by Amy Nedrow, volunteer journalist with the Penn State All-Sports Museum.
On Tuesday, March 19th, Natalie Dell, 2012 Olympic Bronze medalist in rowing, spoke to a crowd (including many members of Penn State’s men’s and women’s rowing club) about her Olympic experience and the events that led her to it.
Dell, a 2007 Penn State graduate, arrived in Penn State her freshman year as a non-athlete. This quickly changed when she was introduced to rowing. Undaunted by the fact she had no experience in rowing, she joined the team. At Penn State, rowing is a club sport and like all club sports, it is financially self-sustaining and student run. Participants pay their own way each year (often working 1-2 part-time jobs), use older equipment and squeeze in gym time around the varsity sports. Once per season, Dell and about 50 others, would clean Beaver Stadium after a football game as a way to earn money from the university for their club. She recalled that it took about six hours to clean the mess left by 100,000 jubilant fans. She called this work an honor because it would help pay the salary for their coach.
Despite the extra work that goes into being an athlete in a club sport (or perhaps because of it) Dell felt honored to represent the university at competitions. Many of the schools they competed against were varsity supported. “Beating varsity programs was such a thrill,” recalled Dell. And they did beat them. Often enough that Natalie was offered scholarships from other schools, but leaving Penn State was never an option for Dell. Penn State was Natalie’s dream university and her parents did what all loving families would want to do—supported her dreams. For them, working class parents like so many others, that meant giving up their savings. Years later, hearing Natalie speak, you know she hasn’t forgotten that.
After graduation, Dell decided her goals for rowing were not complete. She would give herself three years to focus and chip away at those goals. It was never about winning titles or earning a place at the Olympics exactly, but just that she wanted to continually be better. Faster. With that dedication came the benefits of winning. And Dell found herself one of the 40 women invited to train in New Jersey to be selected for the 2012 Olympic Games. It was there that Dell would be put to the test. She didn’t have the pedigree that perhaps others had, but she did have the heart and determination. As the group of 40 was slowly whittled away, Dell continued to prove to herself and others her worth in the program. Finally the final selection process began and after a grueling five days, Natalie earned a spot on the four-woman team racing the Quadruple Sculls. She confided that it wasn’t a sense of jubilation in that moment, but exhaustion, confusion and even sadness in thinking of the women who didn’t make the team despite being amazing athletes.
Four weeks later, Dell and her three teammates would be in London. They had never competed together as a team and as she tells it, “No one expected much from us.” The United States had never medaled in the quad. The women lost to the Ukraine in the first heat, lost to Australia next and were ranked fourth going into the final race. The highlight of her presentation Tuesday night was when Natalie walked the audience through that final race where her team would win the Bronze. She offered a fascinating personal perspective that most of us would never be privy to. From the extravagant swag and gear to the exhaustion and pain, Dell detailed her Olympic experience in a frank and often humorous manner.
Natalie Dell used the word “honor” often in her presentation. It was an honor to clean Beaver Stadium, it was an honor to represent Penn State, it was an honor to represent the United States; it would be easy to dismiss these as obligatory claims, but there is such a humble, warm-hearted sincerity to Dell’s words that you just can’t doubt her loyalty. It was with such conviction that Natalie Dell stated, “I bleed the colors of this university,” you can’t help but be proud to know she is from the Penn State family.
To view Dell’s full presentation visit http://youtu.be/d0a-hrGa69U.