There are plenty of Olympians with unique backstories, but not too many who entered from the sports media world. That’s the case with U.S. rower Meghan O’Leary, though. After playing both volleyball and softball at the University of Virginia, O’Leary worked in programming and production at ESPN for five years. It was a quick internet search during her time there that led her to where she is today, as she told ESPNw’s Blair Henley:
Ask any elite athlete how she made it to the Olympics, and she will probably tell you a story about falling in love with her sport as a child. I am not one of those athletes.
My Olympic journey began only six years ago when I Googled “rowing lessons” in Hartford, Connecticut. Working as a programming coordinator for ESPN in nearby Bristol at the time, I figured rowing could be a fun competitive outlet. I played volleyball and softball at the University of Virginia, but the rowing coach always told me he thought I was built for his sport. This was a chance to see if he was right.
Meghan O’Leary: I played volleyball and softball at the University of Virginia, but the rowing coach always told me he thought I was built for his sport. This was a chance to see if he was right.
Meghan O’Leary: “I played volleyball and softball at the University of Virginia, but the rowing coach always told me he thought I was built for his sport. This was a chance to see if he was right.”
I’ll never forget walking down to the boathouse for the first time. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, which was part of the allure. As a kid, you’re not self-conscious. As an adult, you have to overcome that initial fear of looking ridiculous. And, as a 25-year-old, I saw that as the ultimate challenge.
I was invited to join the team at the U.S. rowing training center in Princeton, New Jersey, less than six months later. It was a big surprise. And it didn’t take long for one of my fellow athletes to start asking the questions I’m sure everyone was wondering: “Who are you? Where did you come from? What were you doing before this?”
The last one was easy. I had a full-time job — a dream job at that. I had already worked out a part-time arrangement with ESPN in which I could work remotely when I wasn’t training. While my fellow athletes slept and recovered, I answered emails and hopped on conference calls.
By 2013 I knew I needed to let go of one dream job to pursue another. It was clear that the Rio Olympics was within my reach. Thanks to some encouraging friends and family, I took that last step off the ledge and left ESPN to train full time.
Since then, O’Leary has been paired with two-time Olympian Ellen Tomek in the double sculls, and they’ve found a lot of success. There have been setbacks, though, including at last year’s world championships. That helped convince them to use their own money to hire Sarah Trowbridge as coach, and she helped them hit a new level, which led to them finishing first at April’s Olympic trials and locking up their spot in Rio. We’ll see how they do, but O’Leary’s story is certainly an impressive one, and an unusual one. ESPN has been wise to spotlight it in venues from ESPNw to ESPN Front Row to a video piece that aired on SportsCenter. We’ll see how she does in Rio, and how ESPN covers her performance.