As the 2015 honoree for National Girls and Women in Sports Day at U.Va., Meghan O’Leary described her current pursuit of the Olympics in a speech addressed to an audience of more than 130 guests at a reception before last month’s Virginia-Georgia Tech women’s basketball game.

O’Leary grew up playing softball and volleyball, continuing in these sports as a student-athlete at U.Va.

However, in 2010, she realized her true athletic passion was in rowing– two years after graduating from U.V.a. with her Master’s of Education in Social Foundations and Policy and three years after earning her bachelor’s degree in Sociology and Religious Studies in 2007.

“After one day on the water, I fell madly in the love with the sport,” O’Leary said her in speech, noting how she decided to try rowing out while living in Hartford, Conn. for her prior job. “It occurred to me on that same day that I didn’t want to just do this a few times a week, recreationally […]”

By 2011, she joined the USRowing National Training Center in Princeton, N.J., and she has since earned a spot on two U.S. Senior National Teams (2013-14) and is an Olympic hopeful for 2016.

“Some would call emptying your savings, quitting your job and chasing a dream with an unpredictable outcome ‘bold’ and ‘fearless’ — others may have a different genre of words for it — but nonetheless, I had an unbelievable support network and the confidence built on my experiences as a young athlete and as a Cavalier, that I could take on any challenge and succeed.”

Based on this anecdote, O’Leary identified with the theme of this year’s National Girls and Women in Sports Day – “Bold in the Pursuit of Excellence.”

The annual event brings national attention to the achievements of female athletes and to issues facing girls and women in sport, selecting a different honoree each year to be honored before a woman’s basketball game and at half-time. The day is co-sponsored by the University of Virginia Athletics Department and the Maxine Platzer Lynn Women’s Center at U.Va.

The day also featured a pregame sports festival for youth. Children ranging in age from toddler to middle school learned basic skills like tossing, catching, shooting and kicking with current U.Va. student-athletes. Activities in the main lobby of the arena included face painting, a balloon artist, inflatable games and a U.Va. sports-themed photo booth with props like oversized sunglasses, cheer poms and a big foam finger.

About 20 Big-Little Sister pairs in the Young Women Leaders Program, co-sponsored by the Women’s Center and the Curry School of Education at U.Va., attended the festival and basketball game.

“At today’s game, there will be middle school girls from Charlottesville and Albemarle[…]” Women’s Center Director Sharon Davie said. “Sitting with their YWLP Big Sisters, they will cheer their hearts out for what will become their team. And they will leave the stands with incredibly powerful role models, one of these is of course is our distinguished honoree.”

As a fourth year media studies major, a member of the U.Va. IMP Society and a member of the track team at U.Va. since her first year, Jordan Lavender easily related to O’Leary’s speech and looked up to her as role model. She and other IMP members jumped at the opportunity to surprise O’Leary with a letter of recognition at the pregame reception.

“We are dedicated to recognizing those on Grounds who are doing absolutely amazing things, such as Meghan,” Lavender said before presenting the letter with her peers. “[…] I have goals to work for ESPN, to go to the Olympics, so just to see that is absolutely amazing. And we want to recognize her and show her that we have not forgotten about her […]”

In U.Va. Athletic Director Craig Littlepage’s introduction to O’Leary at the reception, he emphasized how she epitomized the definition of a leader.

“In and out of competition, Meghan is a consummate leader who motivates teammates and friends with vocal encouragement and by demonstrating an unwavering work ethic, never doing anything less than 100 percent. So when you hear words like ‘leader,’ ‘student athlete,’ ‘inspirational’ and ‘uncompromised excellence,’ you should immediately think of Meghan O’Leary.”

After the event, the Women’s Center was fortunate enough to get more in-depth advice from O’Leary on how to lead a life “bold in the pursuit of excellence,” covering topics related to her time at U.Va., her career in sports journalism, and her dream to go to the Olympics.

Agnes Filipowski: What was like it to return to your alma mater for NGWS Day at U.Va.?

Meghan O’Leary: I always say that returning to Charlottesville feels like coming home. It was a fantastic weekend; one that I’ll never forget. I felt like a celebrity. I was incredibly honored and humbled to be recognized as this year’s honoree for NGWSD. The University of Virginia has already given me so much, and to be welcomed back and honored in such a special way was truly an unforgettable experience.

AF: You juggled a lot with academics, extracurricular activities and athletics when at U.Va. What advice could you give students in a similar position?

MO: The wonderful thing about U.Va. is that there is an endless number of opportunities; there is literally something for everyone.

Being a student-athlete at U.Va. requires a lot of focus, so it can be difficult to feel like you have time for anything outside of practice, competition and studying. With such limited free time, you are forced to manage your priorities and learn how to balance your schedule. But make sure that in addition to your academics and athletics, you are working on you.

College is the time to explore and experience new things, grow, learn about yourself and the world around you. At least once a semester or even just in your off-season, make time to try something new that takes you outside of the athletic community. The benefits from joining just one club or volunteering with one organization will open your eyes to new people, new ideas, and in turn, make you a better person.

