Great Ones, Part 6: Opportunity Knocks

Grobler at the 2010 Crash-B World Indoor
Rowing Championships
(Photo credit:
Every great athlete was lucky enough to find the sport for which they were best suited. This takes a little bit of luck, the proper attitude, and decisive nature. Although pure chance or happenstance is often a large part of the discovery of one's natural talent or prowess for a certain sport, there are other elements that play a role determining opportunity. You must be smart enough to first look for and be open to opportunity, if you are going to discover the sport at which you'll become most successful. This requires not only an open mind, but also awareness and perspective, so that opportunities are noticed and interpreted as such. Secondly, the athlete must have the wherewithal to take advantage of the opportunity when it is presented. This often requires risk and the unknown, including the risk of failure and dealing with not being great immediately (increasingly problematic in today's 'instant-gratification' oriented culture). I'm sure many people who could have been highly successful at one sport or another missed out on their chance because they either didn't notice the opportunity when it was presented, or didn't take advantage of the opportunity because they weren't willing to take the risk and deal with the initial difficulties.

Sometimes, opportunity comes from a singular discovery. This means finding a great program and a great coach with good facilities, etc. Ursula (pronounced 'Er-sha-la') Grobler is a great example of this. Grobler, who had no aspirations of competing at the 2012 Olympics when she moved from her home in South Africa to Seattle in 2005, now holds the world record for lightweight women on the ergometer, took home a silver medal from Karapiro, and will likely represent her adopted home on Dorney Lake. That is not to say that Ursula did not have an athletic background (she was a competitive triathlete), but when she moved over to the US, she was fresh out of school and working as a nanny. She happened to see an advertisement for a 'learn to row' program, and, after a relatively short time, Carlos Dinares took note of her potential. Full credit to both of them, as she has made the most of her physiological and technical development thus far, placing herself on the right track heading into London.

What are the odds that those best suited for rowing, like Ursula, will discover it as their sport? In places like China and Russia, they realize the role this plays in determining how great one can be at a given sport, so they work to identify those with the natural gifts/talents for certain sports and get them going from a young age ( In the United States, this is much less common. Sure, people might tell a tall child he should play basketball, or a fast child that he should run track, but how many people who would be great at one sport never discover their talent at that sport because they never try it, or never get the right opportunity? We can only wonder how many great potential rowers there are out there who never have and never will pick up an oar or sit on an erg. This is a significant disadvantage for a sport like rowing, situated so far (excusing the pun) from the mainstream.

How many high schools in this country have rowing? Not many, especially when compared with the number of high schools that have more mainstream sports such as football, basketball, track, soccer, volleyball, baseball, softball, etc. How many areas have junior rowing clubs and what percentage of high school athletes will end up discovering these teams? Probably not the best high school athletes, even in those relatively few areas of the country that have high school and junior rowing. The best athletes in those areas are probably often going to be found on the soccer, basketball, swim, volleyball or track teams and will never even think about the sport of rowing. For those that do discover a junior rowing club in or near their city and aren't more attracted to another sport, how many will be discouraged or unable to participate because of the distance required to travel to the nearest boathouse or the high costs that can be associated with junior rowing?

While some of finding one's sport requires chance or luck, it is not completely out of the athlete's control. Luck often comes to those who put themselves in a position to be lucky. This means doing things that will place you in a position to have opportunities. For example, if you are a college freshman that has never tried rowing before, but love athletics and have a strong athletic background, it might do you some good to keep your eyes and ears open for athletic opportunities in rowing. Collegiate rowing in particular often presents a unique opportunity for college students to learn a new sport and become a member of a high level team and receive high level coaching, which may lead them to a level of success in sport that they had only dreamed of previously. We only need to look as far as the last Olympic team to discover a number of U.S. Olympians that discovered the sport as walk-ons in college, such as Bryan Volpenhein who discovered rowing at the Ohio State University, or Susan Francia who didn't begin rowing until her Sophomore year at the University of Pennsylvania. If they were not aware, or not open to the opportunity, or if they hadn't the wherewithal to take advantage of the opportunity, they would never have made it to the Olympics, where each has won a gold medal.

The bottom line is, if you are open to finding the sport you are best suited for, you will find it. It may be in a place where you least expect it, but that's often how things happen in life. Some of the most important, life changing opportunities occur when we least expect them. By being open and placing yourself in a position to be successful and find opportunity, it will find you. Just make sure you capture it -- don't miss it when it comes. This is something the great ones never do. When a golden opportunity comes along, they seize it, and run with it.

-The RR Editorial Staff

Part 6 concludes our first RR series on the 'Great Ones' -- an in-depth look at what goes into becoming a great athlete, making use of examples in the sport of rowing as well as the greater world of sport. To view the series as a whole, click on the 'Great Ones' label, located in the label cloud on the right side of the page.

Links to Ursula Grobler's websites are posted below:

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