On July 23, Team USA women’s rowing won their heat at the Olympics, advancing straight to the Women’s Eight medal race, which will be held on Thursday, July 29 at 9:05 p.m. ET. The youngest member of the boat, at 24 years-old, is former Penn rower Regina Salmons.
For Salmons, the opportunity to compete in the Olympics is the result of a decades-long journey. Earning her spot rowing at the national level did not come easy. National rowing is split into three main groups: the Junior National Team, the Under 23 National Team, and the Senior National Team (the Senior Team is the Olympic team in an Olympic year). Salmons did not make a Junior National Team and was invited to the 2016 Under 23 training camp at the last minute.
“I was definitely a long shot that first camp,” Salmons said. “I had to fight through some really, really incredible rowers.”
However, she performed well and was able to row in both the Four and the Eight on the Under 23 team the summer after her sophomore year at Penn. Her boat won both events that summer and set the world record in the Four. After graduating from Penn, she made her second Under 23 team and won the competition in Poznan, Poland.
Salmons said that her time at Penn prepared her for her rowing career in a unique way; the people she encountered at Penn pushed her to improve.
“Had I gone to any other school, I don't know if I would have made it,” Salmons said. “Being at Penn, being a part of a program that is building, you have this hunger to keep biting the heels of whoever's faster than you. If you just keep chasing down the person in front of you, eventually there's not so many people left in the race.”
Salmons’ time at Penn was marked by many high finishes. In her senior year, she rowed for the 1V boat and placed third in the Ivy League Championships, earning the team’s first medal since 1980. That day marked not only one of her favorite moments of her rowing career, but also a major life milestone.
“Getting third honestly felt better than winning,” Salmons said. “It was incredible to medal after coming in fourth for two years in a row. After winning bronze, we literally drove like crazy ladies to graduation and made it with fifteen minutes to spare, still wearing our sweaty unis and medals on underneath our graduation robes.”
Natasha Wood, Salmons’s co-captain and 1V boatmate at Penn, said that in addition to her natural talent and grit, Salmons’s humility and positive attitude enable her success on the boat.
“She’s everything that you don't expect a really successful athlete to be,” Wood said. “In D1, there's a real intensity and bravado about a lot of athletes who have been successful, and Regina has none of those negative traits. She is down-to-earth, friendly, and supportive.”
As Wood and Salmons became close friends, Salmons also revealed a different, quirky side to her personality.
“Every single morning at practice, she showed up with the largest Dunkin iced coffee that I have ever seen,” Wood said. “Every single morning, it was summer, it was winter, it was zero degrees and close to snowing, she had a large, iced coffee from Dunkin.”
Salmons considers making the Under 23 Team the accomplishment that kick-started her professional rowing career. After graduation, she was invited to train at the Women’s Rowing Training Center in Princeton, New Jersey. She was one of the slowest girls at the training center when she first got there, but she harnessed her hunger to succeed and continued to improve.
She rowed as an alternate on the Senior Team, and, after a year, she qualified for the Olympic team.
“I never thought that I could maybe go to the Olympics,” Salmons said. “I kind of thought at some point that I would find my end, and I just kept going, and I kept getting faster. I have always loved it and I've never really wanted to stop, so I wanted to just keep seeing where I could take it.”
Despite her immense success in rowing at such a young age, Salmons is grateful that she was able to explore both the academic and athletic sides of herself in college.
She started her Penn career on the pre-med track before discovering and nurturing her passion for writing.
“Regina, in addition to being a talented athlete, is an all-around talented human,” Wood said. “She is an incredible writer. I went to her poetry recitation when we were both seniors. It was her final dissertation project, and it was this beautiful series of poems that she'd written into a book-like format, and they were absolutely beautiful and incredible. One of her big themes that she really cares deeply about is women's empowerment.”
While Salmons plans to come back to her interest in writing eventually, graduating from Penn gave her the opportunity to be hyper-focused on her sport while she is at the peak of her athletic career.
“There are only some things you can do when you're young,” Salmons said. “As you get older, some doors close. So, after graduation, I really wanted to go all-in on rowing and have no regrets with that, no matter how it turned out.”
Reina Kern, Press Officer at the American Canoe Association, rowed with Salmons at Penn and has followed Salmon’s career closely. She said Salmons always had the leadership qualities of an Olympic athlete and has seen her harness that potential at the national level.
“She really went from college to an alternate, kind of the bottom of the team, to making the Women's Eight, which is incredible,” Kern said. “To see her jump from one stage to another, you can only do that with an attitude like Regina. She’s positive, she's uplifting, she's a leader.”
While COVID-19 threw a wrench in the 2020 Olympic Games, Salmons’s routine continued.
“For me, it was kind of a no brainer to keep training,” Salmons said. “I spent two months erging in my parents' living room, rowing just once a week by myself in a single whenever I could, watching 'America's Next Top Model' while I was erging. It was really brutal not being able to be with the team for those months of COVID. But ultimately, I think it just made us all so much faster.”
Before landing in Tokyo for the Olympics, Salmons and her team spent time training in Hawaii to get more acclimatized to the time zone and competition conditions of Japan. Now, they are being closely monitored in the Olympic Village.
Despite the difficulties of competing in the Olympics amidst rigid Covid restrictions, Salmons is very excited for the opportunity to compete for her country.
“This time last year, we were all so, I don't want to say depressed but, definitely it was such a weird headspace, thinking [the games were] going to be canceled outright,” Salmons said. “I'm so grateful that it's happening, period, so grateful.”
Pursuing rowing full time means that Salmons has made sacrifices in her personal life. Her training schedule includes practicing two to three times per day, six to seven days per week. But, as she moves onto the Eight medal race this week, she is excited to see the results of her hard work training with the Olympic team and to be in one of the fastest boats of her lifetime.
“The most fun part about racing is that it’s the great unknown and just seeing what you can do,” Salmons said. “Because of COVID, this past year has been the hardest year of training ever. So I'm really excited to see what we're capable of and what all that hard work is going to translate into.”