Susan Francia C’04 G’04 eats almost 4,000 calories per day, sleeps at least eight hours per night, and spends much of the rest of her time napping, resting, or recovering. “My mom jokes that I’m a baby because I just eat and sleep,” Francia says with a laugh. “And I’m like, ‘Yeah, and row!’” Oh, right—that too. Let’s not forget the part that’s made the Penn alumna a world-class athlete and a potential two-time Olympian [“Alumni Profiles,” Nov|Dec 2008].
In mid-June, Francia, who won a gold medal as part of the women’s eight boat at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, was selected for the same eight-person boat at the 2012 Olympics. She joins a slew of other Penn students or alums that were in the mix to get to the London Games—a list that includes Tom Paradiso C’02 (rowing), Catherine Vuksich W’07 (white water slalom canoe/kayak), Matt Valenti C’07 (wrestling), Brendan McHugh C’12 (swimming), rising junior Shelby Fortin (swimming), Brian Chaput C’04 (track and field), and possibly rising junior Maalik Reynolds (track and field).
For all of them, it’s a grueling, 24-hour-per-day process that transforms their diet, sleep patterns, and daily routine in ways most people can’t even imagine … and then culminates with the pressure-packed stage of the US Olympic Trials where all of that hard work manifests itself over the course of just a couple of days.
“You’re basically living the life of a monk where you get up and train, then you recover, then you train again, then you recover again,” says Paradiso, a former Penn rower and coach, as well as a longtime member of the US National Team. “Even being in a place like Los Angeles, where there’s a nightlife and there’s beaches and there’s surfing, it’s kind of like, you can do that after. You can’t try out for the Olympics again. You can’t train for the Olympics again. But you can go surfing any time.”
All of the hard work paid huge dividends for Paradiso in 2008, when he qualified for the Beijing Olympics as a member of the US lightweight four boat. But after finishing in fourth place in the men’s double sculls finals at the USRowing Olympic Selection Events in April, Paradiso says his chances of making a return trip to the Olympics are “very, very slim.”
Following that race, Paradiso immediately began to question himself. Did he not allow enough time to prepare, having quit his job as a Penn assistant coach only last summer to begin full-time training? Did he let down his partner in the boat, Bob Duff? Will he ever be able to row the same way again after blowing out his back in 2009? Was it worth it?
“You start to wonder what else you could have done,” he says. “And in a boat where you have a partnership, it’s not an awkward situation but it’s definitely one where you feel for your partner as much as you feel for yourself, like you let him down.”
In some ways though, Paradiso says he felt “a little bit of relief” as well. Unlikely to try again for the Olympics in 2016, he can now “return to real life” and explore other options, perhaps settling in to a more permanent position on the Penn crew coaching staff.
Others like Francia aren’t ready to move on from competitive rowing just yet. Luckily, she doesn’t have to. While Paradiso, Valenti, and Vuksich didn’t place high enough at their own US Olympic Trials to earn a trip to London, Francia kept the school’s Olympic torch aflame. (Visit the sports blog at penngazettesports.com or the Gazette website, www.upenn.edu/gazette, for updates on all of Penn’s Olympic hopefuls and participants.)
Francia’s selection process was different than Paradiso’s because the US women’s eight boat already qualified for the Olympics by winning at last year’s World Rowing Championships. That means, as opposed to winning a race at trials, she had to be picked by a coach from among a group of women she trains with every day—which, for her, made the whole process more subjective and extra competitive.
But there’s never any shortage of motivation. All she ever needed to do was think of her last trip to the Olympics when her joy of winning a gold medal was compounded by having NBA superstars like Dwight Howard and Kobe Bryant come up to her in the Olympic Village and ask if they could hold it.
“It’s not a sacrifice for me,” says Francia, who battled back from a herniated disk and broken ribs she suffered last year. “The only sacrifice is, OK, I miss some weddings or I don’t go to a friend’s baby shower or something. But I love what I do. I wouldn’t be doing anything else.”
The same could be said of another Penn Quaker turned Olympic champion: Brandon Slay W’98.
One of the best wrestlers ever to go to Penn, Slay qualified for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, and advanced to the finals of the 167 ½ pound weight class, where he lost to Germany’s Alexander Leipold. But Slay became the first wrestler from Penn ever to win a gold medal when Leipold tested positive for steroids—a feat so thrilling he later named his daughter Sydney.
Now, he’s back for more. Despite being long retired as a competitor, Slay currently works as an assistant coach for USA wrestling at the United States Olympics Training Center in Colorado Springs. And he’ll be traveling with the US freestyle wrestling team to London, where he’ll try to impart some of the lessons he learned 12 years ago.
“In the midst of all of the hoopla, all of the pandemonium of the games, you still just have to walk out there, shake hands, and wrestle,” he says. “Because I’ve been through that experience before, I think it will be beneficial for the team.”
But even knowing that, Slay still might get caught up in all of the pageantry himself. That’s because after 12 years away from the Olympics, he’s ecstatic to carry the torch for his alma mater, once again.
“I missed the grind, and I missed the journey,” Slay says. “So I decided to come back.”—DZ
July|August 2012 Contents
FEATURE: Penn in the Olympics
SIDEBAR: 2012, Too
SIDEBAR: Two Big Loves: The Olympics and Penn