A walk down the hill to a nearby grocery store was a basic outing for essentials. It also was part of an Olympics reboot for former Episcopal multi-sport standout Meghan O’Leary.
“Absolutely, postponing the Olympics until next year was the right thing to do,” O’Leary said. “This virus (coronavirus pandemic) is not going to be resolved in time for athletes to train safety, complete trials in their sports and then compete. The Olympics were supposed to be in four months. I know and understand it.
“But you still have to take time to process it, because for the past year the training and everything else pointed toward the Olympics. That time frame has changed. You need some time to adjust and start a new plan.”
O’Leary and her U.S. rowing teammate Ellen Tomek have been training in the San Francisco Bay area since 2017, using the Stanford University dock as a base. The double sculls team was set to leave for the U.S. Olympic Rowing Trials in Sarasota, Fla., days from now to continue a farewell tour. It was supposed to be a comeback season.
After placing sixth in the 2016 Olympics, O’Leary and Tomek won a silver medal at the 2017 World Rowing Championships and a bronze in 2018. O'Leary also was inducted into the Louisiana High School Sports Hall of Fame in 2018, a nod to a three-sport career at Episcopal that led to a two-sport career (softball/volleyball) at the University of Virginia.
O’Leary was injured last season. She and Tomek also won a recent event that gives them a shot at making the 2021 U.S. team as part of a four-person boat.
“Training and competing at a high level is rewarding,” the 35-year-old O’Leary said. “But you also miss a lot of life … like family milestones and friends’ weddings. We both look forward to doing those things. This year also was going to be our big comeback. Now it moves to 2021.”
Though school closures and shelter-in-place orders in San Francisco have limited some training options, O’Leary and Tomek are able to get on the water and train. They have had to get creative to replace other strength and conditioning drills normally done in a gym.
As the female athlete representative on the U.S. Rowing board, O’Leary followed training issues athletes in her sport have had regarding the coronavirus. When the International Olympic Committee announced last week that it would decide whether to postpone the Olympics in a month, a virtual town hall for prospective Olympic and Para-Olympic athletes was organized. Two days ago, the IOC postponed the Olympics until 2021.
“I got to hear the concerns of athletes from other sports in the town hall. The concern for everyone is safety,” O’Leary said. “There were concerns about the virus. But being able to train properly to compete at the highest level is another major issue. A slower time is one thing, but in sports like gymnastics it could mean the difference between a perfect landing and a spinal injury. You can’t risk that.”
Since moving to the Bay Area, O’Leary has co-founded a small software company with a retired rowing competitor. She took a step back from the company a few months ago to ramp up training. A training reboot should give her a little more time for the business in the coming weeks before training takes over again.
O’Leary relishes the chance to battle for another Olympic berth, noting a quote a friend sent her: “When the Olympics return, it will be the most joyous and exultant Games of all time. It will mean we have defeated a common global foe, and the time has finally come to celebrate the triumphant and collective human spirit once more.”