For the second time in her career, 2004 graduate Susan Francia will be part of the women’s eight heading to the Olympics to represent the United States.
A native of Szeged, Hungary, Francia moved to the United States with her parents when she was two. By high school, Francia’s six-foot-two athletic build attracted the attention of various coaches, but she said she never found a sport that fully “clicked” with her.
That is, until she got to Penn.
“I had considered joining the rowing team as a freshman, but I decided that it would detract from my academics, which was a concern especially since I was considering transferring into Wharton,” Francia said. “But then the social scene got the better of me, I couldn’t transfer to Wharton, and then I thought I’d better give the rowing team a try.”
The novice coach at the time, Scott Belford, was excited about having Francia on the team, particularly because she was physically ideal for the sport. He told Francia when she joined the team that this if she worked hard, rowing was “a sport she could go to the Olympics in,” and the prospect of being an elite athlete attracted her from the beginning.
From there, everything fell into place.
For the first time, she said, she wasn’t just playing, she was excelling, and her newfound talent both inspired and drove her to strive even higher.
“When I joined the team, the coaches gave us this pamphlet all about Penn rowing and the traditions and all that, and there was this little box that listed Penn rowers who had gone to the Olympics. There was just one guy, just one name in that box, so I cut it out and stuck it up on a board in my room and said to myself, ‘Okay, I’m going to have my name up there too.’”
After her novice season, Francia went on to letter for the Quakers in the 2002-03 and 2003-04 seasons.
Though she was eligible to try out for Team USA for the 2004 Summer Games in Athens, Francia said not making the team then was motivating for her, not discouraging.
“Not making it in ’04 was actually very exciting because I knew I wasn’t even close to fulfilling my potential just then, so I just wanted to work even harder and make it the next time around.”
The hard work paid off and Francia was named to the national team in 2005.
“Basically, being on the national team is like being back on the Penn team, but more intense,” Francia said. She and her teammates practice in Princeton two to three times per day for up to two hours. Practices include rowing on the river, lifting and rowing indoors in tanks or on rowing machines.
In her seven years on the national team, Francia and her crew have won five World Championships in the eight, and she has also excelled in national and international races in the pair. She was also part of the eight that won gold in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Most recently, Francia’s eight won gold and set a world record time of 5:54.17 at this year’s World Rowing Cup.
Francia is currently ranked third worldwide among female rowers, behind teammate Mary Whipple and Belarus native Ekaterina Karsten-Khodotovitch.
“I knew making it to the Olympics would be a journey, not just something that would fall into my lap,” Francia said. “I knew it would take four years.”
By the Beijing Games, Francia and her eight had been racing and training together for three years and had won three World Championships together. The next step, Francia said, was “sealing the deal.”
“I don’t even remember being nervous on race day, I was just ready,” Francia said. “That’s a great feeling as an athlete. You want to go into it knowing you’ve done all you can to prepare, and I think we all felt that way.”
But what made the day extra special for her, besides winning gold, was that Belford, the coach who helped Francia discover and develop her talent in the first place, was there in China to cheer her on.
“When I told him I had made the Olympic team, he told me he was going to come to Beijing to cheer me on because he wanted to be there when they put that gold medal around my neck. He was the person who launched me into all this, and it was so cool that he was there for me in that moment,” Francia said.
Now that she’s on her second Olympic team, and with two more World Championship gold medals under her belt, Francia realizes that although she and her teammates have experience on their side, it won’t be easy to defend their title.
“On finals day, you never know who’s come to race,” she said. “I’ve seen some crazy stuff happen at finals. Crews that up until then have been sitting in the shadows suddenly burst ahead, and the leaders can just as easily fall behind.
Francia sees the British, Romanian and Canadian crews as the greatest threats her eight will face in London.
“The British are looking good, and it’s their home turf, the Romanians were the previous Olympic champions until we took it away in ’08 and I know Canada’s been gunning for us too — so we’ve got a lot of major competition there.”
But whether or not Francia and her eight perform like they have in previous national and international competitions, the opportunity to be on a rowing team, from her time as a Quaker to being a second-time Olympian, has been “beyond rewarding.”
“When we were novices, Scott told us, ‘Look around, each of these girls is going to be your friend for the rest of your life,’ and it’s so true. I’m having an Olympic send-off party before I go and they’re all coming,” Francia said. “I was very proud to be a Quaker, particularly for that reason, that team camaraderie we had.”
She can be sure that all of those teammates and coaches, past and present, will be cheering her on to Olympic gold in London.
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