Row and Behold
by Amanda Ottaway
Published in the Sunday Altoona Mirror July 8, 2012
Natalie Dell wasn’t born a rower.
Rowing is a sport typically described amid phrases like “Ivy League” or “pedigree.” Words like “farm” and “working-class” and “Central Pennsylvania,” all of which describe Dell’s upbringing in Clearville, where she was a track standout for Everett Area High School, don’t immediately spring to mind.
She may not have been born a rower, but Dell made herself into one. On June 22, less than a decade after picking up the sport in college, Dell was named to the 2012 U.S. Olympic rowing team. She will occupy the bow seat in the women’s quadruple sculls.
“Rowing,” Dell said, “is what I was born to do.”
By her senior year of high school, Dell was an injury-riddled and burned-out track star. Although she loved it, she didn’t feel the sport was her calling, rejecting multiple Division I scholarship offers in what she calls a “difficult and emotional decision.” She chose Penn State, and arrived on campus a non-athlete.
When members of the club rowing team approached her during her freshman year, though, Dell realized how much she still needed competition. Despite a lack of university funding and resources – “We were like the chess team, you know?” – and the fact that she had no prior experience, Dell joined the team. The adversity suited her, as it would throughout her new career. “My background gives me an attitude that has worked for me,” Dell said. “I think when you line up on the line, it just comes down to you and what you can do in that moment, regardless of where you came from.”
Dell graduated from Penn State in 2007 and joined the Riverside Boat Club in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The whole focus of Riverside’s program is to prepare athletes for the national level. At that point, though, her sights weren’t on the Olympics or even the national team. She just wanted to keep getting faster.
“I didn’t start out in a place that set me up for success in this sport,” Dell said. “I didn’t have a pedigree, as they say. There were many times when I kind of looked like an outsider, because I was.”
While at Riverside, she rowed under the tutelage of Tom and Liane Keister.
“Natalie started at a slight disadvantage,” Tom Keister said. Her small frame and Penn State’s small program had set her back a stroke from her peers.
“But we quickly realized that she had some boat-moving ability,” Keister added. He noted her “sheer competitiveness” as a factor in her success. Dell quickly separated herself from the pack, training in Boston for two years before leaving for U.S. Rowing in Princeton, New Jersey, in 2010. She made the national team almost immediately, in the summer of that same year.
“That’s pretty unique,” Megan Kalmoe, one of Dell’s Olympic teammates, said. Kalmoe noted that Dell, coming out of the club in Boston, didn’t have access to national team coaches or the national training center resources like many of her competitors. “It takes a very special level of dedication, and a lot of natural talent, to be able to break into the group that way.”
Kalmoe is the only athlete in Dell’s boat who has been to the Olympics before. All four of the women in the quad picked up the sport in college, with little or no prior experience. Perhaps most impressive is how quickly these women turned into elite athletes.
“The level of strength and fitness and talent on this team as a whole is at a very, very high level right now,” Kalmoe said.
Dell agreed. “Our lineup is very strong,” she said. “And we have a goal. And that is to win.”
On July 16, U.S. Rowing will depart for London. The athletes will go directly to processing and then to a special satellite site, a mini-Olympic village designed for the rowers and kayakers, where they’ll train until their first race on July 28. Dell said Lake Eton, the race site, is notorious for a strong tailwind that makes the water choppy and rough. She isn’t worried.
“Always be prepared to race,” Dell said. “No matter who’s next to you, no matter what the water’s doing, no matter what the wind is doing. I’m ready to handle whatever conditions Eton can throw at us.”
The medal round begins August 1, just four days after the first race. But the national team, from which the Olympic representatives were chosen, lives and rows together all but three or four weeks a year, and has been training for London since 2008.
“The bonds that I have established with my teammates are things I’m not gonna be able to replicate anywhere else for the rest of my life,” Dell said. “So it’s very special.”
Her teammates think highly of her, too.
“She has a reputation around the boathouse for being one of the sweetest, most gentle, compassionate athletes on the team,” Kalmoe said of Dell. “She is all-around well-liked because of her personality and her demeanor. She brings a level of calm, but also a level of confidence.”
