Athlete of the Month - July 2009
World Rowing caught up with Olympic gold medallist and two-time World Champion Susan Francia as she begins the 2009 season in a new role for the USA women’s eight in stroke seat. The Hungarian-born Francia, whose first name is officially spelled Zsuzsanna, began her journey to gold in 2002 when she began rowing at the University of Pennsylvania. There, she honed her skills on Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River – home of the famous Boathouse Row where many Americans have developed into Olympians over the last century. Now, with gold in her hands, and a Masters in Criminology, her sights are on continuing to enjoy the sport, the people, and become a fitness model to put rowing more in the mainstream spotlight.
World Rowing: You start the 2009 season as one of five women returning from the Beijing gold medal winning eight. How did the transition over the winter go with establishing a new team for a new Olympic cycle?
SF: I actually spent the winter training alone in sunny San Diego so I wasn't with the team. However, I had regular updates about the team and how incredibly strong and driven the new group of athletes was turning out to be. Part of the fun of a fresh young team is rebuilding for the next Olympics, so I look forward to working with them over the next few years.
WR: What were the low points in the journey and the high moments you remember most when looking back over the four years from your first international race at the 2005Rowing World Cup in Munich, Germany?
SF: No journey is truly complete without some truly low points. What's important is that you learn from those experiences, make a change and move on. Our lowest point may have been our race in the eight at the 2005 World Rowing Championships in Japan. In the final we went from a boat length’s lead at 500m to go, to missing a medal by less than a foot at the finish. Though that race was hard on us, it was one that we reflected on, and let us inspire us. Training in 2006, there was not one day that we didn't think about the results of that race. We were determined to never let that happen again. Thus one of the high points in the journey was winning in 2006 in Eton, because we were so determined to win and our hard work paid off.
WR: Did your Olympic experience live up to expectations?
SF: I wasn't sure what to expect going into the Olympics but I must say it blew away any expectations. First and foremost, we went there incredibly focused with our eye on the gold medal. I was most happy about accomplishing our goal and it made the post-racing festivities that much better. Showing off my gold medal to Kobe Bryant was pretty cool too!
WR: How do you reflect on where to go from ‘the top’ as it doesn’t get much better than gold at the Olympics and two world titles with a World Best time, does it?
SF: That is very true and something that I struggled with when returning to the rowing. My coach Tom Terhaar helped me realize though that there are so many other ways I can challenge myself with rowing. Right now that challenge is in the pair. I also realized that I love to race and of course I love to win, so I'm going to keep going as long as I'm enjoying myself.
WR: Your team decided to skip the first two World Cups this year when other USA rowers were in Banyoles (Rowing World Cup I) and Munich (Rowing World Cup II). What was the reason for taking this approach?
SF: I would have loved to have traveled to Spain to race, however we were in the middle of our training cycle.
WR: For the Rowing World Cup in Lucerne you have chosen to become one of a select few international rowing women who race both the eight and the pair. How are you and Caroline Lind juggling this new regatta challenge?
SF: Doubling up at the World Cup is like a whole new racing experience for me and I look forward to going to the starting line in two very different sized boats. It'll be exciting.
WR: In terms of training and race preparations, is there anything in particular you learned from your last Olympics that you are looking to change or improve upon as you look toward 2012?
SF: I think this time around I am a little more mature (haha) and I think I will deal with the ups and downs of training a little better. Also, I look forward to incorporating more cross-training activities into my routine in California such as mountain biking, swimming, running, and surfing (though I'm not so good at surfing). I'd like to race a few triathlons and some running races. Maybe I'll be like Rob Waddell and start yachting too!
WR: Will you be based in Princeton for the remainder of the summer or do you have any overseas camps scheduled?
SF: I will be in Princeton for the rest of the summer and then returning to San Diego after the World Rowing Championships in Poland.
WR: Before the Olympics one of your collegiate rowing teammates from University of Pennsylvania, Stephanie Foelster, set up a Facebook Fan group for you called “Susan We Love You”. How did the use social media impact your Olympic experience?
