Olympic gold medalist Madison Mailey shares her story of resilience with Northeastern graduates in Toronto

madison mailey standing at podium wearing cap and gown
Her Olympic lessons “are transferable to any of your journeys,” Madison Mailey told the Northeastern graduates in Toronto on Thursday. Photo by Tobias Wang for Northeastern University

Olympic gold medalist and Northeastern alumnus Madison Mailey drew upon her championship experiences while speaking to graduates Thursday at the Commencement ceremony for Northeastern University’s Toronto campus. 

Mailey shared the behind-the-scenes story of the Olympic gold medal she earned in Tokyo last summer with the Canadian women’s rowing team—her country’s first in the event since 1992—with the goal of inspiring her audience of graduates.

“Northeastern University attracts a very specific type of individual: Someone who is kind, curious, brave and wants to be a difference-maker in their respective field,” said Mailey, who will also be delivering the Commencement address on June 6 at Northeastern University in Vancouver, her hometown. “Have courage, stay humble and be kind.”

The in-person ceremony (which was also livestreamed) was held in the John Bassett Theatre at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. It was a triumphant moment for the 193 students—the Toronto location’s largest class—who earned graduate degrees during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“As we share this last moment together before we go on our separate paths, I want you to remember that we will always share three values wherever we go,” said Anjali Bhatnagar, the student speaker, who received a master’s in project management. “These values are none other than Northeastern’s own motto: Lux, Veritas, Virtus, which means light, truth and courage. 

“I am confident that after these last two years, all of us will emerge with bright futures and the courage to take on the next step,” Bhatnagar continued. “Because let’s be honest, our batch of Northeastern University-Toronto graduates is a really special one.”

During this time of economic disruption and accelerated change, Aliza Lakhani, regional CEO and dean of Northeastern University-Toronto urged graduates to lean on each other as they take their next steps.

“You are now joining one of the strongest alumni communities in the world,” Lakhani said.. “You are graduates of a university that stretches across North America and into the United Kingdom. So know that you have a global family that will open its arms for you in times of celebration and also in times of need.”

The faculty speaker, Adel Zadeh, an associate teaching professor in project management at Northeastern’s Toronto location, related his own experiences as a student. He left his career in Iran to move to Malaysia and England to earn a master’s and PhD.

“Was it worth spending seven years of my life on graduate study? My answer is a resounding yes,” Zadeh told the new graduates. “The skills that you have acquired over the last two years will help to make you strong contributors to the prosperity and well-being of your communities.”

Mailey, who graduated from Northeastern with a bachelor’s degree in business administration in 2018, related the inspiring story of how she and her Canadian teammates were strengthened by the hardships of the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced a one-year delay of the Tokyo Olympics originally scheduled for July 2020—news that she initially received with tears.

“However, for the Canadian women’s rowing team, this delay was a blessing, not a curse,” said Mailey, who earned a joint certificate of merit in music performance from the New England Conservatory while she was studying and rowing at Northeastern. “Through our passion, resilience, and perseverance, we used this ‘bonus year’ to reframe this major setback as an opportunity to continue our growth and development as individuals and as a team.”

It was a triumphant moment for the 193 students—the Toronto location’s largest class—who earned graduate degrees during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by Tobias Wang for Northeastern University

During those months alone, the Canadian rowers strengthened their bonds with each other as well as their commitment to the Olympic mission. 

“We trained from our own homes, doing our workouts on Zoom or FaceTime, and we openly communicated our disappointments or struggles,” Mailey said. “We did this through having difficult conversations, respecting our individuality, and learning to trust in this group of accountable, focused, and tenacious women. We were doing something no one had ever done before: We were creating an Olympic gold medal crew remotely.

“I know today that without these challenges we faced and overcame together, we would not be Olympic champions,” Mailey continued. “And there’s more of a story to tell.”

Forty days before the Olympics, a team biking trip went horribly wrong when a crash sent three teammates to the hospital—including Kasia Gruchalla-Wesierski, who suffered a broken collarbone and wounds requiring 56 stitches. 

“The doctor told Kasia she should not be thinking of racing at the Olympics and to just feel happy to be alive,” Mailey recalled. “Everything we had been working towards felt like it was slipping away and our team culture was shaken to the core. But we knew we still had a job to do. Our emotional resilience was being tested.”

Remarkably, Gruchalla-Wesierski recovered, reclaimed her seat, and helped power the Canadian boat to the gold medal.

“This life lesson we experienced is transferable to any of your journeys,” Mailey told the graduates. “Just because a path seems clear and unobstructed does not mean this will always be the case. When faced with obstacles and adversity, we must aim to control the controllables and focus our energies on aspects of life that will benefit your future.”

Mailey said she continues to receive support from Northeastern as her own life story evolves.

“In November I took a leap of faith and made the decision to step away from sports and into the world of financial management,” said Mailey, now a wealth advisor with the Mailey Rogers Group at Scotia Wealth Management in Vancouver. “In my new chapter I bring all the experiences that a skinny 19-meter-long boat taught me. 

“In the same way I have made this shift,” she said, “you are too starting a new journey with all of the knowledge and experience you have learned here at Northeastern.”

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