Natalie Dell O’Brien
Season 01 : Episode 10
Natalie Dell O'Brien won a bronze medal at the 2012 Olympics in the Women’s Quadruple Sculls and took home the first ever medal in the event for the US. She has integrated her experience from elite rowing into her new career climbing up the ladder at Google smoother than most. While Natalie's transition from elite rowing seems ideal, it was not without its challenges. Natalie's approach to the transition and how she uses her experience as an elite athlete to her advantage in the business world is downright inspiring. Her story shows that a good transition does not have to be picture perfect.
You can find Natalie on Instagram @nataliedobrien, mothering chickens, or hiking/climbing/camping/snacking in the great outdoors.
[2:15] Natalie’s humble, rural beginnings. Natalie grew up on a farm in rural Pennsylvania. Neither of her parents went to college, so it was a pretty big deal for her to go away to college at Penn State.
[3:00] Athletics defined Natalie’s teenage years- she always won the “hustle award” in her sports.
[3:45] Only three kids from Natalie’s high school graduating class went to big schools.
[4:05] When she got to college someone recommended she try out the rowing team. She didn’t initially really love rowing, but she kept showing up. Her team was a club team, so they had to do a lot of the coordination on their own.
[6:00] Natalie’s college rowing experience was not glamorous at all. They most often rowed four person boats, rather than the more common eight-person boats, and had to buy their own equipment. Her mentality of being grateful for anything they got when they were on the club rowing team translated to her mindset once she made it to the national team.
[8:00] After Natalie retired from rowing, she actually didn’t retire from competitive racing. She joined a cycling team and made it to the national championships and placed third. Natalie wonders if her “just happy to be here” mentality kept her from doing even better in sport.
[8:50] Natalie talks about how her placing third place in competition is a common theme in her life. She talked about it in her TED talk, and she even apologized to the national team head coach on the medals dock at the Olympics.
[10:40] Natalie talks about placing third at the Olympics, and reflects on what that means to her.
[12:00] Erin talks to Natalie about how open she is to different experiences, without really having any expectations. She references her TED talk and how she talks about the idea that even if you’re not the best at something, you should keep moving and making progress.
[13:30] How Natalie approached transition, and why she was so resilient through the process. Natalie thinks that the reason her transition was so good can be broken up into two buckets. First, she thinks that in order to get to an elite level, you have to win over and over again. For example, in the six years leading up to her making the Olympic team, she was never satisfied with anything but a win. There needs to be a pursuit of excellence to make it to the top.
[16:30] Natalie was incredibly competitive and was very embarrassed when she didn’t win what she was competing for.
[17:00] Natalie talks about the second bucket of success: what you do after you achieve your huge goal. Once you make it there, you look around and see that you are surrounded by other people who are also incredibly successful and good. That’s when you start to see the differences in athletes, when you’ve all made it to the top.
[19:10] Natalie has always liked the process that it requires to take to work your way up to something big. She thrives in an environment where you start from a minimally viable product and develop it into something greater. She thinks you have to be okay with not staying at the bottom of the process.
[20:20] What happened immediately after the 2012 Olympics. Natalie talks about how sick she got immediately following the Olympics. She landed in the US and her mom picked her up and took her immediately to urgent care, where she was diagnosed with pneumonia and all sorts of other illnesses.
[21:30] Natalie talks about how she got her shot at the national team- which was not the traditional route… After Natalie’s senior year in 2007, she was able to get Tom Terhaar’s phone number (the head coach of the women’s national team) and cold called him. He asked her what her erg scores were (they weren’t as competitive as the national team was looking for at the time), her height, and was very nice on the call.
[24:00] Natalie went to graduate school at Boston University after her senior year. She talks about how expensive it was to go to college (her parents very generously supported her), and then to graduate school (she took out loans and received a generous dean’s award scholarship).
[26:45] Natalie talks about all of the people throughout her life who have given her a shot.
[27:15] While Natalie was in graduate school, she would wake up early and go to practice at Riverside, then go to her job during the day, then go to another practice, then go to graduate school at night.
[27:45] Natalie’s had a full time job while she was also training full time on the national team- while this was often stressful, it ended up being instrumental in helping her transition out of her rowing career. In 2009, Natalie got a job at the VA as a project manager. She was nervous that her commitment to rowing would be a hindrance to her getting the job, but it ended up being a strength for her. She got the job, and they allowed her to work remotely so that she could move from Boston to Princeton to train with the national team. This job ended up being incredibly important for Natalie’s eventual transition out of her rowing career. Because of this job, she never felt like her life would end if she was no longer on the rowing team.
[31:10] Natalie truly had the long game in mind while she was training for the national team. She was able to have the foresight to know that she would want a career after she was done with rowing, and was able to develop both at the same time. Natalie emphasizes that she may not have been thinking completely with foresight, but rather she was focused on the fact that she was in debt and needed to make money. It ended up really working out for her, but was driven more by a need to make money, rather than having the foresight for her future.
[33:30] While Natalie was training in Princeton, she lived with a host family who were incredibly generous and kind while she was on the national team. This was particularly comforting to her because of the fact that she wasn’t a “shoo-in” to the national team. She is incredibly grateful to her host family because they provided her a safety net.
[36:00] Natalie wonders whether if she hadn’t had a dual focus while she was training, she may have stayed for another Olympic cycle. She feels like she short-changed her support network by not continuing to compete for the team. She doesn’t know if she would recommend it to others, she thinks everyone needs to figure out their own balance on their journey on the team.
[38:30] One of the things Natalie loved about being on the national team was being surrounded by people who were willing and able to commit so many years of their lives in the pursuit of being the best.
[40:30] Natalie insists that overloading herself, such as when she was in graduate school, training and working, was not sustainable (proven by the fact that she was getting heartburn at the time, in her 20s.)
[41:45] Natalie started to get panic attacks after she retired from rowing. She realized she only had work as her main activity, and was going overboard in committing herself to work. She then decided to find another activity, such as cycling and other activities (having chickens!), in order to diffuse her attention and find more balance.
[43:35] How much are you willing to risk for something? Natalie thinks about what her “risk tolerance” is - she thinks hers may be low, given that she wasn’t willing to go all-in during her rowing career.