SF: My friends that I learned to row with at my university rowing program made the group and it was awesome having their support. Some people I hadn't spoken to in years also joined which made me realize just how many people were cheering for me. I also had a blog on my website www.susanfrancia.com so that friends and family could share my Olympic experience. It got picked up by NBC.com and I actually got so many hits that the website was shut down a couple times because the web traffic was so high!
World Rowing caught up with the busy and ebullient Susan Francia between selection races for the USA women’s team and modelling unisuits for Boathouse Sports Gear. She shares with www.worldrowing.com about her wide variety of experiences during her competitive rowing career over the last seven years, including a disappointing start to the 2009 season at Lucerne, and some of the more light hearted moments with her ‘family’ of close teammates.
WR: You were eager to race in Lucerne, but became ill. How does a World Rowing athlete handle that at the first major race of the year?
SF: It's always disappointing to not be able to race when you've come so far and you're excited to test your speed. I am proud of my teammates for stepping it up, being resilient despite line-up changes and racing so well.
WR: What do you look forward to most about racing in international regattas compared to domestic regattas? Any favourites regattas?
SF: Domestic races aren't as exciting because you're essentially just racing your teammates which we do in every day practice anyway. We've also been using the same 6 lane course for the past 5+ years, so the excitement of traveling to a new place is not there. International races are fun because you can travel somewhere new, reconnect with athletes from other countries, and see how everyone's speed has progressed since you last saw them. My favorite regatta is the Royal Henley in England. The dual style racing, the power boats along the sidelines, the drunk fans screaming all 2,300 meters, the hats, people dressed as Elvis or Borat... nowhere else in the world are you going to find that.
WR: Are there any regattas you’d like to be a spectator at, instead of a rower?
SF: I imagine that Henley would be a great race to be a spectator at, especially with those huge bottles of champagne and all those oyster bars! However, racing there in 2006 and winning the Remenham Cup and setting a new course record was infinitely better than wearing the coolest hat and prettiest dress.
WR: What is it about the sport that keeps you in it?
SF: My best friends/teammates. After Beijing, the girls from the women's eight went their separate ways and it was like my family had just abandoned me. It's amazing how close you get to your teammates when you go through such an experience together.
WR: Who has been your most influential coach and mentor?
SF: My current coach Tom Terhaar has definitely influenced me the most. He knows what works and I really respect and trust his opinion. I also give him credit for putting up with my jokes and my immaturity especially early on in my training. My mentor would definitely be my mom, especially because she's always helped drive me and always picked me up when I was down.
WR: If your teammates had to describe you with one word, what would it be?
SF: Clown (and probably not one of the funny ones).
WR: What are the things you like to do outside of rowing time?
SF: Swim, email, watch movies, read, think about people who have 9-5 jobs in a cubicle and take naps.
WR: Any favourite pre-race foods? Or post-race treats?
SF: Haha, no chocolate cheese cake for me! I eat well balanced meals before and after because I've found that eating sweets or junk makes me feel terrible. It's very important what you put into the engine!
WR: How do you see the growth of women’s collegiate rowing in the US influencing or shaping the success for team USA in women’s rowing?
SF: The growth of collegiate rowing is definitely having a positive influence on the talent pool that is coming onto the US team. Not only are more women getting excited about the sport, but there is a lot of undiscovered talent that is found on college campuses. In our Olympic women’s eight there were only four people out of nine who had rowed before college. Also, I think that the large turnout at U23 regattas will only improve the quality of racing at the senior level.
WR: Your website (www.susanfrancia.com) has a good collage of your Olympic experience. You met some big personalities at the Olympics, had the fortune to be on the Oprah show and celebrating at the White House. What do you remember most about your moment of ‘golden glory’ and how has it impacted you as an athlete?
SF: Meeting those celebrities gave me a little more perspective on what I do every day and how special my accomplishments are. Though I was in awe of them, I came to realize that they were also in awe of me. And I'd like to bet that doing a 2k can be more taxing than acting, playing basketball or soccer, or hosting a show. It might tie running a country.