Rio de Janeiro — Ask Ellen Tomek what she remembers most about her first Olympic experience, in Beijing in 2008, and she’ll tell you with a laugh she doesn’t remember much.
It was a long time ago, and Tomek, a Flushing native who’s back for another Olympics as part of the U.S. rowing team in Rio, was still a relative newcomer to her sport at the highest level. She was two years out of college — an all-Big Ten rower at Michigan — and didn’t expect to make the team.
“Mostly what I remember from Beijing is just being so excited, and being so in awe of what was happening,” said Tomek, who’ll begin competition today in the women’s double sculls at the picturesque Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon, with the Christ the Redeemer statue looming above the start line. “I was just kind of wandering from place to place and doing what my coaches told me.”
There’s other memories that come flooding back, of course. Like that wild, 3-hour taxi ride with a driver who was aa lost and a language barrier that couldn’t be bridged. And the wrong turn that nearly caused Tomek and her double sculls partner Megan Kalmoe to miss the start of their first race.
This time? Well, the 32-year-old Tomek says she has “come too far” to forget why she’s here.
“We all have higher expectations this time,” said Tomek’s father, Phil, who works at the GM engine plant in Flint and will be in Rio with his wife, Kari, and son, Kyle. “We know it has been a long journey. The last eight years has been really difficult.”
After starting the next Olympic cycle as one of the top rowers on the team, Tomek ran into injury trouble that never relented. A torn back muscle led to stress fractures in her ribs, and the ebb-and-flow of her training hindered her performances.
She’d turned down opportunities in the single and double in the run-up to the 2012 London Games, hoping instead to land a spot on the women’s quad and a better medal opportunity. So when she failed to make the team that spring, it was a crushing setback. She took a month off, heard her coaches suggest maybe she’d had enough, and then decided the opposite.
“I just felt like I never really got back to where I was in 2009 before I got injured, and I felt like the rower I was then could have been very successful,” Tomek said. “And I just had to prove to myself that I could get back to that.”
It took a while, and after funding cuts following a disappointing finish at the 2013 World Championships, Tomek had to move to Oklahoma City to train at a U.S. Rowing center there instead of with the national team in Princeton, N.J.
But she and her new rowing partner, Meghan O’Leary, a former two-sport athlete in softball and volleyball at Virginia, found they had some easy speed in the double. And after three years as a tandem — with smarter training on Tomek’s part to limit the stress on her still-wonky back — they cruised to victory at April’s Olympic Trials in Sarasota, Fla.
As they crossed the line, the normally stoic Tomek slapped the water in celebration and couldn’t hold back the tears.
“It was pretty emotional,” she said. “This one was a little more feeling of relief, honestly, that sticking with after not making the team in 2012 had paid off.”
But after that, it was back to business, because this is likely her last Olympics. After 10 years with the national team, Tomek expects to retire and try her hand at coaching. And she’d like to go out with a medal in what typically is a wide-open Olympic race.
“I’ve got chance to go and try to have a best performance,” she said. “I want to win a medal.”
Memories like those are hard to forget.