Penn graduate shares her journey to the Olympic gold

Susan Francia spoke at a Panhellenic Council-hosted event to promote strong leadership and healthy living

· November 16, 2012, 1:26 am

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Meredith Stern | DP

2004 College graduate and two-time Olympic gold medal rower Susan Francia tells her story at Claudia Cohen Hall. The Panhellenic Council invited Francia, who rowed at Penn, to highlight her leadership and healthy living.


Penn struck gold with 2004 College graduate Susan Francia — no, not another CEO of a Fortune 500 company — but an Olympic gold medalist.

The rowing Olympian spoke to a predominantly female crowd hosted by the Panhellenic Council in Claudia Cohen Hall about her journey to gold.

“One of Panhel’s goals this semester is to promote strong leadership and healthy living and to have … a two-time Olympian is the highest level. It’s just an honor,” said College senior Lakshmi Sivaguru, Panhel vice president of risk management.

To most people’s surprise, Francia started as a walk-on to the Penn rowing team as a sophomore. “During my freshman year I joined the varsity partying team,” she said.

But her spot on the “partying” team was a blessing in disguise. Francia’s slipping grades led her to the rowing team to find stability at Penn.

Francia wasn’t always a stellar athlete. She even brought to the event her high school senior athletic award: “Most Spirited.” Little did she know that in about eight years that little trophy would turn into an Olympic gold medal around her neck.

On the Penn crew team, her awkward height was embraced. She went from flunking freshman year to graduating on the dean’s list in 2004 with a degree in criminology.

After, Francia took up an offer to join the Olympic team. By the next year, Francia was already competing at the World Championships.

Unfortunately, her boat of eight finished fourth, just barely missing out on the podium. “That failure really motivated us and we decided that that was never going to happen again,” Francia said.

And she was right. In 2006 and 2007 Francia’s boat won gold in consecutive World Championships. Romania’s long-standing reign on top of the podium in the women’s eight Olympic event was a threat, but the U.S. knocked the Romanian’s off at Beijing 2008 and continued their streak of domination. “Riding the Olympic high is like nothing else,” Francia said.

To her dismay, Francia’s success on the water didn’t translate into success in the job market. When she returned to the States, Francia applied for 50 jobs, got interviews for three of them and eventually landed none of them.

Instead, she went back to train with the American team. Francia tried her hand in pairs at the 2009 World Championships and took gold in both that and the eight. She then was featured in ESPN The Magazine’s Body Issue and dubbed the “USRowing Female Athlete of the Year.”

All this success seemed likely to come to an end when she learned that she had herniated her L4 and L5 disks in her spine. With one year left until the 2012 Olympics in London, her prospects were dim. “I couldn’t even lift a plate off of a table.”

But Francia just trained harder spinning on a bike. With “a lot of perseverance and a little bit of luck,” she made the women’s eight team for the London Olympics, where the U.S. took gold.

College freshman and walk-on to the rowing team Nina Campo said Francia came to the team’s last race and got them pumped up.

“The fact that she got over those injuries so quickly is really inspirational.… I’m sort of obsessed with her,” said College freshman Natalia Czerwonka and fellow rower.

And to answer the burning question — “Is it heavy?” Yes, the gold medal is heavy. In fact, the London gold medal is about twice the weight of the Beijing medal.

Francia ended, “I can only imagine how heavy the Rio medal will be.”

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