By Erica Eades
When Grace McNally ‘19 started rowing at age 12, she had no idea where her new hobby might one day lead. A competitive swimmer, she first took up rowing as a way to diversify her training, not wanting to specialize in one sport at too young an age. But after taking part in a Learn to Row program at the Ottawa Rowing Club, it quickly became clear she had something special. Now, after an incredible four years with Elmwood Rowing, during which time she has shown herself to be a remarkable competitor and a dedicated young athlete, Grace’s future has never been brighter. Having recently accepted an offer to the University of Alabama, complete with a full athletic scholarship for rowing, it’s clear that Grace is a star on the rise -- and there is no telling how high she will soar.
When Grace first joined Elmwood in Grade 9, she was already a highly accomplished young rower. At age 14, she became the youngest person ever to be tested for Row to Podium, Canada’s official talent identification and development program for rowing. But still, she was eager to pursue the sport more seriously and was therefore drawn to Elmwood’s first-rate rowing program. “That’s a big part of why I came here,” she says. “I wanted to take that jump and become more competitive.” After taking a tour of the school the summer before her Grade 9 year, she was immediately hooked. “I just felt like I could really excel here,” she says. “It seemed like the perfect fit.”
Since those early days, Grace has gone on to compete in major competitions throughout Canada and the United States. As a member of Elmwood’s rowing team, she has participated in events like the Head of the Fish in Saratoga, the Head of the Charles in Boston, and the CSSRA Championships -- where, in 2017, she placed fourth in a quad despite never getting on the water to practice. “That was insane,” she says. “We were competing with girls who train all year round; meanwhile we had a really long winter season and hadn’t put in the same training.”
But although Ottawa’s frigid winters mean outdoor training is often limited, that doesn’t mean Grace spends any less time dedicated to her training. A typical week involves daily morning workouts, whether that be erging, biking, or weightlifting. Tuesday through Thursday she is on the water, which then gets replaced with more erging during the off-season. Derek O’Farrell—Elmwood’s rowing coach and a former Olympic rower himself—is also happy to recommend additional workouts and training plans. For Grace, his work with the team has had a huge impact on their success. “He’s so positive and encouraging,” she says. “Especially with his past in rowing, he brings a lot of knowledge and experience. I could not have accomplished what I have without him.”
Mr. O’Farrell also played a big role in the university recruitment process, which began back in 2016 when Grace was in Grade 10. “Throughout the recruiting period, he got so many calls from coaches, and he was always happy to talk,” she says. “When he says he’s a 2012 Olympian, that’s just another level of respect. Whatever he says clearly works, and I’m really thankful for that.”
Mr. O’Farrell was more than happy to chat about Grace, who he says has been an incredible role model for the team. “I got to talk about how we’re a small team, and we’re only on the water three days a week,” he says. “That may seem like a weakness, but they’re thinking, ‘If she’s as good as she is now, and she’s only rowing three days a week, imagine how great she’s going to be when she’s training year-round.’”
When Grace began the recruitment process, she was focusing her attention on American schools that were relatively close to home; Princeton, Dartmouth, and other northern schools all topped her list. But she soon decided she no longer wanted to stay north, instead opting for a warmer climate that would allow her to train year-round on the water. “I didn’t want to be inside all winter on the rowing machine,” says Grace. “I want to be training on the water because that’s the sport.”
And so she began looking south: Florida, California—anywhere that would allow her to train outside 12 months a year. When she was offered an official visit to the University of Alabama, she had no idea what to expect. But that all changed when she first stepped foot on the campus. “I just kind of knew,” she says. “This was it.”
Grace cites U of A’s strong community feel and their commitment to school spirit as major appeal factors, but it’s the school’s dedication to both sport and academics that helped solidify her decision. “Their slogan is ‘Where legends are made,’” says Grace. “When you’re an athlete they will set you up to be the best you can be. They have the best facilities, the best coaching, the best athletic trainers.” Grace was also impressed by the school’s commitment to academic support, which includes regularly scheduled study halls for all student-athletes. “They want to make sure we excel in academics, not just in sport, which is really important to me,” she says.
When Mr. O’Farrell heard that Grace had been offered a full scholarship to the University of Alabama, he was overjoyed. “I was just super proud of her, and really happy that she’s found what she wants,” he says. “She had a couple of other schools on her radar, but she chose the school that’s right for her. It has a great school atmosphere, a great rowing program, and amazing support. I couldn’t be happier.”
This support will no doubt be a big help next fall, as Grace plans to pursue an academically rigorous degree in Kinesiology with a minor in either Business or Psychology. However, she feels ready to meet the challenge head-on, thanks in large part to the ongoing support she has received throughout her time at Elmwood. “I’ve been so grateful for being able to come to Elmwood,” she says. “It’s been a great educational experience—and a great sports experience—that I don’t think I would have gotten anywhere else. I feel like I’m so set up and ready to take those next steps into university. It’s so reassuring to know I have that solid foundation before I step out of here.”
Mr. O'Farrell agrees that Grace is more than ready to embark on this next chapter: “She’s already watching scores of other girls,” he says. “She knows what’s happening; she knows what it takes. I think she will absolutely achieve her dreams. She's got that potential.”