From Riding to Rowing: An Olympic Dream Stays Alive

by /

Published on June 13, 2018

M

y goal was to go to the Olympics in show jumping. My goal was to compete at WEF every winter during high school. My goal was to have a horse of my own. But somehow, these goals have evolved as I have ascended into a new sport—rowing. My new goal? Win Olympic gold in rowing. 

This all started during a trip to Vermont aboard a horse named Clip-Clop. To this day, I don’t know the horse’s real name, but my 3-year-old self was obsessed with a collection of Clip-Clop VHS videos that I religiously watched at home, so my mom led me to believe I was riding THE Clip-Clop. I’d say getting atop that horse was the beginning of it all.

Growing up in Connecticut less than one mile down the road from the Fairfield County Hunt Club, I was in the mecca of hunter ponies. With the likes of Emerson Burr driving around his navy golf cart and the sound of freshly shod small grey ponies (Emerson’s favorite) heard in every direction, the Hunt Club was a horse-obsessed girl’s dream. From an outsider’s perspective, one would say I was living the dream, but from the inside, I felt like an outsider lost in a pile of braided ribbons and garters.

Photo courtesy of Lizzy Youngling

Unfortunately for my parents, I was obsessed with a sport that had no means to an end. As much as they wanted to fund my dreams of becoming a professional rider, they were realistic with their finances and couldn’t/wouldn’t entertain the idea of ever buying a horse of my own. As my friends hopped around from small to medium, to large fancy ponies, I was stuck on the outskirts with the 'hacks' otherwise known as the school ponies.

Related: 7 Self-Defeating Thoughts Every Rider Has Had

As much as it pains me to say it, I slowly began to become passionate about other sports outside of horseback riding. A two-week summer rowing camp at my local rowing club turned into trying out for the Varsity team during the fall of my junior year of high school. Riding five horses a day turned into squeezing one in right before rowing practice and eventually led to the end of my junior career (it never really even started).

Rowing is a funny sport. When you say that you’re a rower to people, they tend to do this bizarre motion with their arms as if they’re air canoeing. In fact, rowing is the complete opposite. To put it simply, in a rowing race, the goal is to get from point A to point B in the least amount of time while you sit on your butt and go backward. My favorite part about rowing and horseback riding? Their past tense is pronounced the same: rowed and rode.

Photo courtesy of Lizzy Youngling
Photo courtesy of Lizzy Youngling

I was lucky enough to get recruited to row at the University of Virginia. A school not only known for its excellent academics, but also for its powerhouse rowing team. After four years of competing as a Wahoo, I collected a slew of titles, trophies, and accolades including All-American, NCAA Champion, ACC Champion, and World Champion. Despite my newfound talent in rowing, horseback riding was still my passion and my plan was to retire from rowing following graduation and get back in the saddle. Boy, was I wrong.

The word retirement is a funny word for athletes. For some, it means newfound freedom and experiences that you previously had to turn down. For others, it’s a big black hole of the unknown and doubt. I was the latter. I found myself at a corporate job in Boston fulfilling the stereotype of “yuppie.” I drove my fancy car to work, I put a dress and heels on every day, and would sit in a cubicle from 9a to 5p, counting down the seconds until I was free. No matter what gym class or event I went to, I felt myself yearning to find an outlet to release my competitive edge.

Related: Tips For The Rider Who Hates To Go To The Gym

An opportunity to live abroad in England presented itself when my boyfriend (Hi Mike!) was offered a spot to study at the University of Oxford. Not usually one for a spontaneous drop-your-bags and move across the ocean, this time I happily accepted the offer, quit my job, and moved to Oxford, England without a Visa and with no source of income—one of the best decisions I’ve ever made!

My thoughts on moving to England were this—live the life that you would never imagine possible in the States. After a quick google search, I found myself walking into an eventing barn asking for a job as a groom, with no previous experience. I guess saying I became an eventing groom is stretching the truth as I pretty much cleaned stalls all day. It was the opposite of glamorous, but as I’d ride the bus home caked in mud and horse poop—I felt as though I was living the dream. Working at the barn (illegally, sorry Mom) wasn’t enough to keep my dream of living abroad afloat. As I was scrolling through my Instagram feed one day while drinking a latte and eating a freshly baked brownie, a bad habit I had developed, I came across the opportunity to intern at Noëlle Floyd. One could say I’m a total groupie as I haven’t been on a horse since college, yet I can spit out show jumping facts and stats on all the riders as if I were an encyclopedia. Noëlle Floyd was a website I followed religiously, and by an act of God, I became a contributing writer. Dreams do come true.

My year in England was rapidly coming to a close and a decision was to be made about what I would do once back in the States. I was about to enter my second year of retirement from rowing, and although I didn’t miss the grueling workouts, the early wake-up calls, and the endless amount of minutes staring at the rowing machine screen, something inside of me was itching to get back into the sport. A simple email to the National Team Head Coach solidified my spot at the Olympic Training Center in Princeton, New Jersey and off I went back into the world of elite rowing.

The funny thing about being an elite athlete is that you don’t get paid. Unless you make the team for the World Championships, athletes are completely self-funded and dependent on sponsors (if you’re lucky enough to get one). Although not funded and not sponsored, I consider myself to be lucky - combining my passion for horses with my knack for writing, I’ve found a happy home with Noëlle Floyd. And thanks to the rowing team, I’m able to continue my dreams of Olympic glory while supporting myself with a career in horses—the best of both worlds. One day I’ll get back in the saddle, and who knows - maybe my dream to go to the Olympics in show jumping will come true after all. But for now, I’ll keep my eyes focused on Tokyo 2020 - as a rower.

Written by Lizzy Youngling

Lizzy Youngling has been a die-hard equestrian groupie since the age of three. Although not in the saddle as much as she’d like, Lizzy is a fan of all things horses. When she’s not writing for Noelle Floyd, she can be found at the boathouse training with the United States Rowing National Team in Princeton, NJ with the hopes of competing at the 2020 Olympic Games.