As the Olympic Games get under way Down Under, the achievements of past Olympians come to mind. As part of our series on rowing
, we talked with Holly Metcalf, member of the gold medal–winning American women's rowing team of 1984. back to top
What was Holly like as a girl?
From an active childhood to a sports-filled adolescence, it was always clear to Holly that she had no choice but to be physically active. This was how she made sense of the world and how she related to it. No matter how crazy everything else was, being active and getting results was the one place all doubt faded. And it wasn't just sports, it was anything involving movement—climbing trees, running, throwing things, just playing hard with her brother. By the time she got to school and was able to participate in organized sports, she did it all—basketball, track and field, field hockey, anything.
When Holly was 13 or 14, it was a really awkward stage for her. She felt bigger than everyone else, and stronger—"outlandish" is how she puts it. People would say things to her like "too bad you were born female because you're such a good athlete." Comments like that, meant as a compliment, actually confused Holly and made her think maybe there was something wrong with the way she was. She responded by growing quieter and quieter, to make up for being this big, strong girl. She kept quiet and wouldn't say what she really thought, so she would seem less aggressive.
Besides sports, Holly also loved music. She sang in a group that participated in competitions (and she still is involved in music today). She says that when she was growing up, being artistic and intellectual was not seen as compatible with being athletic, yet it was clear to Holly that she was all of these things, and she knew she had to be strong to hold all the parts together. back to top
How did Holly start rowing?
Holly met one of those life-changing teachers—the ones who strongly encourage you to succeed! Holly began keeping a journal to record her thoughts but also to help her learn to write. She says journal writing was a breakthrough for her. First, her teacher had acknowledged that Holly had something important to say. And second, Holly now had an outlet for exploring and recording her thoughts and feelings. Holly still keeps a journal and uses the technique of journaling
when she coaches girls in rowing.
In college, Holly got into rowing and played varsity basketball and field hockey. She'd gone down to the river one morning to watch people rowing, and fell in love with it. Holly says she was especially drawn to how a rower had to be physically powerful and mentally strong to compete. She also liked how you didn't have to stand out as an individual. Holly felt rowing was like a singing group, blending and working together as one. Rowers had their own thing—they got up way earlier than everybody else and it was a new sport at her college. In fact, in the U.S. women were just beginning to row at levels that would take them to the Olympics for the first time (in 1976). back to top
What does Holly think about competition?
Holly says that her ideas about competition were formed when she was involved in team sports in school. The teams were never that good, so winning was not something they saw much of. For Holly, pushing herself to her own limit became the reason she did a sport, and this was supported at her school—winning at all costs was not the focus.
Holly says that the question of competition is especially complex when talking about girls. Because competing is associated with knowledge, girls often shrink from competition until they know everything there is to know about a sport rather than just going out and trying it. But Holly says, "Competing can be a way to test the knowledge that you have and it will definitely add to your knowledge and confidence." She believes rowing is a great sport for girls because not many people know much about it, so somehow girls find it easier to compete. "It's great," Holly says, "to see girls and women gain confidence as they learn more about rowing and to see their intensity and aggressiveness increase." back to top
What about winning?
Holly says that winning is just one of those nice, lucky things. Equal parts luck, talent, and who's more prepared that day combine to create a winning day. When it happens, it's a wonderful mental and physical perfection for a moment. "Something goes into your physical and mental memory banks and becomes part of what motivates you to feel that moment again," she says. This feeling is what fuels true commitment for Holly, that feeling of everything being in synch and in balance and powerful.
But she says that second-place finishes can be as exhilarating as coming in first. In fact, Holly says that a silver medal her team won in the 1987 World Championships was a career highlight for her personally, more than the Olympic gold in 1984. This silver medal was why Holly continued to row for another 4 years—"It was magical," she says, "everything was right that day." The team was lucky to have medaled at all, and the whole team had to pull together and turn around their approach to win the silver. This was a true team effort that created one of those fleeting moments of perfection. back to top
What was it like to go to the Olympics?
Being at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles was like being in a dream world for Holly. "The Olympics are like no other competition," she says, "not only are your own dreams on the line, but you also carry the dreams of every person, every child, who comes up to you with their own expectations. And then there are the dreams of an entire nation." Holly found that the pressure to perform and make other people's dreams come true was tremendous—not like any other race.
This was also a difficult time personally for Holly. Her dad had died the fall before the Olympics and she didn't have time to mourn his death until it was all over. That also contributed to feeling like "one big emotion."
One thing that was special for Holly about being part of an Olympics was being with athletes from other countries. She noticed that there was a real sense of mutual understanding and respect among the athletes for having chosen to compete at that level and knowing what it takes. Holly found it easy to connect with rowers from other countries because of the common experience of having felt the same pain, having participated in the same types of competition, having made sacrifices, having the same fears at the starting line. This common experience made her feel really at home with so many different people. back to top
Was Holly ever afraid?
YES! Holly says it's a matter of getting used to the fear, that fear is a physically natural part of competing. She says, "You're getting all your systems revved beyond what's normal, so of course you're going to feel the stress." Holly admits that she's never gotten really good at calming herself down and quieting those voices that tell you you're going to fail. The one thing that did work was actually getting into the boat. Once she was in the boat and going to the starting line, she focused on the boat instead of the voices. And then the actual experience of rowing would take over, no matter how scared she was. back to top
What is Holly's advice to girls like me?
"Trust your inner voice." Holly tells that to all girls who are struggling with their identity, whether the struggle has to do with sports or not. The only thing that made her teen years easier, she says, was that it was "so clear to me that I had to be an athlete. There was no choice for me. I trusted that I needed to do this, and still there were times I wanted to quit. The thing is to trust that you feel that need. When you're alone, and you're writing, and you say 'I need this.' Trust it. Those questions will still come up: Who are you committed to—your friends or the sport? Your family or the sport? You will become more yourself if you pursue it and trust your inner voice. Be yourself. It can be painful, but if you stick with it...I'm so thankful I had the courage to do it. I didn't always balance everything well, but I'm glad I made the commitment to develop that side of myself." back to top
More info about Holly
Holly Metcalf has been involved with rowing as an athlete and coach for 22 years. As an athlete Holly was a six-time national/Olympic team member, bringing home the Olympic gold in 1984, as well as three silver medals and one bronze from the World Championships between 1981 and 1987. She has coached at the national team level and collegiate and community levels.
Holly founded the Row As One Institute to give older women ("masters"—age 27 and up) the opportunity to spend a week together receiving top coaching and instruction in how to train. The program has grown tremendously since its first year in 1994. back to top