Madison Mailey, an All-American rower at Northeastern who graduated in 2018, won an Olympic gold medal while rowing in the women’s eight for Canada on Thursday in Tokyo.
Mailey and her boatmates rowed to an early lead before holding off a late charge from New Zealand, which fell short by 0.91 seconds. It was Canada’s first gold medal in women’s rowing since 1996.
Adding to the drama was the late arrival of Kasia Gruchalla-Wesierski, who had suffered serious injuries last month in a team bicycle accident. She recovered ahead of schedule and was named to the team on July 17, six days before the boat competed in two preliminary rounds to earn its place in the gold-medal final.
“Six weeks ago I was told I was lucky to be alive, and when they made the team announcements I was literally limping out of the hospital with a broken collarbone,” Gruchalla-Wesierski said. “I just can’t believe I’m here.”
In this final entry of the Olympic diary that Mailey has been sharing with News@Northeastern, she takes us through the biggest race of her life—starting with the breathing exercises, led by Mailey, that helped set the tone for the triumph to come.
I’ve been doing these pre-race talks since we’ve been in Japan, and I was told this was my best one. We were standing by the boat racks before the Olympic final—the nine of us from our boat and Michelle Darvill, our coach. I had the girls repeat after me these four lines:
I am strong
I am so fit
I am so mentally tough
I am the fiercest competitor on the water
I told the girls, “When you breathe out, breathe out all fear and doubts you have. And when you breathe in, breathe in power. Breathe in a whole country and breathe in your coaches and your community and how much they believe in you. And don’t limit yourself.”
And then we did the breathing together, and we connected to the rhythm of our breathing before we went out on the water.
In the boat, waiting for the start, it was nerve-wracking. I think everyone was scared. But at the same time we were all really full of confidence. I remember saying to my teammate in front of me, “This is going to be fun.”
At the start you have 45 seconds of free energy that won’t affect the rest of your race. Our goal was to use that. We have never been an incredible start crew, but we decided we wanted to really gas it and give it big legs off the front. Because we knew we wouldn’t get tired.
When the race starts, you can’t afford to be looking around at the other boats. A big part of rowing at this level is being present on every stroke. When you’re in an eight, there are a lot of moving parts and things can go sideways quickly. Think of it: Our boat is 96 kilos, and then you have the nine of us each 75 to 90 kilos. So you’ve got close to 2,000 pounds to carry around and, if you’re not picking it up together, it gets really heavy and then you’re wasting energy.
At the same time, it’s important to acknowledge where you are. We’re all competitors, right? We need to see a little bit. So out of our peripherals, we could see what was happening.
“You’re in first place,” Kristen Kit, our coxswain, told us at around 750 meters.
But I could still see all the boats next to me. I didn’t think we were up by much. I just thought, it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter, give it more, give it more.
I put a lot of pressure on myself. I haven’t missed one practice since we’ve come back from COVID-19. I haven’t been sick, haven’t been injured, haven’t sat out. I feel like I’ve worked really, really hard, and I want it to show. And I know that sometimes it’s just not your day. But I just tried to trust what we were doing and never get ahead of myself.
Trust is a big part of our team. It has been quite an emotional time, because Kasia came back to our team two weeks ago.
Kasia has been my roommate in the Olympic Village, and I know she went through hell to get back to our boat. One week after she had surgery for a broken collarbone, she was back on her bike training for three to four hours per day. She used electromagnetic fields, she used red light therapy, she used lots of psychologists and people who could help her use her brain to heal her body. It is crazy when you think about the most important race of your life and someone in your boat not being a part of that for three weeks, but the bigger picture is that she was a humongous part of the team for the last two years.
She said she was only going to be in this boat if she knew that she was going to make the boat faster. Her knee is a little bit cut-up still. But her collarbone doesn’t give her any problems. Our physio said she was two months ahead of schedule. It’s pretty incredible what the power of the mind and putting 100 percent heart and soul into recovering and healing your body can do. So I knew I had the most badass two-seat at the start line.
When we were on the water during that race, it felt like we were together in each stroke. It felt like slow-motion rowing. And it was pretty incredible.
We were still in the lead with around 750 meters to go, and that’s when I said to myself, ‘We are going to medal at the Olympics.’ And I was still feeling good. When you’re rolling past three minutes 30 seconds, and you’re hurting a lot, and you can still say, ‘I feel good’—you’re unstoppable. And so that’s where I thought, ‘OK, it’s going to happen.’
With 500 meters left, Kit told us: “You could be Olympic champions!”
Kit started our sprint pretty early, because some of these countries are incredible at sprinting. I really tried to stay in my lane and just focus on giving everything I could.
And then the last 10 strokes you’re going as fast as you can and you don’t really care about the length anymore. You’re just getting your blade in, getting as many strokes in as possible.
All of a sudden, everyone was screaming in my boat. Kit jumped out of her seat and threw her hands in the air. I immediately put my hands in the water. I knew it was a clear win. But I was dying. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t believe what just happened. My legs were in a lot of pain. I was just trying to breathe and get my heart rate down.
I was just feeling proud that the hard work paid off. This past year was really tough. It feels like this group has had so many obstacles—as probably most big teams do—but we’ve gotten through them all and it’s made us stronger.
And then I thought about my family, and then I was crying.
My brother said, “You go to bed tonight as the Olympic champion—and then you wake up for the rest of your life as an Olympic champion.” It’s just hard to believe. When I made the Olympic team, I was excited. And now I’m walking around the Olympic village with this heavy gold medal around my neck, and everyone’s asking to touch it and hold it. I have what everyone wants here, what everyone is trying to accomplish, and it’s pretty surreal.
We get on a plane tomorrow, which is crazy. I’m so excited to see everyone at home. It’s going to be so lovely.