AF: How did you balance time with all your commitments while still having a social life?

MO: While my studies and athletics were top priorities, my friends and family have always been important to me. I knew that when I looked back on my time at U.Va., the relationships formed and the memories created would be what I would hold onto forever. It’s important to have balance in your life.

AF: What motivated you to work specifically in TV production/programming? What were your highlights of your time working with ESPN?

MO: Growing up, I was always plotting and making movies with the neighborhood kids. I loved to write. I loved storytelling. Through my experiences working with Virginia Sports TV, writing for the Cavalier Daily, and interning with NBC’s Today show, I knew that this was what I wanted to do.

At ESPN, I worked primarily in college sports and on the ESPNU network.

In production, I loved working in the edit room and the production truck. That’s where the storytelling is done. With programming, I helped schedule the network, determining what games we would air and when, what the surrounding programming would be and how the whole package would tell the story. Having experience in both production and programming was a unique way to experience the many sides of television.

Some of my favorite projects were working on the NCAA Championships, including: the Women’s College World Series, the Men’s and Women’s Volleyball Championships, and the Men’s and Women’s College Cup (Soccer) Championships. During ESPN’s celebration of the 40th Anniversary of Title IX, I was a member of the planning committee overseeing the company’s initiatives, planning and implementation. Considering how much athletics have impacted me, that was a really special project to be involved with.

AF: What was it like working in a generally male-dominated field of TV/sports journalism?

MO: While the sports television/sports journalism field is still a heavily male-dominated industry, I like to believe that it is becoming a little more balanced. I had some wonderful female mentors while at ESPN. Some of the most talented producers, journalists, and executives I worked with were women. We just need more of them!

I would say my experience was a positive one. I enjoyed the challenge of knowing that while I may have been the only woman in the production truck or at the negotiating table, I knew sports just as well or better than the guy next to me.

AF: How did your initial start with the sport of rowing and your experience in learning the sport compare/contrast to your childhood journey of learning softball and volleyball?

MO: I really can’t say that I love one sport over the other. It was a very difficult decision for me to decide what sport I was going to pursue in college.

If I could go back, I might have even chosen to play basketball in college (I was quite the basketball player and used to play pick-up with the Virginia women’s team over the summers)! At its core, I love sports. I love the competition, the challenge and the struggle of finding a better you through hard work, failure and eventually success.

I think what grabbed me about rowing was that I absolutely knew nothing about it.

Trying something as new and foreign to me as rowing forced me outside of my comfort zone in a way that I had never been before (or at least in a very long time), and I thrived in that. It scared me at first, to feel so awkward and out of place, especially doing something athletic. I think this is part of what drew me into the sport. I was like a kid again, experiencing something for the first time. I was fortunate enough to find that I was pretty decent at it and have had the opportunity to pursue it at a very high level.

AF: What advice do you have for athletes who were once active in college and are now in the post-graduation stage and still looking to stay active and/or involved in a team?

MO: It’s so easy to find something; you just have to put yourself out there. There are thousands of opportunities to join leagues, find races and to just be active. You don’t have to turn it into an Olympic pursuit, but being active is so important to staying healthy and happy.

AF: How has the goal of reaching the Olympics changed your everyday life, at this point?

MO: When you decide to chase the Olympics, and especially in rowing, it is an all-in effort. My life took a very dramatic turn in the complete opposite direction from the course I was on. I had a full-time dream job and a promising career ahead of me with ESPN, a social life, family time, a 401k with stock options, and something called disposable income. When I wasn’t working, I took weekend trips to see friends and family.

My life completely changed, and I haven’t looked back. Rowing has taken me down a winding road of self-realization, new experiences, and physical, mental and emotional growth of unmeasurable reaches. I traded spending hours at a desk and in meeting rooms, to spending hours in a boat and in the weight room. Instead of working toward the next promotion or landing the next big deal, I’m now working toward a World Championship and Olympic medal while going toe to toe with the best in the world.

There are days I miss some of the things I did while working at ESPN. Maybe when I’m watching a game on television or reading about the latest acquisition or conference rights agreement, but I definitely wouldn’t trade it for what I’m doing now. Perhaps I’ll return to the sports television industry once my rowing career is over, we’ll see.

AF: You’ve mentioned the support you had from Kevin Sauer at U.Va. How did other friends, family and colleagues react to your decision?

MO: I’ve been so lucky to have the greatest support network anyone could ask for. From my family to my friends, I have so many people pulling for me. My colleagues at ESPN couldn’t have been more excited for me. It was a difficult decision to leave such a great job, but knowing that I had the support of everyone I worked with made it that much easier.

My family has been incredible. My parents never once doubted my decision to leave my job and pursue a shot at the Olympics. They knew that if I wanted to do it, I was going to make it happen. They have supported me from day one. They travel to my regattas and have been there for me every step of the way. From emotional support to financial support when I need it, they are my backbone. Pursuing an Olympic Dream is never a solo journey and I’m so fortunate to have so many great people with me.

Story by Agnes Filipowski

Photos courtesy of U.Va. Athletics