Olympic Spotlight: Late Start To Rowing Doesn’t Keep Ritzel From Olympic Dream

Four former Yale women's rowers – Ashley Brzozowicz '04 (Canada, eight), Tess Gerrand '10 (Australia, eight), Jamie Redman '08 (USA, spare) and Taylor Ritzel '10 (USA, eight) – will be at the 2012 Olympics in London. In the days leading up to the Games, yalebulldogs.com will profile each of the four.

Taylor Ritzel's path to success with the Yale women's crew was anything but typical. Ritzel, who had been a swimmer growing up in Colorado, didn't start to row until she learned there was a spot on the women's crew team waiting for her when she arrived at Yale.

"Literally, the day I was told by [then assistant coach] Kate Maloney that the program wanted me, I sat on an erg and pulled a 2K," Ritzell says.

It sure worked out well. Ritzel, who graduated in 2010, was a four-year member of Yale's varsity eight, won three NCAA championships and is now in London preparing to represent the United States in the women's eight at the Olympics.

"Taylor is the total package, physically gifted, physiologically gifted, coordinated, disciplined and getting more and more mentally tough every day," said Yale head coach Will Porter. "When Taylor first arrived at Yale, she had about one month worth of rowing experience, and I put her right in the varsity eight. I remember shoving them off to race in the Head of the Charles thinking this is either going to be really good or a big mistake. It turned out pretty good."

Ritzel, the granddaughter of former Denver Broncos coach Red Miller, had always dreamed of swimming in college but an illness in her junior year of high school derailed that plan. So her mother arranged for her to meet with rowing coaches during her college visits, which included a number of Ivy League schools. When the Yale coaches agreed to take a chance, Ritzel went all-in to learn the new sport.

"I, with the help of my mom, contacted everyone I could in Colorado who knew anything about rowing," Ritzel said.

That led them to Nat Jackson, a former rowing coach at a Canadian university, who helped Ritzel prepare for what lay ahead at Yale.

"While I was skeptical about making a change at that point, I was intrigued by the intricacies of the sport and fell in love with it," Ritzel says. "Rowing can be the most brutal thing you'll ever put your body through, but at the same time create a unified rhythm and balance that is indescribable."

Success came almost immediately. In her freshman year, Yale went undefeated and captured the program's first NCAA title. The next year, Ritzel earned the first of three All-America awards and the Bulldogs repeated as NCAA champions. Her outstanding career concluded with another NCAA title as a senior in 2010.

Ritzel first became involved with US Rowing following her junior year at Yale. She won a silver medal with the eight at the 2009 Under-23 World Championships and then won a gold medal the following year shortly after graduating. Since then, she has been a mainstay with the national team, culminating with her selection to the Olympic team.

"Competing in the Olympics is something I have dreamed about since I started competing in sports at the age of five," Ritzel says. "It is only the elite of the elite that make it to the Games, so to be able to call myself an Olympian is a huge honor and one that I am greatly humbled by."

Two of Ritzel's former teammates will be joining her in London. Jamie Redman '08 is a spare for the U.S. team, and Tess Gerrand '10 will row in the Australian eight. Gerrand, Ritzel's classmate, was with her in each of the three NCAA championship boats.

"I am so proud of Tess and can't wait to see her," Ritzel said. "She has worked very hard to get to where she is, and I respect the effort and determination it took more than she knows."

There's one person, though, who won't be in London with Ritzel. Her mother, Lana, who played a huge role in her decision to take up the sport, passed away in November of 2010 after a courageous battle with breast cancer.

"My mom is my constant inspiration and someone I think about all the time," Ritzel says. "Her strength, grace and absolute unwillingness to ever, ever give in are traits that I aspire to day in and day out."

Those traits could very well earn Ritzel a medal. The U.S. is the defending world and Olympic champion.

"I can't wait to see what our team as a whole can do," she says. "I am so excited to be rowing in London."

Ritzel photo courtesy of US Rowing

Story by Tim Bennett, Yale Sports Publicity