Iron oar: Susan Francia, at Shea Rowing Center in Princeton, New Jersey
In a world where Olympic athletes are typically groomed for greatness while they’re still toddling around in the sandbox, it’s hard to believe that Olympic gold-medal rower Susan Francia didn’t pick up an oar until her sophomore year at the University of Pennsylvania. It’s even more improbable that the 6-foot-2 stunner also happens to be a model for the renowned Wilhelmina modeling agency. But one quick chat with this Abington native and it’s clear that she takes it all in stride. “If I think about it, big picture, all I’m really doing all day is pulling on a big stick, going backwards,” she laughs. “That’s pretty much what I’m doing for hours on end every day. And when I think about it, I think, What am I doing?”
Well, she’s actually doing a lot. Besides helping her team win an Olympic medal, Francia has also abetted endless World Championships, on top of personally winning the coveted US Rowing’s Athlete of the Year award in 2010. And to round it all out, she is fast becoming a role model for girls of all shapes and sizes.
But of course, all of this notoriety stems from that gilded medal won at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, a mere seven years after Francia began rowing. “It was surreal, and obviously I was overjoyed,” she recounts. “But at the same time, I had imagined it and dreamed about it happening so many times that, in a weird way, I was already there. It was simply amazing hearing the anthem and knowing it was playing for us. It’s truly unlike anything else.”
Francia is ready to represent the US once again in this summer’s London Olympics, taking place July 27 to August 12. She admits that being four years older cuts both ways. “Being an older athlete is a benefit mentally, but a detriment physically,” she laments. Although she is one of the most accomplished rowers in the world, there is always a crop of Olympic neophytes fighting to earn a spot in the US shell. But with a self-professed combination of “naturally strong genetics and hard work,” Francia is confident that when the final Olympic team is announced in late June, she will find herself once again representing her country. “The Olympics are something special, and I just want to go and do my best and bring home a medal—for me and for my country,” she says emphatically.
Closer to home, Francia volunteers with Philadelphia City Rowing, a local organization that introduces innercity students to rowing and empowers them by teaching teamwork and discipline. She is also showing young women that you don’t have to be a size 0 to be considered beautiful: A Wilhelmina fitness model, Francia has done ads for Boathouse Sports, Champion System clothing, and Ribose Supplements, but she created a feverish buzz in 2009 when she was featured naked—and rippling with muscles—in ESPN Magazine’s Body Issue.
“They made everyone look beautiful without exploiting or sexualizing them,” she says of the photos. “My picture showed off that I have huge lats and legs, but they showed what a real rower looks like. And the best part was getting feedback from young women who found it inspiring to see that someone strong with muscles can also be sexy and beautiful. They said that I made it cool. And that’s exactly why I did it.”