Rower Molly Reckford Talks Jersey Roots Ahead of 2023 World Championships
Throughout the summer, in a series called Hometown Hopefuls, NBC is spotlighting the stories of Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls from all fifty states, as well as Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico, as they work towards the opportunity to represent their country at the Paris 2024 Games next year. We’ll learn about their paths to their sports’ biggest stage, and the towns and communities that have been formative along the way. Visit NBCSports.com/hometownhopefuls for more stories from across America as these Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls prepare for Paris in summer 2024.
Beginning this week in Belgrade, Serbia, the world’s best rowers will take to the water for the 2023 World Rowing Championships, with 2024 Olympic quota spots up for grabs across 14 Olympic boat classes. Among those rowers is Short Hills, New Jersey native and Dartmouth College product Molly Reckford, a Tokyo Olympian who took silver in Women’s Lightweight Double Sculls at the 2022 World Championships, alongside Michelle Sechser. Before this year’s championships, where she’ll make the move to women’s quadruple sculls, NBC Sports caught up with Reckford on her winding path to elite rowing, her hopes for Paris 2024 and the New Jersey community that still fuels her athletic career.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity
It seems like you’ve taken a gradual rise in your career, walking on at Dartmouth, taking a break from rowing, coming back. Can you start at the beginning and walk me through how you got involved in rowing in the first place?
Molly Reckford: I am the youngest of three and my older sister was on the rowing team at our high school and so I sort of started high school knowing I wanted to try rowing because that’s what my big sister did. And so I was on the freshman crew team, which is sort of a “learn to row” freshman program at [Philips] Exeter [Academy] and I absolutely loved it. And that was a really fun experience because we did mixed boats and we didn’t compete, but it was a blast and a half. I really loved it and decided that rowing was the sport for me. I was always a little small. Even in high school, as a sophomore, my coaches were saying you need to get stronger, you need to get bigger. I was 5-foot-10, probably about 125, 130 pounds. I was the runt on the team when I finally made the junior varsity team as a sophomore. I loved getting out on the water. I loved the experience of getting swing with the other athletes in the boat.
A lot of my teammates got recruited to row in college and I took part in that process and I spoke to some lightweight teams, but I wasn’t sold that I was done growing and so I was worried about joining a lightweight team and then needing to starve myself in college, which didn’t seem very fun. I ended up focusing on open weight recruiting and getting told a lot of times that I was too small and I was too slow. So I ended up applying to Dartmouth anyway, even though they did not think I was good enough to be recruited. I applied anyway and I got in on my own and I walked right onto the team because I wanted to row. Whether or not they wanted me, I wanted to row.
When I graduated and going into my senior year, rowing [professionally] just didn’t seem like an option for me. I was never invited to a junior national team camp or a U23 camp. Nobody really saw anything in me. Over the summers, when I was home from school in college, I would go row at this really small club called Nereid in Rutherford, New Jersey. There was this very gifted sculling coach there. The really wonderful thing about sculling is you can do it on your own. you learn a lot of boat skills because you are the only one, you know. If the boat isn’t feeling right, if the rhythm is wrong, if it’s not set, it’s you. You have no one else to blame and my coach thought that it would be very valuable for me to spend time in the single.
The coach there -- his name is Boris Alvarez -- I would say is the first coach who ever said, ‘I think you could be something special,’ and after two or three weeks rowing for him three days a week, he was like you get it somehow, you understand sculling. He even said I think you could be an international lightweight scholar, and I sort of was shocked. I’m a junior varsity, nothing special, no, you’re crazy. I rowed for him and I had a good time, but one coach saying you could be awesome isn’t really gonna change your career path. I graduated with no intention of rowing after college.
I worked in sales and trading and I did that for two years. I got a job in Menlo Park and that’s where the Stanford boathouse is. I found a local club and I thought I’d scull a little bit. I’m sitting at a desk 10 hours a day. It’ll be nice to get outside, look at the seabirds, move my body. And when I was taking a tour of the boathouse, some masters women came up to me and they said, you look like an athlete. You should join our competitive team. This is three years since I last held an oar and I’m like, “No, I don’t look athletic. What are you talking about? I have banker body.” I joined their competitive masters team and I just completely head over heels fell back in love with rowing, and very quickly I found myself getting up every day so that I could row, whether it was with the competitive team or on my own.
Probably about three months in, I was getting ready for a masters race, and I decided to pull a 2K, just to see where I was
. The 2K is the gold standard for telling how good a rower is or how fit they are. I set a personal record on my 2K after three months of training, beat my college personal best, and I went holy cow, something is working from there. The big masters national regatta was a couple months away and it was in California that year, in Oakland. So I went to that regatta and I said well, I’ll see how I do, but I began to start thinking, maybe I could be an international lightweight.
Boris’s knowledge was slowly coming up out of the attic of my mind. Every event that I entered, my boat won, and I entered six events.
