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The Rower We Need

BY ANDY ANDERSON
PHOTO PROVIDED

Has the thought occurred to you that Washington would be much better off if only it were populated with people who know what it means to work together selflessly, people who know what it means to work toward a tough goal? In short, wouldn’t things be better if some rowers were running the show? Well, one of our own, a real rower, is running for Congress. Monica Tranel, an Olympian in 1996 and 2000, is the real deal, someone who represents all that our sport promotes and encourages. 

Tranel is running for a seat to represent the first district in Montana, the western part of the state. If you have a head for obscure facts, you probably know that Montana used to have two seats in congress, but lost one in 1993 after the census and now has regained it. That makes it the first state to have lost a seat and then gained it back. 

I was drawn to Tranel’s story not only because of her rowing but also because her background is atypical for an Olympic rower. Raised on a ranch near Miles City, Mont,, she is the sixth of 10 children. Ranch life is hard and unglamorous. Her father walked through snow to get to school; he remembers going to bed hungry often. As a girl, Monica shared not only a bathroom and bedroom with an older sister but also a bed with that sister until she went off to college. 

When it was time for Tranel to go to college, her parents didn’t want her to go East, despite some acceptances there; it was too far away. So she went to Gonzaga University in Spokane, the next state over and an 11-hour drive (Montana is a big state). There, as a tall and strong woman, she was approached by the college’s rowing club.

 “I had always had a deep connection to the natural world,” she said. “I was outdoors all the time growing up. I fell in love with rowing from the very first moment. When we got out on the water, I couldn’t believe how beautiful it was to row.” 

Gonzaga isn’t known as a breeding ground for the national team. “Our club team got to race in Seattle in the Pac-Ten championships, and our coxed four came in fourth. For us, that was like winning gold.” At that regatta, her eyes were opened to all the top rowers in the Northwest and to the potential that could lie ahead.

She moved East to attend Rutgers Law School, outside Philadelphia, and, hoping to find a place to continue rowing, she walked along Boathouse Row knocking on doors. At Vesper, the door opened, and J.B. Kelly welcomed her and showed her around, pointing out photos of his father and grandfather, both Olympic medalists. There were men and women just back from the 1988 Olympics in Korea, and they encouraged her to join. “Somewhere,” she said, “there’s a video made of me that first fall called ‘How Not to Row.’ My nickname on the Schuylkill was ‘Flipper.’”

National Team Coach Kris Korzeniowski was visiting with his Norwegian erg for testing. Tranel climbed on, closed her eyes, and visualized a creek back on the ranch that she had jumped. 

“I always thought that if I didn’t make it, if I died, that would be an OK way to go. I closed my eyes and jumped.” When she finished her erg piece, she opened her eyes to hear Korzo declare, “You just pulled the fastest score in the country.” He went on to say that he had seen her row and that she was “really strong but dangerous.”

Progress was slow, but rowing at Vesper was a delight, and she got invited to some training camps and was getting better. The wild bronco was becoming a reliable steed. By 1992, after three years at Vesper, she was in a boat that came in fifth in the Olympic trials, a disappointing reality for someone who now had higher aspirations.

 “I’ll give myself one more year,” Tranel vowed to herself. “If I don’t dedicate myself completely to this, I’ll never know what might have been.”

 It’s a good thing she stuck with it; in 1993, she made the U.S. team and won a bronze in the quad. In 1994, she won silver medals in both the four without cox and the eight at the World Championships. In 1995, the eight won gold with her in the four seat.

The 1996 Olympics in Atlanta were a monumental disappointment for the women’s eight. The year before, they had won gold in a boat of very strong, very fit athletes, so their fourth- place finish was “devastating.” Recalled Tranel: “It was the first time I was ever in a U.S. boat that didn’t row into the medals dock.”

The following year, she switched to the single and represented the U.S. at the Worlds, placing seventh. She took 1998 off and lived in Montana but returned to the U.S. eight in 1999, winning a silver medal. Her last year of high-level rowing was 2000, when she won the Olympic singles trials but did not perform up to potential in Australia.

I asked her what she had gotten out of so many years of rowing. Without hesitation, she said, “The willingness to dig deep and set a goal and go for it.” She mentioned a case in her legal career in Montana when she took on the biggest utility in the state after its failure to plan adequately meant that it was trying to pass on a $10-million loss to consumers.

 “They tried to bury me with documents. I read them all. In court, they were surprised that I could point to the exact details; it seemed like most of their team hadn’t even read them all. We won the case.” 

 “In my life, hard work and preparation have always paid off,” she reflected. “That’s my campaign message—‘Let’s restore the middle class, people who work hard.’”

Her website features a video brimming with rowing footage. She talks about how she always rowed in the “engine room,” in the middle. She identifies Montanans as the middle class, the engine room of this country. “I didn’t learn my work ethic in the Olympics; I took it there from Montana.”

She had just returned from the annual Power Ten dinner in New York when I spoke with her. “It was great. I spent time with a lot of deeply committed people who recognize how privileged they have been to have rowed. They want to contribute, to give back. That’s what we need in this country.”

If she wins the Democratic primary on June 7, it’s likely she will face former Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, a Trump appointee, in November. It looks to be a tough row ahead, but her message— “We can be better than we are. We are in a time and a place where we need to decide where we are going”— spurs her on. If she wins, she would be the first female Olympian to be elected to Congress. This rower is what we need.

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