Rivers of Gold

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Class of ’04 | On the morning of the final women’s eight in Beijing this past summer, Susan Francia C’04 G’04 woke up, looked at her coxswain, and said: “Let’s win a gold medal.”

Even at the start line, she didn’t feel particularly nervous. What she felt was prepared.

“I was very confident in our crew leading up to and during the entire week of racing,” says Francia, whose U.S. squad beat out the Netherlands (silver medal) and Romania (bronze) for the gold. “You can never really discount any countries, but if you know that you are fast and tougher than everyone out there, there is no question about victory.

“There is this saying at the Olympic Training Center: ‘It’s not every four years, it’s every day,’” she adds. “We’ve trained so hard and so long for this, that in reality, the final was just ‘another day’—one that we happened to win an Olympic gold medal on.”

The watery road to Beixiaoying Town began at Boathouse Row on the Schuylkill in the spring of 2002. Francia, then a sophomore walk-on, was so taken by her new life on the water that she kept punching the girl in front of her with her oar as she gazed around. But she quickly harnessed her natural talent, much to her teammate’s relief.

“I had a great time rowing at Penn,” recalls the Hungarian-born Francia, whose first name is spelled Zsuzsanna. “I loved the afternoon practices on the Schuylkill during the fall and spring.  The sun would be setting on the city skyline and it was just fun to be working hard, rowing together with my best friends. My teammates from Penn crew are still my best friends and they’ve been incredibly supportive during this whole process.”

Back then she and her teammates would recover from the six-kilometer erg tests with Happy Hour margaritas and chicken wings at Mad 4 Mex, often in the company of the Penn men’s rowers. Sadly, some training regimens had to be left behind.

Gold is not an unknown commodity for Francia. Having been chosen a Division I All-American her senior year at Penn, she spent the past four years as a U.S. National Team member. During that time she helped pull in gold medals with the women’s eight at the 2007 and 2008 World Cup competitions in Lucerne, as well as the FISA World Rowing Championships in 2006 and 2007. They also won at the Head of the Charles Regatta in 2005, 2006, and 2007.

“There wasn’t really one point when I realized I was going to the Olympics, except of course when the coach shook my hand on the last day of selection and welcomed me to the 2008 team,” she says. “But it has been more of a daily process, where every day you perform your best in order to make the boat. It was incredibly relieving to hear that I had officially made the team—although then our focus shifted to winning gold at the Olympics.”

Once she and her mates got the gold, they set their goals on having some fun. “The night life in Beijing was awesome,” Francia says. “Most nights we came back in the morning. Budweiser and NBC put on some good parties; they were the two spots to be. One night I hung out with Vince Vaughn and met David Beckham.

“The athlete village was fun, too,” she adds. “I hung out with some of the USA men’s basketball team there, like Dwight Howard and Chris Bosh. Dwight was trying on my gold medal when Kobe Bryant walked up. He said, ‘Damn, that is pretty cool. I want one!’ It’s an incredible feeling to inspire someone like Kobe Bryant.”

Francia’s current goal is to become a fitness model, which makes sense even if it might seem like an unusual tangent for someone with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in criminology.

“My goals with the fitness modeling would be to help rowing become more mainstream, and also to inspire female athletes—not just Kobe Bryant,” she says. “Actually, I have applied for ‘real’ jobs in the legal field. But I am also keeping my options open in case someone wants to put me on a cereal box.” 


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