"For the Greater Good of the Boat" and other lessons I learned from Meghan O'Leary

Photo courtesy of Meghan O’Leary and Row2K


“Those who believe they believe in God, but without passion in the heart, without anguish of mind, without uncertainty, without doubt, and even at times without despair, believe only in the idea of God, and not in God Himself.” -Madeleine L’Engle


I pushed the grocery cart slowly through the store, thinking about this L’Engle quote while also wondering what in the world to make for dinner this week. I shoved my headphones into my ears, unsure if I really wanted to listen to music or just make myself invisible for awhile. Headphones have power that way. People magically leave you alone and choose someone else to ask about which variety of apple might be the most nutritious.  Usually I welcome those conversations, but tonight, I just wanted to be alone.

I’m in a bad mood.  I’m tired of myself and I don’t know what to write about Lent.

I don’t want to just believe in the idea of God.

I don’t want to just believe in the idea of anything.

Passion, anguish, uncertainty, doubt, even despair at times. Am I really willing to embrace the truth of this quote?

Most days I want to say, “Yes.” Today I just want things to be easy.

I don’t want growth and change to have to cost so much.

Often when I have days like this, people I love and who love me quickly say, “Lori, I think you are too hard on yourself.”

To which I often want to scream, “Well, SOMEONE needs to be hard on me! I want to grow. I want you to challenge me. I want you to stop saying that all the time!”

I decided one solution might be to interview an elite athlete to see if I could learn anything about discipline and hard work and the cost involved in reaching one’s goals.

Because I know so many elite athletes, right?

Well, not really, but, thanks to my blog, I have been fortunate to cross paths with Meghan O’Leary, an amazing, thoughtful, exceptional elite athlete. Her dad was my childhood hero, and I wrote a post about him which, long story short, allowed me to connect with Meghan.

Meghan attended UVA as a Jefferson Scholar and a dual athlete, playing both volleyball and softball. She earned a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology and Religious Studies in 2007 and a Master’s of Education in Social Foundations and Policy in 2008. In 2010, she started rowing and has since earned a spot on two U.S. Senior National Teams (2013-14) and is an Olympic hopeful in the USA Women’s double for 2016.

Meghan didn’t start rowing until AFTER college and is now training for the Olympics. Remarkable.  She must know something about extreme discipline, passion, desire, and hard work. I decided to email her to see if she might indulge me and answer some questions. Not only is she driven and disciplined, she is deeply thoughtful, intentional and kind. Even though she is extremely busy, she didn’t hesitate to help me with my questions.

I started the interview with the “you are too hard on yourself” topic. I sat back smugly in my chair and waited for her response, quite certain that an elite athlete HAS to be hard on herself in order to excel in her sport. I was sure a coach would never tell her otherwise. Her response surprised me:

“I grew up and still today, act as my own toughest critic, and often times have heard that exact phrase ‘Don’t be so hard on yourself,’ be it from my parents, partner or coach. As an elite rower, I have found that managing my frustration is all the more important in managing my progress. It is possible to beat up on yourself too much, and thereby get in the way of your own progress…. There is value in pushing yourself and demanding to exceed those high expectations and standards you’ve set for yourself. That’s how great athletes achieve great things and break through to find new limits. There is also a fine balance to be found in allowing yourself to fail, recognizing that you aren’t perfect, and not getting pulled down further by your own hand.”

Getting in the way of my own progress? Pulled down further by my OWN hand?

Would I be willing to admit that this might be true for me? When I am hard on myself spiritually, my tendency is to be more focused on myself than on God. I dismiss His truth as truth for everyone else, but not myself. It is a strange way to avoid change and progress because it masquerades as something spiritual. It might appear like I am searching for and seeking Jesus, but the reality is that it is often a convenient way to prolong any change in my behavior. I can appear honest and vulnerable, but still avoid change. Maybe the element of surrender is just as important as the striving.

Surrender. How does that come into play as an elite athlete? Does it come into play?

Meghan writes, “I think there are many elements of surrender, experienced in different ways and every day. To truly reap the benefits of the training, you do have to surrender to the process. To some degree you have to buy in and trust that the process is going to work. This can be difficult at times, especially when you may not see the results you want to see right away. When you do something for 6-8 hours a day, every day, any type of progress can be difficult to see. This in itself is a struggle.


“To some degree you have to buy in and trust that the process is going to work.”

Philippians 1:6 says, “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” Am I willing to “buy in” and really trust God that He is working and in control and that He cares more about my wholeness than I do? Letting go of my need for control and my need to set the timeline feels important.

 Meghan continues: “On a more literal note, there is a physical and mental surrender. Training at this level demands that you push yourself beyond your limits and harder than you’ve ever gone before. Your mind may be screaming at you to stop because you’re in so much pain or think you can’t push any deeper, but if you can push through that ‘wall’ as we sometimes identify the feeling, surrendering your logic which tells you that you can’t go any more, your body is actually capable of so much more.”

 Am I willing to allow God to push me to deeper levels with Him? When I want to throw in the towel because my inadequacies feel too overwhelming or I continue to hold onto patterns that are comfortable, can I surrender and trust? When I hit a wall and life feels overwhelming or doesn’t make sense, will I still seek Him?

Meghan’s final thoughts on surrender feel important for our personal relationships as well as our wholeness as the body of Christ.

My specific event is the women’s double, therefore I am rowing with one other person. There is an element of surrender in this in that to achieve the goals we need to achieve together, we may need to surrender some of our individual wants, needs, or desires in the process. The double is a tricky boat. It requires the highest level of technique to move the boat, and you have to do that perfectly in sync with someone else. You can’t just decide to go off and do your own thing or do something your way because it feels better or that’s what you believe is the ‘right way’ — it is a shared journey and by surrendering yourself to the greater good of the boat (the two of you, together) you will achieve so much more than what you could have done by yourself.”

 This feels like a beautiful picture of what community might look like. It involves hard work that walks hand in hand with humility instead of pride or self absorption.

Through this Lent exercise, God has been challenging me to grow up. Not in a mean, “Oh grow up already” tone of voice, but more of a gentle voice, encouraging me to stop being so focused on myself and to really seek Him instead. I am so grateful for how He used Meghan O’Leary’s words to challenge me to stop doing “something [my] way because it feels better” or because I think my way “is the right way” and instead be willing to surrender myself “to the greater good of the boat.”

Actually, Meghan’s willingness to answer my questions had a bigger impact on me than anything else about this project. It reminded me that we can be incredibly disciplined and driven in our faith, pursuing spiritual disciplines, spending time in solitude, fasting, praying, but if we neglect kindness, compassion, and connection, we often will miss the point entirely. We miss wholeness. Meghan’s kindness and willingness to connect with me makes her even more elite in my mind, and I am so grateful.

Matthew 22:37-40: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

The journey continues….

This is the fourth post in the current Lent series.

Lent, LifeLori SongComment