so, so important. I’ve definitely put a lot more focus on sleep and hydration, and I’ve learned a lot about that. I’m an aging athlete. I’m not 23 anymore. I’ve had to really think about and track, what’s my quality of sleep look like? There’s a ton of, I don’t want to say ‘dependence,’ but how fortunate we are to have this technology. What can we get out of our bodies? Are we on the right track? Especially in the past couple of years, I’ve had to really think about and use different technologies and different things to really be very precise to get the most out of my body.
“In this past cycle, I’ve taken on maybe more than I should and probably more than the typical Olympic athlete does, with how much I’ve been working on top of training and realizing ‘Oh yeah, I’m not 23 anymore.’ That was what led me to wanting to start more closely track my recovery levels, my heart-rate variability, my resting heart rate, and all of what goes into being able to fully assess, are you fully recovered? Are you going to be able to perform?”
Her Side Job
“InstaViser is a mentorship recruiting platform under Turazo. We’re building different recruiting software—campus recruiting software, innovation recruiting software, and then we have our InstaViser product, which is a mentorship platform.
“One thing when I left ESPN that I struggled with was that I was building a career. I was five years at ESPN when I had to step away to really throw myself into rowing, which I absolutely needed to do to get on the path and ‘catch up’ to actually achieve this daunting, scary dream of going to the Olympics. On the side, it’s been so helpful for me to have something else to continue stretch these other areas of my life and skills that I want to keep in practice.
“InstaViser is not TV where my background was. It’s tech, it’s software, and I’ve also just been able to stretch in that way of learning a whole other side of business that wasn’t in my background. It was co-founded by two Olympians. We hire a handful of Olympians and athletes, and that makes it a really fun atmosphere. And obviously to grow something from the body up has been really rewarding.”
“I wrote that piece in maybe an hour sitting down after that particular event trials had finished. I just wrote it all down and took a few days before I posted it. I’m on the USRowing board of directors—one of the organizations that I discuss in the article. I knew that might be off-putting to some people, but my issue was definitely not with the NGB. It was with our sport in general. Coming from a media background, having the interest in sports that I do, and realizing that there’s so much opportunity now, but the opportunity is definitely one that you have to take advantage of.
“For a sport like rowing, where it was one of the most traditional, oldest sports in the current Olympics program, but the reality is that we’re at a time where tradition no longer carries like it used to. If we’re talking about solely at the Olympics, it is the sports that bring viewers, that bring money, and that bring interest. There are so many interesting things about our sport, and we just have to, I think I use the words ‘pivot’ and ‘evolve’ in that article. I truly meant that. We can keep what’s great about our sport, but we need to do a better job about sharing that.
“Rowing, by nature, we’re self-proclaimed that we just put our heads down and work. I love that about the sport. It’s a meritocracy. It rewards hard work. But on the other side, I believe it’s a duty of being stewards of the sport and being able to open our lives up a little bit in an effort and a way to spread awareness, spread interest to sportswriters, media outlets. If no one knows that it’s happening, it’s not happening, really.”
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