When Natalie Dell returned to her native Bedford County last week, she brought with her the experience of an Olympic champion, but also the inspirational tale of the seemingly-insurmountable challenges she faced to be part of U.S. sports history.
Telling her story to all who wanted to hear it, from business leaders to school children throughout "Natalie Dell Day," the humble and kind athlete relayed a clear message: "Never give up." The more you heard of her extraordinary journey from Everett to the London Olympics, the more you had to admire her.
Most athletes who row on world class teams have the sport in their blood; inheriting a legacy of privilege, many U.S. rowers come from Ivy League backgrounds. They are blessed with scholarships, elite coaches, state-of-the-art equipment and boat houses, even the luxury of massage therapists.
Natalie started her athletic career as a traditional high school athlete, but you don't see many rowing teams working out on the Juniata River. She joined the Penn State Rowing Club in college. A non-varsity sport, the athletes paid for their own uniforms, equipment and travel, and drove 45 minutes each way to train at Bald Eagle State Park.
The first in her family to graduate with a four-year degree, she then challenged herself to see how far she could go in a sport that few had even heard of in Pennsylvania, but that featured overflowing grandstands in Europe (in fact, the rowing events were the first to sell out at the Olympics in London.)
While working full-time in Boston, training before sunrise and well into the evening, and running over her lunch break, Natalie worked for years to perfect her mechanics.
More than once she tried out for the U.S. National team and was denied a spot. When she finally caught the eye of the Team USA coaches and made it to train with more than 40 other potential Olympians, she continued to work at her job, hiding it from her coaches so they wouldn't question her commitment; but knowing she had student loans to pay.
Throughout the brutal Olympic trials, she earned the reputation of being a kind teammate, a ferocious competitor, and an athlete who did not complain about anything. She found out she would compete in London just three weeks before the games; then she captained the American team to their first-ever medal in the quad sculls, the most prestigious rowing event for women in the world.
"The Olympian in me says you don't compete for third place," she said, "but the girl from Bedford County is very proud of everything we accomplished."
She was quick to share her achievements and her medal with everyone she met during her homecoming, leaving audiences with tear-filled eyes and hearts that swelled with pride.
"What I had in that boat that no one else had was the experience of growing up with the hard-working people of Bedford County," she said, "and the support from my family and hometown that reached around the world."
Everyone loves an underdog, and Natalie Dell certainly is that: the shortest rower on the U.S. team, this small-town central Pennsylvania girl fulfilled her dreams, and does not hesitate to pass on her positive attitude and encouraging words of wisdom to young and old. She is living proof that with commitment, hard work no dream is too big and anything is possible.
Kellie Goodman Shaffer can be reached at email@example.com. Her column appears on Tuesdays.