Drafted in March, 2019. Posted in May, 2022. I don’t have an excuse for not posting this before now except that I’ve been afraid. This is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to discussing what happened in the Tokyo quadrennium. But we all have to start somewhere. For absolute clarity, the leadership I’m referring to in this post who let me down were not Tom Terhaar or Laurel Korholz. On the contrary, they were the only ones who acted on my behalf.
This might be my most important post ever.
I say that because right now, it feels like this post is what is standing between me and having a chance at ever making another National or Olympic Team. I’ve felt this writing, lived it, hurt it, for a long time. But I haven’t written it yet. Most often my writing process and my training go hand in hand — I spend several practice sessions going over thoughts, concepts, punchlines, transitions, messages and endings in my head before I actually sit down to write. It’s one of the few nice things about the erg: it makes for a beautifully meditative editorial process. This post has been so, so different. This is everything that my normal writing process is not. This post is everything that has suffocated and silenced my creative drive over the past two years. It’s a dark heaviness that has caused me to retreat in to myself over and over again when I’ve thought about trying to put it in to words. I haven’t written this post before. I’ve wanted to, a few times. But so far, it has always won. I’ve lost. I haven’t known how to write it. I still don’t. But I’ve gotten to the point where I feel like it’s really important to try.
I haven’t written much since Rio. I regret it. I really regret it. I am in completely uncharted territory right now, trying every day to pen the next page for a manual that doesn’t exist. How do you do this? How do you make it through four Olympic cycles in the US system? How do you stay healthy after sixteen years of rowing training? How do you continue to get faster as a 35 year old athlete? These are all questions I have to answer myself — because I hit the back cover of the existing book a while ago. We are in to the blank pages now. These are incredibly precious days, weeks and months I’m living in. There is something to learn every single day. And so many beautiful little details about my daily struggles and joys are lost forever because I’ve been crushed under this heavy otherness for so long. I want to get back to a place where I am joyful and enthusiastic about writing, creating, and sharing the rowing experience with others. But it’s been really hard to figure out how.
Getting straight to it: I’ve been having a hard time with the mental and emotional components of continuing to train, and of continuing to be a part of USRowing. I’ve been unhappy for a while, at times desperately so, while I’ve been trying to work through some very complex personal issues that have been ongoing for the past two years. Much of it I can’t actually write about because I signed at least one NDA during my time as an athlete representative on the HPC from 2009-2017 and the USRowing Task Force in 2016-2017. But for the purposes of this post, the specifics aren’t as important as the end result, and how everything affected me along the way.
This started a long time ago. After returning from Beijing, I was looking for a way to augment my National Team experience and get more involved in USRowing. Sloan DuRoss encouraged me to run for the athlete representative spot with the High Performance Committee in 2009. In the early years, when I had just gotten back from a magical first experience at the Games in Beijing, I was hungry to get in and do good, and inject as much of the purity of the Olympic Movement into USRowing governance as I possibly could. I believed that everyone I was working with also cared about the values of the Olympic Movement like I did, and that they were motivated to ensure the actions and expressions of USRowing reflected those values. I really, really wanted to believe that. Beijing changed me. It made me so excited about the possibilities and opportunities afforded to those involved with Olympic Sport. More than ever before I was able to see how special training, rowing, and competing were. Getting swept into the idealism and optimism was so easy, and exhilarating. I entered the London quadrennium full of ideas and motivated to improve myself, my team and my NGB.
My expectations were not met. I had a reality check almost right out of the gates that dismantled my post-Beijing platform from a gloriously idealized offense to a scrappy, rag tag defense. I quickly realized that I could do the most good simply by being an advocate and a warrior for my fellow athletes and allying myself with my coaches, because as an organization, we were not ready for higher level development and improvement. The grandiose, idealized concepts I’d come in with deflated into the petty realities of fighting for athlete funding, health insurance, other financial resources, and getting USRowing simply to treat us like professionals. Just being heard, and being taken seriously by administrators were major barriers that I never overcame during my two full Olympic cycles of service. In writing, in person, measured or screaming — it didn’t matter. The longer I worked with the HPC, the more it was reinforced to me that athlete voices were always going to be marginalized and dismissed, no matter what I did. I was never going to be able to enact positive change or truly contribute to USRowing governance because no one ever really wanted to hear me, or the athletes I was representing.
