Meghan O’Leary is no stranger to pressure situations in a variety of sports.
But at 9:15 a.m. Thursday, the former Episcopal standout begins a quest that been more than five years in the making. Her goal: a berth on the U.S. Olympic rowing team.
O’Leary and teammate Ellen Tomek are scheduled to compete in the first time trial in the women’s double sculls at the U.S. Olympic Rowing Trials in Sarasota, Fla. The duo must win the 2,000-meter event in order to make the U.S. team.
“We’ve got seven boats in our event,” O’Leary said. “That’s a little surprising. We thought there would be 10 to 12. The possibilities is definitely out there for us.
“We’ve been one of the top six boats in the world and have times that are right on record pace. This is the Olympic Trials, and you have to perform here.”
O’Leary was a three-sport star at Episcopal and was the Wendy’s High School Heisman national winner in 2002 as well as The Advocate’s Girls Athlete of the Year in 2003. She played volleyball and softball at the University of Virginia.
After getting her master’s degree from Virginia while playing another season of softball, O’Leary went to work for ESPN in 2008, first in Charlotte and then in Bristol, Conn. She joined a rowing club when she moved to Bristol and soon became a serious competitor.
“I wanted something to do that would challenge me,” O’Leary said. “I couldn’t see myself playing slow pitch softball. I got serious about rowing in a short period of time. I knew it was serious when I bought my first boat.”
The $6,500 used boat O’Leary purchased once she began elite training in 2011 turned out to be a stepping stone. After working for ESPN for a total of five years, O’Leary opted to concentrate on rowing full time. Tomek, a former University of Michigan competitor, made it to the 2008 Olympics.
O’Leary has trained in several locations, including the U.S. Rowing Training Center in Princeton, N.J. The O’Leary-Tomek team is part of a new training center in Oklahoma, City, and also spends part of the year on the west coast.
The list of international accomplishments for O’Leary and Tomek includes a silver medal at the 2014 and 2015 World Rowing Cup II and sixth-place finish in the World Rowing Championships in 2014.
They also won double sculls at the 2015 National Selection Regatta I in 2015 and the 2015 National Selection Regatta II in 2014.
Though training and competition take up much of O’Leary’s time, she still manages to get back to Baton Rouge for visits.
“I was able to come home for both Thanksgiving and Christmas this year and really enjoyed it,” O’Leary said. “Now there’s a rowing machine in what used to be our game room when I was growing up. It (Baton Rouge) is still home.”
As the competition nears, O’Leary pondered the course conditions after a few practice sessions. Windy conditions and choppy waters are likely. She is encouraged by a series of training runs that include several 500-meter training sprints on a world-record pace.
“Our training has gone well,” O’Leary said. “We feel like we’re prepared.”