How Winning the Wendy's High School Heisman Changed My Life
Editor’s Note: We are excited welcome our latest guest blogger, Olympian Meghan O’Leary, to The Square Deal. As you’ll read below, Meghan’s story is particularly inspiring. Her inner strength, relentless drive, and willingness to take on new challenges, are traits that that made her our 2002 Wendy’s High School Heisman female winner and brought her to Rio this past summer to compete on the US women’s double sculls rowing team with Ellen Tomek. Meghan and Ellen faced grueling race conditions in Rio and battled back from a repechage in order to place sixth in the entire world, and in doing so, they brought so much joy and pride to the Wendy’s Family.
Welcome to the blog, Meghan!
I've recently been exploring the concept of the power within a single idea, decision or just one moment.
This force can be positive or negative, and often so strong that life can change in that instant it takes for a thought to pass through your mind. Perhaps it comes with just getting older: this appreciation for the infinite possibility and change that exists in one finite moment.
Coming off of such a once in a lifetime experience as competing in the Olympics, I've also wanted to take the time to reflect back on all those little moments that added up and brought me to where I am today.
I can remember when my high school softball coach and Athletic Director, Myra Mansur handed me the Wendy's High School Heisman application. She said,
"This is due tomorrow, but looks right up your alley. Would you have time to get it done? I think you can win this."
In one fleeting thought and simple action, a process was initiated that would truly change my life forever.
Fast forward a few months to the Wendy's High School Heisman Finalist Weekend, I found myself surrounded by the tall buildings and bright lights of Manhattan, rubbing elbows with college football's finest, and making lifelong friendships with the most impressive people I had ever met.
There was no way I could win this award, but I was okay with that. The experience of the weekend alone had already set my life on a different, higher path and in my young age, I still sensed that. I had worked hard to prove myself to be a high achiever, it was why I was selected as a Finalist. But look at the potential that exists beyond just this weekend? This one award. The alumni of the Wendy's Heisman program have gone on to do amazing things with their lives.
That could be me one day.
Any one of the other five female candidates could have been selected on that December Friday evening, but in that moment, my name was read aloud as the 2002 Wendy's High School Heisman Female National Winner.
And with that, a cascade of moments would unfold that may have never been realized.
I firmly believe that adding Wendy's High School Heisman National Winner to my college application helped me to be selected as a Jefferson Scholar and acceptance into the University of Virginia.
Subsequently, attending and graduating from UVA would open a world of opportunities.
One such opportunity was something I never expected, but once I stumbled upon it, I dove in with all of the passion and energy I could muster. You see, I had never rowed before the summer of 2010. I didn’t even know it was a sport until going to college and being paired with a rower as my freshman roommate.
I was a dual sport college athlete, playing both volleyball and softball for UVA, but I remember at one point, the UVA women’s rowing head coach approaching me and telling me I should come out for the team.
He said I should strongly consider it and could be an Olympian one day. I was flattered, but shrugged it off.
Obviously I was otherwise committed to my current teams, but it planted the seed that would wait to flourish many years later.
All it took was that one conversation, his one encouraging comment.
A few years after that conversation, I would Google “rowing” and “Hartford, Connecticut” where I was living and working, to find a local community rowing club and learn-to-row lessons. I didn’t know it at that time but in those few clicks of the keyboard, I was beginning an incredible journey toward realizing a life I’d never dreamt of before.
Some ten years after that amazing WHSH weekend, I took a leap of faith to quit my job and deviate from the path I had originally set out on toward a promising career at ESPN, to risk it all and chase the Olympic Dream.
It was one of the scariest decisions I had faced, but would soon prove to be one of the greatest decisions I ever made. Less than four years later, I stepped off a plane in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil as a member of the U.S. Olympic Rowing Team on my way to compete in the 2016 Summer Olympic Games.
The Olympics experience was incredible. As a kid, I always loved watching the Olympics on television. Those athletes were my idols and I wanted to be exactly like them one day. Finding myself in those shoes, on the other side of the spectator, was other-worldly. The energy surrounding the Games is like nothing I’ve ever felt.
It was humbling to represent my country, my family and friends, and all the people who believed in me, and to be at the center of the world’s focus as they shared the excitement, triumph, and heartbreak of the Olympic Games.
The experience is one that changed me and will live with me for the rest of my life.
Since returning from Rio, I’ve been enjoying some down time and catching up with friends and family. Although it feels as though a chapter is coming to a close, I know that this is only a moment among many that will lead to so many more great ones to come.
Shameless plug from the editors: If you are or know a high school student-athlete who sounds a lot like Meghan, take a few minutes to fill out the Wendy’s Heisman scholarship application. We promise to give all Olympians, or those who reach equally impressive heights, an opportunity to blog their experience. What a [square] deal!