Natalie Dell wasn't born a rower.
Rowing is a sport typically described amid phrases like "Ivy League" or "pedigree." Words like "farm," "working class" and "Central Pennsylvania," all of which describe Dell's upbringing in Clearville, where she was a track standout for Everett Area High School, don't immediately spring to mind.
She may not have been born a rower, but Dell made herself into one.
On June 22, less than one decade after picking up the sport in college, Dell was named to the 2012 U.S. Olympic rowing team. She will occupy the bow seat in the women's quadruple sculls. Bow is technically the last seat in the boat, but since they travel backward, Dell prefers to call it the seat that crosses the finish line first.
"Rowing," Dell said, "is what I was born to do."
By her senior year of high school, Dell was an injury-riddled and burned-out track star. Although she loved it, she didn't want a future in the sport, rejecting multiple Division I scholarship offers in what she calls a "difficult and emotional decision." She chose Penn State and arrived on campus a non-athlete.
When members of the club rowing team approached her during her freshman year, though, Dell realized how much she still craved competition. Despite a lack of university funding and resources - "We were like the chess team, you know?" - and the fact that she had no prior experience, Dell joined the team. The adversity suited her, as it did throughout her new career.
"My background gives me an attitude that has worked for me," Dell said. "I think when you line up on the line, it just comes down to you and what you can do in that moment, regardless of where you came from."
Dell graduated from Penn State in 2007 and joined the Riverside Boat Club in Cambridge, Mass. The major focus of Riverside's program is to prepare athletes for the national level. At that point, though, her sights weren't on the Olympics or even the national team. She just wanted to keep getting faster.
"I didn't start out in a place that set me up for success in this sport," Dell said. "I didn't have a pedigree, as they say. There were many times when I kind of looked like an outsider, because I was."
At Riverside, one of the top clubs in the nation, an unpolished Dell rowed under the tutelage of Tom and Liane Keister.
"Natalie started at a slight disadvantage," Tom Keister said. Her small frame and Penn State's small program had set her back a stroke from her peers, "but we quickly realized that she had some boat-moving ability."
Dell quickly separated herself from the pack, training in Boston for two years before leaving for U.S. Rowing in Princeton, N.J., in 2010. She made the national team almost immediately, in the summer of that same year.
"That's pretty unique," Megan Kalmoe, one of Dell's Olympic teammates, said. Kalmoe noted that Dell, coming out of the club in Boston, didn't have access to national team coaches or the national training center resources like many of her competitors.
"It takes a very special level of dedication,'' Kalmoe said, "and a lot of natural talent, to be able to break into the group that way."
Kalmoe is the only athlete in Dell's boat who has been to the Olympics before. All four of the women in the quad picked up the sport in college, with little or no prior experience. Perhaps most impressive of all is how quickly these women turned into elite athletes.
"The level of strength and fitness and talent on this team as a whole is at a very, very high level right now," Kalmoe said.
"Our lineup is very strong," she said. "And we have a goal. And that is to win."
U.S. Rowing will depart for London on July 16. The athletes will go directly to processing and then to a special satellite site, a mini-Olympic village designed for the rowers and kayakers, where they'll train until their first race on July 28. Dell said Eton Dorney, the race site, is notorious for a strong tailwind that makes the water choppy and rough, but she isn't worried.
"Always be prepared to race," she said. "No matter who's next to you, no matter what the water's doing, no matter what the wind is doing. I'm ready to handle whatever conditions Eton can throw at us."
The medal round begins Aug. 1, just four days after the first race. But the national team, from which the Olympic representatives were chosen, lives and rows together all but three or four weeks per year. The team has been training for London since 2008.
In a moment of light-heartedness and celebration, three-time Olympian Susan Francia baked a 6-foot-long cake last week that she cut into the shape of a boat. She invited the team over for a hearty helping. This was no problem for Dell, who consumes more than 6,000 calories per day, Kalmoe said.
"The bonds that I have established with my teammates are things I'm not gonna be able to replicate anywhere else for the rest of my life," Dell said. "So it's very special."
Her teammates think highly of her, too.
"She has a reputation around the boathouse for being one of the sweetest, most gentle, compassionate athletes on the team," Kalmoe said of Dell. "She is all-around well-liked because of her personality and her demeanor. She brings a level of calm but also a level of confidence."
Dell's confidence takes her places. She'll depart for London with a grounded sense of where she comes from. She's not concerned about the fact that she wasn't born and bred on regattas.
"I am really proud of my background, coming from rural Pennsylvania, and coming from a working-class family," she said. "It does give me a different perspective."
Dell is excited to represent Central Pennsylvania on Olympic waters. She is also happy that she discovered her athletic calling. Rowing, Dell noted several times, is a hard sport. The rowers' work is painful, and they train long hours.
But for Dell, it's worth it, even on the worst days.
"When you are in a team boat, and all eight blades are going in at the exact same time, and the boat is running, and there's a beautiful sunrise - it's those moments of just complete synchronicity,'' she said. "Where it doesn't matter how hard you're going and how tired you are; there's nothing else that really matters in the world. That's why we do it. We're always chasing after that."
They're chasing after a gold medal, too. If their dream comes true, one of Central Pennsylvania's own will be first to cross the finish line.