The exhausting and inspiring dream is about to come true. After a pandemic-related postponement, Madison Mailey will be rowing in the Olympic Games for Canada—three years after she starred for Northeastern.
“I never thought that this could be me,” says Mailey, who was All-American at Northeastern in 2018. “I always watched the Olympics on TV and thought, ‘Wow, these are incredible athletes—so fast, so strong.’ I hoped one day that could be me, never really thinking that it could. So I have a little bit of disbelief still.”
Mailey, 6 feet tall, will be the first woman rower from Northeastern to compete in an Olympics. She will be racing in the women’s eight at the Games in Tokyo, which open July 23. She previously had qualified for the Canadian team in 2020, only to have those Olympics put on hold by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“When Canada backed out of the Olympics in 2020, I was pretty devastated, I had lots of tears,” Mailey says. “The week before, I’d just made my first Olympic team unofficially.”
After that initial reaction, Mailey, 24, approached the interim year with faith that the Olympics would be held this summer—despite calls for the Tokyo Games to be postponed or canceled altogether.
“I have a dream, I’m following that path, and I believe that this is going to happen,” Mailey says of her mindset over the past four months in particular. “There are going to be people in my life that don’t believe it’s going to happen, but I need to just surround myself with people who believe it is going to happen and believe in me. Because you can’t in your mind go out there every day and not believe that you’re training for something. It’s much easier when you’re surrounded by a team of people who also believe it’s going to happen and believe in you.”
She has been sequestered at the Canadian training center for the past year, training two to three times per day, six to seven days per week.
“This COVID year has been so challenging on everyone,” Mailey says. “Some of my teammates haven’t gone home since Christmas of 2019. People have husbands that they haven’t been able to see. We’re double-vaccinated, but we’re still told not to go to restaurants, they don’t want us out in public, and we still wear a mask everywhere until we’re in the boat.”
The commitment to world-class rowing is demanding enough in non-pandemic times, says Joe Wilhelm, who has coached the Northeastern women’s rowing team for the past 21 years. He notes that rowers like Mailey often struggle financially to pursue their Olympic dream.
“These athletes aren’t funded,” Wilhelm says. “She isn’t able to hold down a job and train six hours a day, so it’s difficult to keep it up over a sustained period of time. It’s very taxing on the body, and it’s also taxing seeing your friends and your classmates—they’ve gone and gotten jobs, while you’re training and not getting paid for it.”
Over her final two years at Northeastern, Mailey helped the Canadian under-23 team win successive world championships (while setting a world record) in the women’s eight. Those performances helped her reach Canada’s senior boat in 2018—a half-dozen years earlier than expected. She helped Canada finish eighth in the 2019 World Championships.
In addition to earning her degree in business management and entrepreneurship while rowing for Northeastern, Mailey earned a certificate of merit with the New England Conservatory of Music.
“To graduate from the program, you have to do a concert and have an audience,” says Mailey, who sang for 70 minutes in German, Italian, French and English. “I think I had 60 people there, and it was a really special blending of my worlds. My voice teacher said, ‘Oh, here come the Amazon women,’ when the whole Northeastern rowing team came walking in.”
Wilhelm laughs at the memory of Mailey’s classical performance on the same weekend that she rowed in the Head of the Charles Regatta in Boston.
“It’s almost unfair,” he jokes of her array of talents. “She is amazing.”
Mailey believes her commitment to singing has contributed to her pursuit of the Olympics.
“I’m a performer,” she says. “I love the opportunity to go out on the stage and show what I’ve been training for. So the fact that we’re going to race against other countries really excites me. We haven’t raced against other women’s eights in two years. It will be super crazy at the start line for the countdown of lanes: China, United States of America, Canada, Russia, and going down the line—it’s really exciting.”
It will be a moment of lasting impact.
“I’m so proud of the hard work I’ve put in for the past four years especially,” Mailey says. “And I think it means a lot to my community as well—for Northeastern; for Lions Bay [British Columbia], where I grew up; for my high school; for my parents and family and friends who have supported me to get here today. I just feel very grateful for all the love and support I’ve gotten, because I won’t sit at the start line feeling it’s just me.
“But I also just really believe in the team that I’m part of, the eight other people in my boat that work so hard, and I’m really, really excited to race down that course with them.”