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Tom Archdeacon: Molly Bruggeman's Olympic dream comes true

Jun. 2—After her mother's warning and her father's tears, Molly Bruggeman knows she's made the right decision.

And that will become gloriously clear when — as part of the U.S. Olympic rowing team — the Chaminade Julienne grad will head to Paris in July to compete in the 2024 Olympic Games.

Her two previous Olympic experiences were disappointing at worst and unfulfilling at best.

Coming into the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Bruggeman was a young rower vying against a boatload of experienced and accomplished veterans and she was doing so with cracked ribs.

"I was cut from the team," she said the other day.

As for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics — which were pushed back to 2021 because of COVID — she made the U.S. team as an alternate, but that spare part status kept her from ever getting on the water to compete.

She couldn't do much of anything else in Japan either because strict pandemic rules were still in place. The Games had no spectators and athletes were only allowed to leave the Olympic Village — wearing masks and on a team bus — when their competitions were held.

"We weren't allowed to go anywhere in Tokyo," she said. "Our only glimpse of the city was from the bus window on our 15-minute rides to and from the course. It was really upsetting."

On top of that, the U.S team failed to win any Olympic medals.

After the Games, Bruggeman decided to leave the national team's Princeton. N.J., training headquarters — and what many critics thought was a stifling culture in the program — and pursue college coaching.

"I'd spent so much time in New Jersey, and I thought I needed a change of scenery for sure," she said. "But I knew I still wanted to be involved in the sport and coaching seemed like a natural progression for me."

She became an assistant coach at the University of Minnesota.

"After Tokyo, I thought I'd be done with things by now," she said with a quiet laugh.

"But my parents, especially my mom, were like 'Are you sure? You should probably keep going with this. I think you'll regret it if you don't.'"

Eventually, she realized her mom was right.

"I loved coaching, but continuing to be around the sport was tough," she said. "I realized I missed it.

"I'm an athlete and you can't just suddenly stop doing that part. I missed the sport, but I especially missed doing it with the people on the team."

Then, when longtime U.S. women's national team coach Tom Terharr left and USRowing replaced its key personnel and revamped its elite athlete approach, Bruggeman said she saw a path to return:

"I was still doing a good job and was fast enough, so I wanted to return if it was still feasible, especially with way our system is now run.

"We have a new Chief High Performance Director — Josy Verdonkschot — and a new coach (Jesse Foglia) too and they're doing a great job. They've shifted the model to be more athlete centric.

"There's a lot more flexibility, a lot more attention to what's best for an athlete to get better. It's not about training where the coaches are. We get to pick where we want to train during the year and then at certain times of the year, we all come together to train."

After she returned, she was part of the U.S. eight team that finished fourth at 2022 World Rowing Championships in the Czech Republic, fourth in the four at the 2023 World Rowing Championships in Serbia and won gold in the four at the 2023 World Racing Cup II in Italy.

This April — when she was one of 13 women named to the U.S team for the Paris Games — the 31-year-old Bruggeman's first call was back to Dayton and her dad, Mike, who, like her mom, Beth, is her fervent supporter.

Her dad, though, gets especially emotional when it comes to her career moments.

Back in 2014, Beth and Molly recounted to me an especially touching story about Mike as he watched his daughter and her teammates win gold in the four and the eight boats at the Under-23 World Championships in Varese, Italy.

Molly told me how her dad was especially tearful in the stands and the Italian women sitting around him started giving him their handkerchiefs and were patting him on the back.

"People have this impression of Americans and I think everybody was surprised to see this big guy sitting up there in his ball cap and sunglasses with tears streaming down his face," Beth said.

Watching Molly on the world stage, Mike was overcome with pride and love and awe.

So now, a decade later, when she made the Olympic team and called her dad, she said his response was just like it had been in those triumphant times past:

"Immediately, I could hear him crying into the phone."

"I could do that, too!'

As church sermons go, the best one Bruggeman ever got came after Sunday Mass, just outside Holy Angels Church on Brown Street, when she was about 13.

