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Susan Francia (Col '04) walked on to the Penn rowing team her sophomore year. A mere eight years later, she finds herself heading to Beijing to compete in the Olympics as a member of the women's eight boat with a shot at the gold medal.

United States Olympic athletes often take up their sports at a young age, practicing for over a dozen years before competing at the Summer Games.

Gymnast Shawn Johnson began perfecting her craft when she was three years old. Swimmer Michael Phelps got in the water at age seven. Rower Susan Francia? She got involved with her sport a mere seven years ago, as a sophomore at Penn.

Francia, a 2004 College graduate, will be making her Olympic debut at next month's Beijing Games as a member of the women's eight boat. And she owes as much - if not more - to her alma mater than any other competitor.

"I don't think I ever would have started rowing if I didn't go to Penn," she said.

Her rowing history began the summer before she entered Penn. Jeff Schoengold, a high school classmate and rival who would be joining her at Penn, called to brag that he had gotten a letter from the Penn rowing team asking him to try out.

The next day, she received the letter - which was sent to every incoming freshman over 5-foot-10. In part to show up her rival, the 6'2" Francia decided to seriously consider giving rowing a shot.

It would be another year, though, before she picked up an oar. Her freshman year she decided to try to transfer to Wharton. Thus, athletics got pushed to the backburner while she attempted to better her grades.

The transfer didn't pan out, and so she turned to rowing her sophomore year. Francia enjoyed sports, but her high school performances in cross country, track and field and basketball were, in her own words, "terrible."

"I always heard from high school coaches who saw how tall I was and I had an athletic build and they always said, 'You're going to be amazing,'" she said. "Every year, they said, 'this is going to be your year' and it never panned out."

"I said, 'I know I'm athletic, I know I can do some things.' It was really great that I found rowing. Rowing was my niche."

That was apparent almost immediately. Then-novice coach Scott Belford saw her time on the ergometer and noticed that she was putting up elite times right away.

"As a complete walk-on novice, she put up a time of six and three-quarters on the ergometer," he said. "Breaking seven minutes is something a lot of varsity rowers try to do and she did it in two or three months."

Belford, now a coach at Christian Brothers Academy in New Jersey and assistant for the U.S. junior national team, will be cheering for his former pupil in Beijing.

After he told Francia that she had the potential to achieve higher levels of success in the sport, she seized on that opportunity and began to dedicate herself more strongly to rowing.

While her selection to the Olympic boat was somewhat predictable - she was, after all, ranked the top starboard rower all year - she was no less excited when U.S. Coach Tom Terhaar informed her.

"He shook my hand and said, 'Congratulations, you've made your first Olympic team,'" she said. "I was so excited that I finally got where I wanted to be and to think 'Oh my God, I'm an Olympian.'"

She is confident that her boat has the ability and the will to make a serious medal push in Beijing.

"As soon as she made the team, about an hour after it was announced I got a phone call and she said, 'Congratulations, you can now say that you coached an Olympian,'" Belford said. "I told her now go out and make it so that I can say I coached an Olympic gold medalist. And she told me, 'I'll do that, coach.'"

And the gold is a realistic goal. At the 2004 Games in Athens, the U.S. women's eight won the silver medal. And they have won the gold at each of the last two World Championships.

Even as her achievements grow and her trophy shelf is filled, Francia looks back fondly at her days rowing for the Quakers. She knows that had it not been for one letter, a dedicated coach and some incredible experiences on the Schuylkhill, she would not be in the position to represent her country on the grandest stage imaginable.

"Penn and the boathouse are so gorgeous," she said. "I completely remember my first row ever on the Schuylkhill, seeing Boathouse Row on my left and seeing the Philadelphia skyline on my right and I was on the water and I was like, 'This is awesome, this is so much fun.' I just absolutely loved it."

Though she speaks of it as a distant memory, that first rowing session was a mere seven years ago. But thanks to natural athletic ability and the University of Pennsylvania, Francia now finds herself gunning for Olympic glory.

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