Sporting Life

Rowing toward London

Inspired by her mother, an alumna aims to row in the Olympics.

Nyoung Chang/ <i>Denver Post</i>

Nyoung Chang/ Denver Post

Taylor Ritzel ’10, one of the top rowers in the country, lost her mother to breast cancer last year. Next year, she hopes to fulfill their dream by making the US Olympic team. View full image

The rowing career of Taylor Ritzel ’10 began as a backup plan. She was a standout swimmer at Douglas County High School, outside Denver, but a bout with mononucleosis cooled the interest of college coaches. So when she and her mother, Lana, visited Harvard, Princeton, and Yale in the fall of her senior year, Lana booked her daughter meetings with rowing coaches.

Six years later, Ritzel is one of the top rowers in the United States. In September, she won her second straight world championship with the US women’s eight in Slovenia, and she is poised to earn a spot in that boat at next summer’s Olympics in London.

Getting there has taken on added meaning in the past year. Last November, Lana Ritzel lost a 20-month battle with breast cancer. Shortly before Lana died, Ritzel says, the two talked about what had become a dual dream. “She couldn’t really converse well or cry, but she said, ‘I really wish I could go to the Olympics with you to watch you race,’” recalls Ritzel. “It’s a big motivator now.”

The Olympics weren’t a consideration when Lana raised the idea of rowing in 2005. She had been around sports her entire life—her grandfather, Red Miller, coached the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XII—and she recognized crew as a way for an athletic, six-foot-two-inch girl to get recruited.

Yale women’s crew coach Will Porter has had success molding novice rowers, and he immediately saw potential in Ritzel. She earned a spot in the varsity eight by October of her freshman year and helped that boat to an undefeated season in the spring, including the program’s first NCAA championship. The next year, Porter moved Ritzel to the stroke seat, the prized bookend position with the job of setting the tone for the other rowers—and the group won a second consecutive NCAA title that June. “That was a signature win for her,” Porter says.

Rowing is a cruelly high-volume exercise, each stroke in competition the product of thousands more in practice. The best rowers manage to harness the monotony and masochism and somehow find Zen. Motivation helps. After watching the Beijing Olympics the summer after her sophomore year, Ritzel resolved to become an Olympian herself, and took to training with new vigor.

An ailing mother was another matter. When Lana was diagnosed with stage-four breast cancer in March of 2009, Ritzel struggled with being away as her mom endured chemotherapy and, eventually, a double mastectomy. She talked to her parents about coming home, but they were adamant that she keep rowing. “It sort of goes back to the fact that both of my parents were unwilling to submit to what was happening—which I really look at as mostly positive,” Ritzel says. She took a cue from their optimism. “She didn’t wallow in sadness,” says Jamie Redman ’08, Ritzel’s former teammate at Yale and fellow member of the US national team. “She’s able to find something positive or motivating in that instance and use it to further inspire her.”

In the last five months of her mother’s life, Ritzel won her third NCAA championship, a world under-23 championship, and her first senior world championship. Through much of it, she and her teammates sported pink accessories in support of Lana. After Lana died, a pair of Ritzel’s former teammates founded Laces for Lana, selling bright pink shoelaces to raise awareness of breast health issues. Both Ritzel and her younger sister McLane, a Yale sophomore, have since become involved. In September, Ritzel had the entire US rowing contingent in Slovenia wearing pink.

Her next goal: distributing them at the Olympic village in London.  


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