That's where Mike Miles approached her with a suggestion.

He and his wife Trish were friends with the Bruggemans. At the time Miles was the University of Dayton women's rowing coach and he is the co-founder of the Dayton Boat Club.

Bruggeman said he told her he thought she'd make a good rower and could one day get a college scholarship for the sport.

"She was tall, and she looked strong, and I knew she was a nice kid," Miles recalled the other day. "It's a sport where, if you do the work, you can be good, and I figured she was a hard worker."

He was right.

Bruggeman blossomed as a rower at the Dayton Boat Club, lettered in the sport at Chaminade Julienne and drew scholarship interest from several schools.

After visiting traditional rowing powers like Princeton and Virginia, she chose Notre Dame — her family has a long history with the school — and became a three-time All American for the Irish and also competed three years in a row at the U-23 World Championships.

Since she was at the Dayton Boat Club, the program has thrived and now has nearly three times as many members.

"The Boat Club is in the process of building a new boathouse," Miles said. "And we're going to put in a Recognition Gallery."

It will list the Dayton Boat Club alumni who have go on to college scholarships and national championships, but no one will eclipse Bruggeman's resume.

Miles said she's the most accomplished rower ever to come out of the Dayton Boat Club:

"She's been an All American, has been on a lot of national teams (11), won world championships and now is headed to the Olympics, the pinnacle of the sport." He said her presence in that Recognition Gallery is just what young rowers here need:

"That way, when kids come in and see what she has done they can think, 'Wow, I can be that! I could do that, too!'"

'Full-circle moment'

When we spoke the other day, Bruggeman was on her way to upstate New York to visit her boyfriend, a former lacrosse and hockey player at Cornell.

She had just returned from last weekend's bronze-medal finish with the U.S. women's eight at the 2024 World Rowing Cup II in Lucerne, Switzerland.

This weekend she returned to Dayton for a visit with her family before heading to the USRowing Training Center in Princeton for a month of work. On July 5, the team moves to Italy for a pre-Games' camp.

The Olympic competition in Paris runs from July 27 to Aug. 4.

That she's now able to take a couple of days of personal time is a sign of the new culture in US Rowing that treats its athletes more as human beings than just competitive pieces that are moved around the roster from boat to boat.

"They recognize we have a personal life too," she said.

She works part-time at Broadridge Financial Solutions, a public corporate services and financial technology company.

"They have an elite athletes' program and me and a couple of my teammates are hired on a rotational basis," she said. "I work in marketing."

Right now, her job is the " stroke rower" in the women's eight boat.

Her performances have been strong coming into the Games, and she said she sees Paris as a "full-circle moment" for her:

"I wouldn't change any of the negative stuff I've gone through because I continue to do the sport I love and in Paris I'll get to share it with my teammates and my friends and family."

While in Switzerland last week, she and her teammates watched former U.S. Olympian Caryn Davies receive the Thomas Keller Medal, the highest honor in rowing. Awarded by the World Rowing Federation, it recognizes an exceptional international career and great sportsmanship throughout.

The first American ever given the award, Davies won three Olympic medals in her career (two gold) and made 12 U.S. national teams.

She's a Harvard grad with a Columbia law degree and an MBA from Oxford University.

After an absence, she returned to the sport in 2019 and joined Bruggeman in the women's four boat at the World Rowing Championships in Austria. It was her last international competition.

"At the ceremony the other day she made a speech about how she was a three-time Olympic medalist and had had an amazing career, but she wanted to be remembered by all those around her as a person who was a good teammate and supported her teammates to do the best."

That thought resonated with Bruggeman:

"As an older member of the team now, I know this is all great, but one day people will probably forget what happens in these random races. I want to be remembered as an amazing person to have had as a teammate."

She's getting that opportunity now that she's back with the national team and on her way to the Olympic stage in Paris.

And while there are none of those regrets that her mom warned about, she hopes there will be more tears from dad.

It's a sign of pride and love and awe.