BY ANDY ANDERSON
Has it occurred to you that Washington would be much better off if only it were peopled with people who know what it means to work selflessly together, people who know what it means to work toward a difficult goal? In short, wouldn’t things be better if a few rowers led the dance? Well, one of us, a real rower, is running for Congress. Monica Tranel, Olympian in 1996 and 2000, is the real deal, someone who represents everything our sport promotes and encourages.
Tranel is running for a seat to represent Montana’s First District, the western portion of the state. If you have a mind for obscure facts, you probably know that Montana had two congressional seats, but lost one in 1993 after the census and has now won it back. This makes it the first state to lose a seat and then regain it.
I was drawn to Tranel’s story not only because of her rowing, but also because her background is atypical for an Olympic rower. Raised on a ranch near Miles City, Montana, she is the sixth of 10 children. Ranch life is harsh and unglamorous. Her father walked in the snow to get to school; he remembers that he often went to bed hungry. As a girl, Monica not only shared a bathroom and bedroom with an older sister, but also a bed with that sister until she left for college.
When it was time for Tranel to go to college, her parents did not want her to go East, despite some acceptances there; it was too far. So she went to Gonzaga University in Spokane, the neighboring state and an 11-hour drive away (Montana is a big state). There, as a tall, strong woman, she was approached by the college rowing club.
“I’ve always had a deep connection to the natural world,” she said. “I was outdoors all the time growing up. I fell in love with rowing from the first moment. When we got out on the water, I couldn’t believe how beautiful it was to row.
Gonzaga is not known as a breeding ground for the national team. “Our club team raced in Seattle as part of the Pac-Ten Championships, and our four coxswains finished fourth. For us, it was like winning gold. During this regatta, his eyes were opened to all the best rowers in the North West and the potential that could await him.
She moved east to attend Rutgers Law School outside of Philadelphia and, hoping to find a place to continue rowing, walked along Boathouse Row knocking on doors. At Vesper, the door opened, and JB Kelly greeted her and showed her around, showing her pictures of her father and grandfather, both Olympic medalists. There were men and women who had just returned from the 1988 Olympics in Korea, and they encouraged her to join. “Somewhere,” she said, “there’s a video made of me that first fall called ‘How Not to Row’. My nickname on the Schuylkill was ‘Flipper.’
National team coach Kris Korzeniowski was visiting with his Norwegian erg for testing. Tranel climbed on it, closed her eyes, and visualized a stream on the ranch she had skipped.
“I always thought that if I didn’t make it, if I died, that would be a good way to go. I closed my eyes and jumped. When she finished her erg piece, she opened her eyes to hear Korzo declare, “You just shot the fastest score in the land.” He went on to say that he had seen her rowing and that she was “really strong but dangerous”.
Progress was slow, but rowing at Vesper was a delight, and she was invited to training camps and she was improving. The wild bronco became a reliable steed. In 1992, after three years at Vesper, she was in a boat that finished fifth in the Olympic trials, a disappointing reality for someone who now had higher aspirations.
“I’m going to give myself one more year,” she swore to herself. “If I don’t devote myself completely to this, I will never know what could have been.”
It’s a good thing she’s sticking with it; in 1993 she made the USA team and won a bronze medal in the quad. In 1994, she won silver medals in the coxless four and eight at the World Championships. In 1995, the eight won gold with her in the four places.
The 1996 Olympics in Atlanta were a monumental disappointment for the women’s eight. The previous year they had won gold in a boat of very strong and very fit athletes, so their fourth place finish was “devastating”. Tranel recalls, “It was the first time I was in an American boat that wasn’t rowing in the medal dock.”
The following year, she switched to singles and represented the United States at Worlds, placing seventh. She took time off in 1998 and lived in Montana, but returned to the United States in 1999, winning a silver medal. Her last year of top-level rowing was in 2000, when she won the Olympic singles trials but fell short of her potential in Australia.
I asked her what she got out of so many years of rowing. Without hesitation, she said, “The will to dig deep and set a goal and go for it.” She mentioned a case in her legal career in Montana when she took over the state’s largest utility after its failure to plan adequately meant it was trying to pass on a $10 million loss. dollars on consumers.
“They tried to bury me with documents. I have read them all. In court, they were surprised that I could point out the exact details; it seemed like most of their team hadn’t even read them all. We won the case.
“In my life, hard work and preparation has always paid off,” she said. “That’s my campaign message, ‘Let’s get the middle class back, the hard working people back.'”
His website features a video brimming with rowing footage. She says she has always rowed in the “engine room”, in the middle. She identifies the Montanans as the middle class, the engine room of this country. “I didn’t learn my work ethic at the Olympics; I took it there from Montana.
She had just returned from the annual Power Ten dinner in New York when I spoke to her. “It was great. I spent time with a lot of deeply committed people who recognize how privileged they were to have rowed. They want to contribute, to give back. That’s what we need in this country.
If she wins the Democratic primary on June 7, she is likely to face former Trump-appointed Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke in November. It seems like a tough line to come, but his message: “We can be better than we are. We are at a time and a place where we have to decide where we are going,” she encourages. If she wins, she would be the first Olympian to be elected to Congress. This rower is what we need.