I never stopped fighting for the fair and decent treatment of our athletes, and lamely, for the betterment of our Team. But working with the HPC was exhausting and emotionally draining. In the middle of the Rio quad, I was openly called a “problem” by our High Performance Director, which was in a small way satisfying but also very disturbing and disappointing. After eight years of futile conference calls and hours wasted in emails and meetings, I knew it was time for me to focus on other things after Rio. 2017 was going to be my last year as an athlete rep, and it was an important year for leadership and governance post-Task Force; but I was so defeated and frustrated, I was prepared to check out and participate only minimally in my final months. I’m not proud of how I attempted to exit my athlete representative role, but at a certain point, my experiences with the HPC and the Task Force took everything from me that there was to take in regards to how I viewed the structure, values and function of our NGB. And when I had nothing left to give, I stopped giving.
Despite my intentions to quietly leave the HPC behind me, life had other plans. I went abruptly from checking out to very checked in, when things that surfaced during the 2016 Task Force investigation took an intensely personal turn. Suddenly I was faced with one of the darkest, most troubling issues I had ever faced as an athlete representative. It was so unexpected that for a few days I was just dumbfounded and numb. Because of privacy and confidentiality issues, I was completely alone in deciding how to handle it. I had no allies or confidants; I had no precedent or procedure to follow; and I had no way to know the consequences of coming forward with knowledge only I had in order to stand up for myself and my teammates. Over the years I’d gone into battle for my teammates in various ways with a number of different people, and sometimes the stakes were higher than others. This was completely different. This was bigger than DAS or EAHI or selection procedures. This was about the foundation of the culture of our team, and the basic values of human behavior that dictate who we are as an organization. I was utterly lost. The initial helplessness and powerlessness I felt took a long time to work through, and those feelings along with anger, disappointment, betrayal, and defeat consumed my daily thoughts for several months. Dwelling on this multifaceted darkness became a very painful obsession, because the more I thought about it, the more difficult it was to decide what to do, or how to do it. It affected my training, and my relationships. I was anxious and edgy, and unsure if I could stay in the sport because of how severe the disconnect was between what I thought I believed, and what I felt my new reality was at USRowing. Ultimately after months of working through all of this alone, I decided I couldn’t stay quiet and made up my mind to say what I thought was right, even if it meant being judged, shamed, punished, or giving up my rowing career. It was terrifying. But I did it. On December 15, 2017 I unleashed all of pain, anxiety, anger, frustration and more on my final conference call as an athlete representative with the HPC. When I made my statement, the initial shockwave produced a sort of wide-eyed, panicked silence that I mistook for concern or remorse. I thought I had been heard, and that my voice might have finally made a difference. And then: the status quo took over. Excuses. Delays. More excuses. Everything that I’ve come to expect from USRowing in response to athlete voices. So in this last and final case, my expectations were met.
My last few months as an athlete representative were the worst of all my time on the team. Being confronted with the reality that my administrators were not the people I believed them to be challenged everything I had always wanted to believe about USRowing as an NGB. The worst part about realizing that nothing was as it seemed, was that I had to somehow find a way to rationalize continuing to be a part of an organization that was so broken, and so detached from the things I believed in as an athlete, as a woman, and an Olympian clinging to the last remaining shreds of my commitment to the ideals of the Olympic Movement. I really struggled to find ways to motivate myself to work with and for people who ask so much of their National Team athletes, and in return expect so little from themselves. And I did it all alone. I did it looking outward every day at all of my teammates who were happily unaware of the things I knew, and the betrayal I felt. They all could come to practice every day feeling good about what they were doing, and experiencing no conflict whatsoever about being involved in an organization which –for all they knew– was working hard to keep them safe and protect them from sexism and misogyny.
I was miserable, and steadily getting worse throughout the winter and spring of 2018, but couldn’t give up. When I made my choice to come forward, I knew I was going to have to be all in. It was a commitment I made to myself and my teammates to see it all the way to the end, no matter what. The consequences were unknowable when I set out, and I never pretended that things weren’t going to get worse before they got better. With the help of my current athlete representatives we were able to eventually achieve a resolution to this painful, humiliating issue, many months later. But not before having to bring on board my entire team and my coaches, because “just [my] voice wasn’t enough” to matter to USRowing leadership. I was heartbroken. I still am. My teammates shone brilliantly when I called on them, and it lifts my heart to think about their strength and support, and the way they galvanized like a team should when going in to battle together. Though at the same time, it was the last thing I ever wanted them to have to do, because it should never have fallen on them to go through any of that. It’s their job to train. Blowing up their routines and involving them in that giant distraction made me feel incredibly selfish and guilty, and like I was working against everything I have learned about our team culture at the training center. I was so grateful to have their support, but felt like it had come at a very painful cost.
