The U.S. women’s rowing team went into the Tokyo 2020 Olympics with a goal: win a gold medal. Although they fell short of this aspiration after finishing in fourth place, an integral part of that mission was Regina Salmons, Penn alumna and the youngest member of the Team USA Women’s Eight.
Salmons and her crew have been preparing for this competition for years. This drive only intensified once they arrived in Tokyo a week before their event. They spent three of those days erging in the Olympics underground tunnel system. Afterwards, they were able to practice on the competition course.
“It was kind of dystopian in a weird way,” Salmons said. “You wait for your whole life, and then it's delayed by a year. You wait the whole year, and then it's crazy when it actually shows up. The total execution of it was just beyond my wildest dreams.”
The team was nervous going into the event. They hadn’t raced any non-Americans since the 2019 World Cup, whereas other teams at the Olympics had raced at the European Championships.
“We really felt like we were jumping without a rope into the unknown, just jumping in totally blind,” Salmons said. “We had no idea how we would stack up, so there was definitely a lot of excitement and a little bit of disbelief.”
The morning of her race, Salmons put on her Team USA outfit, ate an early breakfast in her dining hall, drank a cup of coffee, warmed up, and did a light 4k paddle with her team. As she put her boat into the water to actually compete, all of her emotions enveloped her.
“You feel nothing and everything at the same time,” Salmons said. “All of this adrenaline starts rushing through you. Your head goes into a different time zone, just laser focused. All I'm really focusing on is what the girl in front of me, what Meghan Musnicki, is doing.”
Salmons feels that her time at Penn prepared her for the pressure of competing at the Olympic level. She used to get very nervous and wound up before her college races and is proud of how far she has come since then.
“Obviously this was the highest pressure, [the] most nervous I've ever felt,” Salmons said. “But at the same time, there would be races in college where I'd be dry heaving the morning of the race and not able to eat breakfast because I was so nervous. You just take every step of the journey as it is and give as much as you can to that particular phase or thing you're doing that day or that hour. And then eventually, somehow you end up at the Olympics.”
For Salmons, the actual technique behind the race was the same as always. The biggest difference between the Olympics and past competitions was the people who surrounded her.
“You look over in the warmup area and it's not your two friends that you're about to race, or your teammates that you might be in a boat with next week, or Harvard, or Cornell,” Salmons said. “It's the Chinese, it's the Romanians, and you have no idea what they're saying. It's not like you can hear them and they're like ‘Power 10 for Harvard’; it's just loud yelling in Chinese and Romanian.”
Salmons and her team’s goal of medaling did not come to fruition, though. After winning their initial heat, Team USA placed fourth in the final, with a time a little over three seconds behind the gold medalist Canada.
While Salmons was disappointed in this performance, nearly a month later, her perspective on her time in Tokyo is more developed. Reflecting on her Olympics experience has been a valuable part of her month back home.
“Morale-wise, it's a double-edged sword,” Salmons said. “But I’m just so, so, so proud of everything we've done. We've all worked so hard; the girls in my boat are just so awe-inspiring and some of the strongest, most resilient women I've ever met. I think we handled so many situations that were thrown at us that were just totally wild, concerning COVID[-19] and our training situation this past year. So, I think we really, really did a lot with where we've come from.”
After finishing their race, Salmons and her teammates went to Hawaii to destress. She said that it was nice to be with her teammates to process the initial post-competition shock.
Now, Salmons is in Massachusetts with her parents, where she is taking some time off from rowing for a few months to catch up on parts of her life that she has had to put on hold due to her intense training schedule.
“I think I'll be processing it for a while,” Salmons said. “Time just moved so quickly and slowly, and it felt like a time vortex. It's super nice just to hang out with my family and my friends and do things like go to the mall or go out to a restaurant and not be worried about 'Oh, my legs are going to be tired if I'm standing all day', or 'I shouldn't be out in the sun at the beach because I'm going to be out in the sun for practice' — just being able to breathe for a minute.”
However, Salmons’ break from rowing will be short-lived. This fall, she will begin training for the 2024 Olympics in Paris.
For her, the decision to train again for the next competition was a no-brainer.
“It was literally the honor of a lifetime to be able to represent Team USA and represent Penn at literally the highest level of my sport,” Salmons said. “So yeah, I'm absolutely going to try to do it a second time if I can, give it my all, one more go.”