Dell’s confidence takes her places. She’ll depart for London with a grounded sense of where she comes from. She’s not concerned about the fact that she wasn’t born and bred on regattas.
“I am really proud of my background, coming from rural Pennsylvania, and coming from a working-class family,” she said. “It does give me a different perspective.” She’s excited to represent Central Pennsylvania on Olympic waters.
She’s also happy that she discovered the thing she was meant to do. Rowing, Dell noted several times, is a hard sport. Their work is painful, and they train long hours. But for Dell, it’s worth, it, even on the worst days.
“When you are in a team boat, and all eight blades are going in at the exact same time, and the boat is running, and there’s a beautiful sunrise, and it’s those moments of just complete synchronicity. Where it doesn’t matter how hard you’re going and how tired you are; there’s nothing else that really matters in the world. That’s why we do it. We’re always chasing after that.”
They’re chasing after a gold medal, too. If their dream comes true, one of Central Pennsylvania’s own will be first to cross the finish line.
Rowing Quick Facts
-Rowing is one of the oldest sports in the modern Olympics – it’s been a part of the Summer Games since 1900 – and was one of the quickest to sell out in London 2012.
-The United States rowing contingent makes up the third-largest group of representing athletes at this year’s Summer Games, comprising forty-eight men and women who have been training and living together year-round since 2008.
-Dell’s event, the quadruple scull, is a four-person boat with each athlete rowing two oars.
-The racing distance measures about two thousand meters; the winning team will likely finish in six to six and a half minutes.
-The boat travels backwards; therefore, although Dell’s bow seat is technically the last one in the boat, she is first to cross the finish line.
-The key is to row powerfully – Dell described it as a two-thousand-meter sprint – and perfectly in rhythm at varying speeds throughout the race.
-Although it varies from athlete to athlete, Kalmoe estimated that her female teammates eat from 4,000 to 6,000 calories per day. “Eating becomes a chore,” Kalmoe said.
-The United States women’s quad scullers did not medal in Beijing in 2008.
-Dell, Kalmoe, and Martelli were part of a quad scull team that took silver at the Rowing World Championships in Bled, Slovenia in September 2011.
-The Olympic women’s quad scull team of Martelli, Kohler, Kalmoe, and Dell is currently projected to finish fourth, according to USA Today’s Olympic Medal Tracker. (as of 6/11/12)
-“The quad is a fun boat because of how powerful it is,” Kalmoe said.
Meet the Team
Adrienne Martelli – Stroke seat
Date of birth: 12/3/87
College: University of Washington, 2006
Stroke seat – front of the boat.
Affectionately known to her teammates as “Legs McGee.”
-Sets the rhythm of the strokes. Watches a small computer with race data, stroke rate.
-Steers the boat with a foot pedal
-Responsible for keeping the boat in the middle of the lane (boat should have three feet on either side of oars)
Kara Kohler – Three seat
Date of birth: 1/20/1991
College: University of California, 2013
Three seat – behind Martelli
-Mimics Martelli’s strokes exactly for the other two to follow. Must be exactly in sync with stroke seat at every moment.
-Usually the biggest, strongest athlete in the boat. Has “amazing physiology,” according to Kalmoe. “She’s really good at adapting to change and critique. She’s incredibly powerful.”
Megan Kalmoe – Two seat
Date of birth: 8/21/83
College: University of Washington, 2002
Two seat – behind Kohler
Second-time Olympian – finished fifth in double sculls (two-person scull) in Beijing 2008
-Similar to three seat.
-Two seat is “the engine room,” Dell said. Kalmoe is “breathtakingly strong.”
-Responsible for solidifying the rhythm.
-Keeps a blog, which she intends to update from London: http://www.megankalmoe.com
Natalie Dell – Bow seat
Date of birth: 2/20/85
College: Penn State University
Bow seat – behind Kalmoe
-Responsible for “calling” the race. This means helping with steering by communicating which side of the boat should pull harder to stay on course. Also watches a small computer and calls the stroke rate, and whether it should come up or down, based on opponents’ positions and/or the race plan.
-In charge of “making sure we don’t run into anything,” Kalmoe said.