From then on I was like, OK, I want more competition. I don’t race just so that I can beat up on slower athletes. I race because I want it to be really exciting. So I set my sights on senior national team trials the next spring for the 2019 team. At my first spring trying, I came in seventh place in the in the lightweight women single. I had been racing half the distance for the last year, so seventh is not that bad. Then I found a doubles partner and we got second place at doubles trials. We beat the returning silver medalists from the year before, and I thought I might actually be good at this.
You talk a little bit about that moment doing that 2K in the Bay Area being kind of a light bulb moment. You’d been rowing for years prior to that, but then within three months, things started to click. Is there anything in particular -- a person or a different strategy -- that you attribute that change to?
Reckford: Rowing very much became my escape from corporate, normal life. I embraced it not only in a I love this sport and it’s fun, but this is how I choose to spend my only free time. I remember doing that 2K in the back of my head, I was like, I am doing this to myself; I am in so much pain and I chose this. I always wanted to prove that they had made a mistake by not recruiting me, and so I think that the internal versus external motivation was a big part of it, and just growing up. Women’s lungs don’t finish developing or their cardiovascular systems are maximum at like age 32. Part of it was just becoming an adult, getting a little older, getting a little stronger.
So you spent a lot of time being told no as a young rower. Jumping forward to the Tokyo Olympics, what was the reaction when you find out that you’ve been named to an Olympic team?
Reckford: There were a couple steps to getting named to the Olympic team. The first thing we had to do was get named to the American team that would go try to qualify the boat, and in our trials race I actually made a major mistake in the first 5 seconds of the race and there’s video of it. I was thinking in my head, this is the Olympic Trials final, don’t mess up and so of course I messed up. I lost my grip on my oar and my oar went flying out of my hand. Nearly hit my partner in the back of the head and I had this moment of, “Oh my God, I’m done. This is it. It’s over. Your Olympic dreams are over.” But my oar ricocheted off my rigor and my partner ducked it and I caught it and we just kept rowing. We were a boat length behind the rest of the field and we walked through them. I spent the rest of that race rage rowing, fear rowing, pushing like I’ve never pushed before and we won. Crossing the finish line, knowing that I would have the opportunity to try to qualify the boat for Switzerland (see below), I was just sobbing my eyeballs out and I was so excited and even my college coach was there. I remember hugging her, just crying and being like I finally learned how to row.
To qualify, we had to go to that final Olympic Qualifier a couple months later in Switzerland and that was very surreal because it was still COVID. There were no spectators, we were racing on this beautiful lake called the Ratzi and you can hear the cowbells from the farms nearby and it’s almost dead quiet and crossing the line in that race, knowing we had won one of two spots to go to the Olympics in that race, it was one of those weird moments where you know that your life is about to change. And there was so much gravity, but mixed with joy. Because we qualified the boat ourselves, rather than getting a spot that somebody else had qualified, it felt so real and so earned.
Back to Short Hills, New Jersey. Tell me a little bit about what your hometown’s like and the response you got from people at home as this was all unfolding.
Reckford: I was born and raised in Short Hills, New Jersey. My parents have lived in that house my whole life and that’s pretty special. The response from the people who’ve known me my whole life is sometimes shocking because I want to tell them, “Guys, I’m still me.” You know, they’ll act a little more awed.
The community in Short Hills, they’ve been awesome. It’s a commuter town to New York, and so we’re on the New Jersey Transit train line. My house is 2 blocks from the train station. I feel very lucky to have grown up there. I grew up right near the beautiful arboretum just in the middle of town and I walked to school on my own or with friends for elementary school.
It’s a very beautiful place, and I’ll still go on runs and see people I know and they’ll honk and wave. But the town has been wonderful. My kindergarten teacher found out on a Facebook page that I had made the Olympics and she reached out to me and said, you know, I remember I would always put your desk near my desk because I always thought you were so delightful to have in class and now I see these amazing things you’re doing. I actually started crying because when you live your whole life in a town and they get to see you from learning to swim at the town pool to riding my bike around the block to now coming back on breaks from rowing with my boat on my car, parking in the driveway... A lot of people in town have been there for the whole journey.
Is there a pretty big rowing tradition in Short Hills?
Reckford: Unfortunately there’s no actual rowing venues. I would drive 30 minutes to get to the boathouse on summer breaks, but there’s another athlete, Elizabeth Sonshine, who was on the national team a couple times, and she’s also from our town.
You mentioned your sister early on that you come from very accomplished family. Your grandfather, Bill Spencer, was a two-time Olympic biathlete and your great grandmother, Millicent Fenwick, was a member of the U.S. House representatives and diplomat. How has your family has shaped you as an athlete and person?
