Proud Penn Stater is ready to take on the rowing world

Olympian Natalie Dell took up rowing when she started college. Her women's quad boat finished second last year in the world championships.
Olympian Natalie Dell took up rowing when she started college. Her women's quad boat finished second last year in the world championships. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 27, 2012

Natalie Dell, 27, is not your typical Olympic rower. She is from nowhere, or almost nowhere - Clearville, Bedford County.

"Follow the cows, and you'll eventually get to my house," she said. "I live 45 minutes from the high school I went to, 45 minutes from pretty much anything."

(Nearby metropolises include Rainsburg, Five Forks, and Daves Gap.)

Dell's parents didn't attend four-year colleges, and her knowledge of the world was limited. "I didn't even know that MIT was MIT," she said of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "I thought it was a technical school you went to if you wanted to be a mechanic."

In high school, she was strong and fast, a track star, but burned out and didn't want to run track in college. She got into Penn State on academic merit, and for her, Penn State might as well have been Paris - big, modern, foreign, a new and wonderful world.

She struggled at first, didn't have anything to stir her passion, to give order and meaning to her world. She wasn't a partyer, wasn't a super-serious student. She hated exercising for exercising's sake.

Her roommate recommended the crew club, and said: "They're all crazy, they go to practice at 5 a.m., and it's just a club sport. But they're like a family and supercompetitive."

Dell went to the first practice. She saw herself as fit, as this "cool track star," but, "I got my butt whipped. That's why I kept coming back. I loved that it was difficult."

And soon, she was hooked for life. She loves the team component, the unity, the aspiration for perfection.

"You're in a boat with four or eight people," she said. "And you all have to do the same thing. When it's bad, it's really bad. But when it's good, there is no way to describe it - you're taking wonderful, fluid strokes, and the boat is just running over the water.

"You could be exhausted. It could be raining, snowing, hailing. When you're moving with everybody else and the blades are falling through together and pushing through together, there's just no other feeling like it. Those moments are rare, and we're always chasing after them."

Participating on her college club team was not exactly an Ivy League, elite rowing experience.

"We had to buy our own uniforms, hired and fired our own coaches, who were largely volunteers. We coordinated pretty much everything," Dell said. "We would drive half an hour to get on the water. Wake up before 5, leave by 5:30. We had no dock, had to walk the boats into the water. In March, that's really an experience."

Upon graduating, she was nowhere near Olympic material, but she had the rowing fever, bad. So she moved to Boston to pursue a master's degree in public health and rowed on the Charles River. She knew she had to improve tremendously to even have a chance of being invited to train with the U.S. national team in Princeton.

"I was willing to do whatever it took," she said. "I was willing to sacrifice. I was also willing to wait it out. I think if you want to be successful in anything you just have to outlast pretty much everybody else who wants to do the same thing. There are so many talented rowers out there, but the amount of time it takes, for many it's not worth it. But I was willing to wait three and four years, put in that much time, until I was ready to try out for the national team."

She added: "I was surrounded by the right people. I had two amazing coaches in Boston who made me the athlete I needed to be to make the national team. Once I graduated from grad school, I got a job at the Department of Veterans Affairs. [She is a research scientist, working on depression and post-traumatic stress syndrome.] My supervisor, after my parents, is my biggest supporter."

Dell was invited in the fall of 2010 to join the national team. About 40 rowers worked and trained together, the best American rowers in the world, all hoping to secure one of 16 Olympic spots this summer in the eight-woman boat, the four-woman boat, and two two-person boats.

She focused on the four.

"I really didn't think I was going to make it, to be honest," she said. "There were a lot of people going for this boat. Statistically, I was ready to be disappointed. When you approach something with absolutely no fear of failing, with nothing to lose, when you come into something with that mind-set, you can be a force to reckon with. I got very lucky."

She also avoided injury.

"The most common injury on our team is broken ribs," she said. "Tiny, tiny muscles in our lats and our abs, they are so overdeveloped they tear the bone. I've never broken a bone in my life. I come from a family of pretty sturdy people."

Her biggest asset as a rower, in addition to her heart and her work ethic, is her strength. "I'm pretty powerful," she said. "I'm a little nugget. They call me meatball."

Two rowers in her boat are 6-foot-2. She is the shortest of the four, and a little self-conscious about her height.

"I tell everyone in the rowing community I'm 5-10, but I'm actually 5-81/2," she said. "It might be three-quarters."

The four members of her boat for the Olympics were chosen after a three-week competition in June.

"It was grueling," she said. "We did it through the heat wave. One hundred degrees outside. I went through a very dark place and back again."

"I really do love it," she added, "even on the worst days."

Her parents are joining her in London.

"My parents are beside themselves," she said. "They weren't able to dream big like this. They had to work, to help their families."

Dell's collegiate family has been experiencing tough times as the fallout from the Jerry Sandusky child sexual-abuse case continues to affect the Happy Valley campus.

The scandal reached Dell in London, where Team USA held a college uniform day on Tuesday. Dell wore her Penn State gear and said she heard questions and even a suggestion she should cover up her uniform.

"In no way does [the scandal] make me ashamed to say I'm a graduate," Dell wrote in a Facebook post. "For me, Penn State is more than a corrupt administration and football program. It's an enormous network of people who share the same story - arriving wide-eyed at East Halls, eating at the Hub, struggling through Accounting 211, walking miles a day over a vast and beautiful campus . . . and being adopted into a family of tens of thousands. It is a collective feeling of community and positivity."

Dell's boat, the four, has never won an Olympic medal. But the Americans finished second last year in the world championships, and Dell is confident that her quartet is ready to row with the Germans, Czechs, and Britons, the medal favorites. The race is 2,000 meters, and she'd love to finish in 6 minutes, 8 seconds - a world record.

"I have a lot of faith in our strength," she said. "The Olympics are unlike any other event or race. People who are considered to be in the best possible position to medal, sometimes they don't come out on top. A very common phrase is, 'It's the Olympics, anything can happen.' So we're ready to fight. I want to be on that podium, and so do my teammates."


Contact Michael Vitez at 215-854-5639 or mvitez@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @michaelvitez.

 

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