Olympic Gold Medalists Inspire Crew Team

Two Olympic rowers who helped build a U.S. dynasty in the sport spoke to the EHS crew team last week about their success and the joys and trials of high-level competition.

Susan Francia spent a decade on the U.S. rowing team, helping the women’s eight win its first Olympic gold medal in 2008 and a second in 2012. Her teams in the eight also won five world championships, and she was part of a duo that won the world championship in pairs in 2009, the first-ever U.S. gold in that event. 

Kerry Simmonds helped the U.S. women’s eight win its third straight Olympic gold in 2016 and also earned three world championship medals — two gold and one silver — at the world championships. In 2013, she was part of a boat that set a world record in the 2000-kilometer race that stands today.

Both spoke to the EHS rowers about how, after relatively average high school athletic careers, they picked up an oar for the first time in college. Francia said she joined rowing at the University of Pennsylvania as a sophomore and floundered at first. “I had no idea what was going on,” she said. “I took the oar and kidney-punched the person right in front of me multiple times.” But by the end of her first year, her coach was encouraging her to think about the Olympics. 

Simmonds, a three-sport athlete in high school, initially struggled as well, but by her second year at the University of Washington, her coach was also urging her to consider the Olympics, an audacious challenge she decided to embrace. “My philosophy has been: Do your best, see what happens, and don’t put limits on yourself,” she said.

Francia and Simmonds both talked about how rowing builds unusually strong team chemistry, with success flowing from harmony of movement on the water. “That’s one of the most exciting things about rowing that it’s hard to capture in other sports,” Francia said. “Basketball’s a team sport, and you have to coordinate, but there’s not one moment where you’re doing exactly the same thing.”

The rigors of training, with long, painful hours on erg machines, also build a mental toughness is valuable in all aspects of life, they said. “When I face something really tough outside the sport, I take the approach: If I can do this 6k race or a 2K or this workout on the erg, I can certainly do this life thing that’s not as hard,” Simmonds said.

Francia and Simmonds spoke of the difficulty of training during the pandemic, when there’s no competition or even time on the water to provide motivation. “You guys have each other, and you have each other to hold each other accountable,” said Francia, who earned her MBA after the 2012 Olympics and now works in business development for a biotech firm. “Take it upon yourselves to say, “I’m doing it for the team; I’m doing it because the coach wants me to.” But you’re also doing it for yourself.”

“You really have to enjoy the journey,” said Simmonds, who’s pursuing a Ph.D. in physical therapy. “It’s not just about the destination. Seeing yourself improve and pushing past your limits can be pretty cool.”

Girls’ crew coach Dr. Colleen Krivacek arranged for the two rowers to speak to the crew team during this time of “virtual practices,” with athletes working out individually at home. "With so much uncertainty surrounding rowing this year, and sports in general,” she says, “I thought the team would be inspired and uplifted by talking with these strong women. Both have achieved the ultimate in success in our sport, but they are also down-to-earth and easy to talk to. Best of all, they both love to work with young athletes in the sport of rowing. We were so lucky to have them visit with our team." 

Watch clips of the rowers' conversations:
  • Susan Francia on the finals race in the 2008 Beijing Olympics and her thoughts as her boat neared the finish line.

  •  Kerry Simmonds on receiving her 2016 gold medal from Anita Defrantz, a pioneering African American rower who captained the first U.S. gold medal team in 1976.