Reckford: I would absolutely start by saying if my grandfather hadn’t been in Olympian, I do not think my parents would have let me do this. My grandpa actually joined the Army because the Army had a biathlon team. From the get go when I said, “I’m living in California. I’m going to fly to Florida for a race to make the national rowing team,” it didn’t seem weird to [my mom] at all. I think having that familial support and knowledge of the lifestyle was massive because I don’t think there are many American parents who would hear their mid-20s [child] say, I have a stable career and a stable home. I would like to risk it all to become an Olympian in a sport that I was historically terrible at, but they let me do it and they supported me. My mom and dad have been an amazing cheering squad and amazing shoulders to cry on when I wasn’t doing as well as I wanted.
But also growing up, the Olympics was a big part of our family. So if the Olympics were on, we were watching it. It was like a holiday. I attended my first Olympic Games in 1996 at the ripe age of three-and-a-half in Atlanta. Every now and then, I meet people who don’t know when the next Olympics is, and I cannot imagine living in a world where I don’t know when the next Olympics are.
My grandparents lived in Salt Lake and so we also got to go to the ‘02 games and we stayed with my grandparents and my grandfather also ran the torch for both of those American Olympics. You go to grandma’s house, and there’s just an Olympic torch on the wall and I think that that really ingrains the Olympic culture and the Olympic dream in you. Even when I was a second varsity athlete, I was dreaming of making the Olympics, and I never thought it would happen.
Your grandpa passed away in December of 2020. Were you able to share in some of your experiences? I know you hadn’t officially made the Olympics at that point, but was he able to watch that Olympic dream play out?
Reckford: Sadly, he had Alzheimer’s. His memory was not so great by the time I fully committed to rowing, but he did understand that I was trying to be an Olympian and I think he was very proud. I know that my grandma would show him pictures of me because he had better long-term memory and so she showed him pictures of me as a child and was like, “You see her, that’s Molly, and she’s following in your footsteps and she’s trying to become an Olympian too.” My grandma is my hero and was a wonderful supporter of me through this even after my grandpa passed away. They had been married for 60 years. The first time that I saw her really come back out of her shell after he passed away was when we qualified the boat for the Olympics and she was watching from Utah. She was up at about 2 in the morning to watch our final and she said she was too excited to go back to sleep. Thinking that I could bring excitement and joy back into her life after she lost her life partner was one of the best parts about making the Olympics.
That’s a very sweet connection that you’re able to share with your family. What’s your connection to New Jersey these days?
Reckford: I live in Princeton, New Jersey. The Women’s Rowing Center is based in Princeton, and it is amazing because I get to go home whenever I want.
I love that our training center is so close to home. I live with some friends and teammates here in Princeton and, since I made the team, I’ve spent every summer here and I’ve also started spending falls here. The vast majority of my time is split between Sarasota, Florida, where we have a winter training camp, and here in beautiful New Jersey.
At what point did you leave corporate America entirely and go full in on rowing?
I haven’t. So in 2019, after I got back from Worlds, I decided to leave California and moved to Sarasota so that I could work directly with the coach that I had been working with that summer and try to make the Olympic team. That was before COVID had taught everybody that most jobs can be done remote. I was working at an asset manager called Atos Alternatives Management. They are awesome, but we decided to part ways because they had let me work remote all summer, but it just wasn’t the same. I was unemployed for about a year. Just focusing on training, trying to make the Olympic team and then fall of 2020, they needed help and so they called me back. I worked with them from fall of 2020 until last fall, 2022. And then U.S. rowing and Broadridge Financial [Solutions] have a partnership and through that program, there’s a highly flexible career development program for national team rowers. I joined that because I knew that as the Olympics got closer, I would need more and more flexibility. Something has to give and it’s my career. I’ve worked at Broadridge for just under a year now and that partnership has been amazing. For almost a year I left corporate America behind, but now I’m back.
You’ll row in the women’s quad at the World Championships this season, but you’ve spoken of how formative sculling alone was for you. Do you have a preference between the two and how has that impacted you as a rower?
I truly love the single as a learning tool and as a way to clear my mind and just think about the way the boat moves through the water, the way my body moves over the boat and to just enjoy the whole experience. But the quad goes so fast and so the contrast is what makes the quad so wonderful as well. Instead of being alone, I have three best friends who I can’t get rid of. It’s that contrast that really makes you appreciate both, and I think that everybody needs a little bit of both.
What is your mindset going into 2023 Worlds? Is it different having gone through an Olympic qualifier?
I am beyond excited. Traditionally I’ve rowed in the lightweight double. This year we changed our selection process and I’m in the women’s quadruple sculls and so I’m an open weight now. In some ways I feel like this was the cherry on top. Not only am I a national team sculler, I’m an open weight national team sculler, so no one may ever tell me that I’m too small ever again. And I also hope that nobody tells any athletes that they’re too small ever again. It’s the size of your heart, not the size of your legs.