How a distant dream transformed into the opportunity a lifetime.
By Noah Fernandes
“Most people had an Olympic dream when they were little. I really never felt that draw, or that it could be me.”
For 2018 Northeastern graduate and former women’s rower Madison Mailey, achieving the highest honor in sports, an Olympic gold medal, was unimaginable.
“I didn’t think I was fast enough, or good enough,” Mailey said.
After an unsuccessful tryout for the Canadian Junior National Team, Mailey and her family were disappointed but knew that it was only the beginning of a long journey. Her coach insisted on her potential. “Madison is going to go to the Olympics, it just depends when.”
Watching the Olympic Games in Rio De Janeiro in 2016, Mailey felt as if reaching that level was a distant dream. But as she gained more trust in herself throughout college, that distant dream slowly started to become more of a reality. A 2018 All-American season at Northeastern led to opportunities with the Canadian national team, including two U23 World Championships with the women’s eights and a silver medal with the senior team.
“Winning the silver medal in the 2018 World Championships was a huge moment for me,” she said, “because I realized that I had finished second in the whole world.”
Her success thus far was a constant reassurance. “If I could train hard and give it my all, I could go to the Olympics and become successful. I had to keep reminding myself, ‘Why not me?’”
Mailey moved from Boston to Victoria, British Columbia, Canada in 2018. In doing so, she was moving away from her family and friends to train full time. Rowing became her entire life.
“I was consistently trying to prove myself to my teammates and coaches,” she said. “The training was also different. There was more volume. We went from 15 kilometers in the morning and weights in the afternoon at Northeastern to 30 kilometers in the morning, weights, and then another 20 kilometers in the afternoon.”
The transition to more intense training began to pay off in 2019, when she made the four-seat boat for the 2020 Olympic Trials; all three boats from team Canada qualified. Despite her helping to qualify the boat for Team Canada, Mailey did not secure herself a spot just yet. Only 14 of the 21 qualifying athletes would compete in Tokyo.
After nearly two years, she finally received the call she’d been waiting for. Mailey’s efforts over the past two years hadn’t gone unnoticed. She’d been selected to represent Team Canada at the 2020 Olympics.
“I called all of my family and friends, and my coach from Northeastern, Joe Wilhelm,” she said. “I felt fulfilled. I felt that my hard work and dedication, and me missing out on a lot of other things in my life, had paid off.”
But COVID-19 had other plans. The emergence of the pandemic in March 2020 caused the Olympic Committee to postpone the Games until 2021, putting Mailey’s dreams on hold.
“It was crazy to see the text [saying that] Canada had pulled out from the Olympic Games. How could Canada not send Olympians to the Olympics?” she said. “I laughed because I had made the team just five days before.”
But this didn’t discount all of Mailey’s hard work. “It was the dream that kept me going,” she said. “The number of miles and hours and time spent in the weight room and time spent with teammates kept me going. I had to tell myself that I’m going to get stronger and faster and better.”
Fast forward to 2021. Many things were different at these Olympics: a two week quarantine, no fans, and limited travel within the Olympic Village. But it did not prevent her from enjoying the Olympic experience. In the Village, Mailey recalled brushing elbows with superstar athletes such as Naomi Osaka, Andy Murray, and Yao Ming, to name a few.
Going into the race, the Canadians were the underdogs. Racing on the world’s biggest stage brings many distractions, which only adds to the nerves, but Mailey put that all aside and had one goal in mind.
“Our only goal was to redefine excellence. We did not say we wanted a gold medal around our necks because we knew if we could redefine excellence in the sport of women’s rowing, we could end up with that medal.”
It was not a straight shot to the gold medal. Trying to fend off a great New Zealand team was quite the task; the Canadians finished second to them in the first heat. In the second heat they also finished in second, this time to Romania, advancing to the championship race, where they got off to a great start.
“Five strokes in, it felt good. I said, ‘Now this is a gold medal stroke,’” Mailey said. “I tried to stay very present on each stroke and not focus on the finish. As we got close, I heard, ‘You’re going to be an Olympic champion in five strokes.’ I tried to make myself think I was in the silver medal position by one seat to motivate me to go even harder.”
Five strokes later, they crossed the finish line… this time in first. They were Olympic champions.
“I could not believe it,” Mailey said. “Who can even dream big enough to go to the Olympics, let alone be an Olympic champion? I was so proud of my teammates. It was not a straight line to that Olympic race. That race was textbook; that is what some would say is a perfect race plan, perfect execution.”
Their gold medal was the first for Canadian women’s rowing since 1992. The gold medal team of that year became a household name, and had inspired her to pick up an oar. Now, she would be a household name and inspire others.
“I was so proud and fulfilled and honored to be a part of the first gold medal in Canadian women’s rowing in a while.”
Typically, Olympic medalists are met at the podium by friends, family, fans, and spectators. Due to COVID-19, the athletes were deprived of the usual victory celebration, but it was special nonetheless.
“It was weird walking on the podium and seeing no fans or family, but it reminds you of the huge support you have back home,” Mailey said. “It reminds you how important it is to do things that are bigger than you. I think more people would do things for others than they would do for themselves. It made me understand the gravity of what I was doing.”
Despite coming home with a gold medal around her neck, Mailey is unsure of what the future has for her. After giving 15 years of her life to the sport, she feels there might be a place for her outside of that world. Or maybe she rows again in 2024. But regardless, Mailey can rest assured knowing that somewhere in Canada there is another girl picking up an oar for the first time, inspired in the same way Mailey was by that 1992 team.