Everyone else: my leaders, my administrators, people I’ve counted on and trusted for a decade or more… they let me down in a way I didn’t think was possible. They opened my eyes to how ugly and dark institutional sexism can be, and how devastating it is to be a target. They showed me how terrifying it is to worry endlessly about the safety and success of my teammates and future women of USRowing. It scares the living shit out of me to think about a younger senior athlete, a U23 athlete, or a junior athlete trying to come forward to USRowing like I did only to be met with the sort of resistance and unapologetic ignorance I went up against as the most senior member of the women’s team. I have written before about how critical trust is in sport, and also how fragile it is. The trust I lost in these people, and in my NGB is probably not something I will be able to rebuild during my remaining time as an athlete.
Before now, I never thought I took for granted that female athletes had an equal standing on this team. The importance of Title IX and of the tireless, gutsy work of the bold women who came before me was impressed upon me early, thanks to my coaches at the University of Washington. I thought that always believing it to be so, and having my coaches and teammates reinforcing that belief, was enough. For that complacency, I take personal responsibility. I never should have assumed that our fight was won. I was lucky to train and compete as long as I did before having to deal with the reality of being a woman in sport, and being treated as less-than. I won’t make that mistake again.
Whether I like it or not, this experience has now become a cornerstone of my identity as an athlete. For the past two years it has felt like it has been for the worse. I’m trying to find ways to make it be for the better. I don’t want to be stuck in this place where what I feel about my NGB becomes muddled with what I feel about my teammates, or my training. I don’t want to associate the failures of USRowing leadership with what I am trying to do as an individual, or the performances I am preparing for with my team. I’ve used this word a lot, but it’s dark. And it’s difficult to compartmentalize these things. I’ve been unhappy for a long time. I’m so tired of fighting the endless, pointless, fight against gutless, directionless people. I have reached the point of wanting to walk away, many times. From this, from the sport, from the people who let me down. I can’t say that I’ve ever hated rowing, but sifting through all of this now and finally organizing it is about as close as I’ve ever come.
Sometimes I think that maybe something brought me back to training after Rio just so that I could arrive at this moment, and do what I did for my team, because it was so much more important to their future and their success than any medal I could ever win. Especially with how much I struggled during the spring and summer of last year with injury, it felt like the timing was lining up and the signs were there for me to move on. The things I’ve said and done are things I can’t take back, and are going to be with me in some way or another for however long I continue to train. But despite all my initial hesitation and uncertainty, and despite feeling lost and confused for the past several months, I wouldn’t change what I did. I don’t regret using my voice to stand up for female athletes on our team and I don’t regret holding people accountable for bad judgment and bad leadership. But I would really like to be able to let go of all the ugliness and negativity that have been festering inside of me for the past two years. There’s no easy way to say it. This really fucked me up. And I think it’s fair say that I’m not totally whole yet.
I know now I should never have kept this to myself as long as I did. Not how I was feeling, and not my experiences. Bringing in my family, my boyfriend, my teammates, my coaches, and many of my closest former teammates have been important steps to undoing everything from the past two years. Talking regularly with a sports psychologist for the first time in my career is another one. But also being honest with myself, and holding myself accountable for how much I have let all of this impact my performance as an athlete and a teammate, is really important. Being consistent has probably been my biggest asset as an athlete during all my time on the team. This derailment has really thrown me, and that strength has now become a weakness. I know that I know how to get back, and I know that I possess the ability to get back, but it’s a process that is going to be ongoing. I’m not sure for how long. Probably just as long as it takes.
Writing this, and finally sharing it from the dark place I’ve been isn’t a quick fix. Posting this certainly isn’t going to make everything better, and it won’t make it go away. But it is something. It’s an unburdening that I don’t think I can get any other way. I’ve loved and cherished my blog and writing here so much during my time as an athlete, and all the wonderful people it has brought in to my life, and I hate feeling disconnected from it because there is this brooding ugliness looming over me every day. I write this, and I reject that. I’m a different athlete now, and I’m going to continue to change for the next 530 days or so. I’ve wasted enough time changing for the worse. It’s time to get back to changing for the better.
Thanks to those who have been there for me and listened when I needed you to. You know who you are.