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Throwback Thursday: Catching up with Meghan O’Leary

An Olympian who first tried out her sport two years after college...

ROWING-OLY-2016-RIO Photo credit should read DAMIEN MEYER/AFP via Getty Images

How lucky are we that we get back-to-back Olympians for our weekly Throwback Thursday feature? Last week, we caught up with Virginia Women’s Soccer’s Morgan Brian, who’s now living her best life in Chicago.

This week, we had the pleasure of catching up with Meghan O’Leary (‘07, ‘08), a 2016 Olympian who never competed in her Olympic sport while in college. O’Leary came to Virginia in 2003 recruited as a volleyball player, having played volleyball, softball, and basketball in high school. When she was looking to quit volleyball and take on a different sport, rowing coach Kevin Sauer tried, unsuccessfully, to recruit her for his team. In 2005, O’Leary joined the softball team where she earned four letters.

Fast forward five years to 2010 when she finally picked up an oar for her first lesson, and the rest is history. Six years after that lesson, O’Leary found herself competing for the United States at the Rio Olympics, making her way into the finals in the women’s double sculls.

We’re so lucky to catch up with this legend. As is now tradition, at the end she answers a question lobbed to her from our previous Throwback Thursday legend. She also gave us one to pass along to our next feature, so stay tuned next week.

Streaking the Lawn: So, what have you been up to since leaving school?

Meghan O’Leary: After graduating from UVA, I went to work at ESPN for about five years in the production and then programming division. in the summer of 2010 while living in Connecticut where ESPN is headquartered, I googled “rowing” to find a local boathouse that gave rowing lessons. This is where I should mention that I had never rowed before in my life—but while at UVA, head women’s rowing coach and legend, Kevin Sauer had always said I should come out for the rowing team. (I was playing both varsity volleyball and softball for UVA at the time, so was a bit busy). After trying the sport for the first time in 2010, I guess you could say the rest is history? After some early success, I eventually decided to pursue the Olympic rowing team full-time and left ESPN in 2013. Since then, I’ve made six United States National Rowing Teams, won two World Championship medals, four World Cup medals, and was a finalist at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. I’m currently still in training for the 2020 (now, 2021) Tokyo Olympics. Outside of rowing, I have co-founded a software company, Turazo, headquartered in San Francisco.

STL: If you could have been an athlete in another sport at Virginia, which would you choose, and would you be a starter?

MO: Definitely women’s soccer or women’s basketball. I played both growing up and absolutely loved them. UVA had a great women’s soccer team while I was there, so it would have been tough, but I’m pretty competitive and stubborn so like to think that I would have worked my way up eventually. I never told my volleyball and softball coaches while at UVA, but I played intramural basketball (two-time champions!) all four years and used to play pick-up with the UVA women’s basketball team all the time. I guess you could ask them if I had what it took to be a starter!

STL: What is your favorite UVA sports memory, either as a fan or a player?

MO: This might be a little morbid, but I I will always remember the night, February 1, 2007 when the men’s basketball team beat Duke at home, 68-66 after Sean Singletary sank a fadeaway jumper with one second left on the clock. I watched the end of that game from a hospital bed after my college house had a terrible fire and I ended up being kept overnight for observation due to smoke inhalation. The nurses made sure I could watch the game and my friends, teammates and coaches filed through all night to check on me and keep me company. It was one of the most devastating nights of my life, but the purest of UVA memories: we beat Duke (hell yeah) and I was surrounded by the greatness and love of the UVA community all night long.

STL: What are you doing during this self-isolating period to stay busy/entertained?

MO: As a professional athlete, my schedule hasn’t changed a ton. Elite rowers spend a lot of time training and I’m lucky that I am still able to train at such a high level, all while self-isolating and practicing social distancing. Even with the 2020 Olympics postponed, we are still training very hard (there really is no off season to our sport). The routine has been helpful amidst the isolation and chaos. Additionally, I’ve been super busy with work. My software company provides a virtual solution for mentoring as well as corporate recruiting, so we have had our hands full trying to help as many college students and companies as we can during this challenging time.

STL: Which coach or teacher had the greatest impact on you while at UVA?

MO: It’s hard to pick just one when there truly are so many great people at UVA. She wasn’t a coach or teacher, but former Senior Associate Athletic Director, Jane Miller made such a lasting impact on me. She’s a true legend and gave 35 years to the UVA athletic program both as an administrator and coach. She was one of the people I made sure to always see when I returned to Charlottesville. And I already mentioned this earlier, but if it weren’t for head women’s rowing coach, Kevin Sauer telling me that I should go out for rowing, I would never have tried the sport and gone on to become an Olympian.

STL: Do you have any career advice to current students or recent alumni?

MO: This is such a challenging time to have to navigate how to begin a career or cultivate future career opportunities. I think my one piece of career advice is to really lean on and take advantage of the UVA network. It sounds trite, but it truly is a powerful force if you use it. Internship programs are being cancelled and job offers rescinded, but you can do so much for your career just by reaching out and meeting (virtually!) as many people as you can in the industries you’re interested in. In the 12 years since I left Charlottesville, much of the professional success I have experienced has direct ties to my time at UVA. Okay, so I got a great education, but I also graduated into this amazing community of people who are doing incredible things—and want to help their fellow Wahoos do incredible things. Take the time to reach out to alumni via the resources available to you. Those types of connections can truly be life-changing, and it takes minimal effort to schedule a phone or video call. All that aside, stay hopeful and do what you can to stay physically, mentally and emotionally healthy. This is a scary time. As someone who graduated around the time of the last recession, I can empathize. Things will get better.

STL: What do you see that current UVA student-athletes have on Grounds that you wish you had? (facilities, resources, coach)

MO: The softball program just opened Palmer Park this spring and I am outright jealous! It is an unbelievably beautiful facility and well-deserved after way too many years without a proper stadium. The tiny little recreational park we used to have to play our games in back in my day was sad and stuck way out past the Law School. It’s such a great move for the program and an important piece of the Virginia Athletics Master Plan. I would say in general that the facilities and support that the student-athletes have these days is pretty incredible.

STL: What is your favorite Charlottesville restaurant?

MO: Oh wow, so many to choose from. It’s a little off the beaten path, but I love The Sheeben. Citizen Burger wasn’t there when I was at school, but is a new must stop when I make it back to Charlottesville.

STL: Favorite Class?

MO: Most of my classes involved a ton of reading and writing, but I took a handful of Physics and Astronomy classes to mix it up. I wish I could remember his name and I think it was just a basic intro Physics class, but there was one professor that had the most engaging class and we all called the mad scientist (endearingly). He would run live experiments all of the time which made the class incredibly entertaining.

STL: Major?

MO: I double-majored in Sociology and Religious Studies. My Masters was in Social Foundations and Policy.

Bonus question from Morgan Brian last week: Who was your favorite athlete to watch during your time at UVA? And who has been your favorite professional UVA athlete to follow.

MO: I loved watching the UVA women’s soccer team. My girlfriend at the time played on the team so I should probably say that she was my favorite athlete to watch? In all seriousness, that era had some incredible players (current USWNT star, Becky Sauerbrunn and former USWNT Sarah Huffman to name a couple). The women’s lacrosse team was also very good during my time at UVA. One of my best friends, Jessy Morgan played on the team so I would catch a ton of games. I graduated the same year as Chris Long (football) and I’d have to say he’s been one of my favorite professional UVA athletes to follow. Now that he’s retired, it’s been a blast following the most recent UVA men’s basketball players who have gone on to the NBA—Malcolm Brogdon might be my new favorite.