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Rowing through Life

Burke woman becomes elite athlete in less than six years.

Rowing takes the same strength and power that Lake Braddock graduate Margaret Matia applies to her life. When she puts her mind to something, there’s no telling what she’s capable of accomplishing.

Matia, 25, recently made it onto the U.S. National Rowing Team, and she’s heading to her first Pan American Games next week, in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. Matia still can’t believe that she’s an accomplished rower, since she just began doing it just six years ago.

"I’m still surprised," she said. "I’m so amazed I’m doing this and it’s so fun."

Most athletes competing at this level have been practicing and perfecting their sport since childhood, she said. For Matia, she did well on the rowing machine at the gym, but never thought about taking it up as a sport until she was a sophomore at the University of Virginia in 2001. She saw signs up around school for the rowing team and thought it would be something cool to try out. If anything, she’d make some friends out of it.

"I was never like a [high school] varsity athlete," said Matia. "I ran track … my mom would still be cheering when everyone else had already finished, because I was still running."

"She was a terrible runner," said her mother, Trish Matia, laughing.

Walking on to the rowing team ended up funding Margaret Matia’s graduate education at UVA. She received a full scholarship to continue rowing while obtaining her masters degree. She rowed her way through college, and now she’s rowing through life, but not without a lot of hard work and dedication, said Trish Matia.

"She attacks everything she does," said Trish Matia. "[Rowing] has just given her so much confidence, and her body is just so lean and fit; she’s just so strong."

MARGARET MATIA is competing in the Pan American Games in doubles sculling, or rowing with two oars with one in each hand. She competed in college in sweep rowing, which consists of larger boats usually, and rowers each have just one oar. Margaret Matia switched because she was told she wasn’t tall enough to compete as a sweep rower at the national and international level, said Trish Matia. At 5 feet 9 inches, she’s falls about three inches short of the ideal sweep rower height.

So she came to the Potomac Boat Club and hooked up with Coach Matt Madigan. She wanted to become an elite athlete, and Madigan helped coach her to achieving that goal.

"She hit it off with Matt," said Trish Matia. "He turned out to be one of the premier sculling coaches in the world."

Making the switch from sweep rowing to sculling wasn’t an easy transition. Madigan remembers that Margaret Matia had to "work really hard to gain some boat feel." Sculling oars have smaller blade surfaces, he said, so the demands are different.

"You have to have a lot of dexterity and feel for the water," he said.

But Margaret Matia gained boat speed and technique quickly. In just two years, Margaret has made the national team, and she hopes to make the Olympic team someday too. She quit her job to focus on rowing, and she’s already seen her dedication pay off. At her first Canadian Henley Regatta — a major North American rowing competition, or regatta —she came in last in her heat, said Trish Matia. One year later, she went back though, determined to do better than the year before.

"She won it," said Trish Matia, who said she is known as the "team mom" because of the support she gives to her daughter and the entire team. "Just in a year, she made that much progress."

So now Margaret Matia works a few part-time jobs to support her athletic career. She coaches the freshman crew team at Georgetown Day School, and she wants the teen there to take away more from rowing than just strong muscles and a knack for competition. She wants them to experience what she has experienced.

"I love the confidence it has given me in other aspects of my life as well," said Margaret Matia. "I can do something, if I just work really hard at it."

Rowing is a selfless sport too, she said. It has made her realize that "things are bigger," she said. In rowing, a person is literally connected to other people in the boat, just as people are connected to each other in life.

"You can never think just about yourself," she said.

As for the Pan American Games, she is confident in that too. Margaret Matia said that she and her partner, Sarah Trowbridge, just need to execute their race plan, and things should be fine. Madigan said the team should expect to see just inches separating them from other boats, but he’s also confident they will medal at the games.

"I think they have a good shot of reaching the podium," he said.