Olympic hopeful chases family dream

Lana Ritzel couldn’t cry anymore. In the final stage of her nearly two-year fight against breast cancer, when the disease had taken her ability to generate tears or whisper much more than a sentence, she motioned her eldest daughter closer. Mimicking a weeping gesture, she forced out her words.

“I want to see you in the Olympics.”

Fifteen months later, Taylor Ritzel is doing everything she can to make that a reality.

The 23-year-old from Larkspur, Colo., who won three NCAA titles as a member of the Yale University crew team, is currently training at the U.S. Olympic Training Center outside San Diego in hopes of being selected to the final eight-person boat on the U.S. women’s team in London.

“It really was her dying wish,” Taylor Ritzel said of her mother, who passed away in November 2010. “I’m extremely motivated to make it. It’s the next step. There’s always a next step.”

Without her mother, there probably wouldn’t have been a first step, or in Ritzel’s case, a first stroke. A swimmer since she was 5, Ritzel specialized in the sport through high school after winning state titles as a preteen. She was competitive as she got older but a bout of mononucleosis following her junior year kept her from achieving the kinds of times that would draw attention from Division I swimming coaches.

Lana Ritzel heard from a family friend that college rowing coaches were looking for tall athletes who could make an easy transition to the sport. When Ritzel — her high school’s co-valedictorian — and her mother took a trip to visit Harvard, Yale and Princeton early in her senior year, she made appointments to meet with each school’s swim coach. She didn’t realize that her mother had also added some stops to the schedule.

“My mom, unbeknownst to me, had set up meetings with the rowing coaches,” Ritzel said with a laugh. “I had no idea what rowing was.”

She learned quickly, as Yale head coach Will Porter called her the day after the meeting and said he wanted to recruit her. Shortly after returning to Colorado, she got on a rowing machine for the first time and found that her times were good enough to get her an invite to the U.S. junior national team.

“I couldn’t have predicted how good she was going to be,” Porter said. “I knew she was tall (Ritzel is now 6-foot-2) and athletic. As a rowing coach physiology is important. Any kid who swims at a high level has usually been swimming since the age of 8, which Taylor had done. That develops physiology and transitions well to rowing.“

One thing Porter couldn’t forecast was Ritzel’s work ethic. It’s something she inherited from her parents and her maternal grandfather, Red Miller, who coached the Denver Broncos’ “Orange Crush” team in Super Bowl XII against the Cowboys. Ritzel embraced her newfound sport, putting in hours of training that resulted in her being named to Yale’s varsity eight as a freshman.

“My grandpa always does this thing where he makes his hand into a fist and gets this look like ‘Be tough!’ ” Ritzel said. “That’s his thing. He’s always encouraging me to work very hard. He doesn’t focus on outcome but looks at how I can improve in the process.”

It’s a resilience Ritzel has needed while training in San Diego. She’s recovering from a stress fracture in her ribs that kept her out of the water for more than a month. The injury, which usually takes two to three months to heal, should be behind her by the time Ritzel heads to Princeton for the Olympic selection camp at the end of the month. She was able to focus on conditioning while recovering from the malady, which is common during the second or third year of full-time training.

If she stays healthy, Ritzel looks to be in prime position to get a seat on the final boat in London. She was the four seat on the U.S. senior team that won the eight at the 2011 World Rowing Championships, and while her previous efforts should put her in good shape to make the Olympic team, the final eight won’t be decided until the conclusion of selection camp in June. The lineup for London is decided by a number of factors, including health, performance at the National Selection Regatta later this month, training sessions and overall cohesion with the other members of the boat.

“The four seat is in what’s usually called the engine room,” Ritzel said. “The younger athletes are put in the middle and just pull hard.”

Ritzel’s motor hasn’t stopped since she picked up her first oar in 2006. She delayed her entrance into the working world after graduating in 2010 — she hopes to pursue a career in advertising or marketing in New York City — to follow her Olympic dream. Even during her mother’s illness, Ritzel’s parents refused to let her get distracted.

“When it was first diagnosed, we didn’t want to take away from Taylor’s dream but we also kept her aware of how certain treatments were going without giving her too much detail,” her father, Tom Ritzel, said. “It wasn’t going to do any good to have her running home every whipstitch. It was more important that she focus on what she was doing. My hope is that it’s not putting too much pressure on her.“

While Ritzel has been able to use rowing to channel her grief, she’s the first to admit it’s not a substitute for her loss.

“I have one [younger] sister and my dad and we all grieve differently,” Ritzel said. “What’s hardest for me is when things aren’t going well I would always call my mom. I’d call her every day anyway, but she was the support system. It’s just different now. I have to figure how to stay true to myself and what I’m doing. How do I become grounded again?”

Lana Ritzel may still have a visual presence in London and beyond. After her death, members of the Yale crew started a fundraiser called Laces for Lana, which sells pink shoelaces to raise money for breast cancer awareness. So far more than 28 college teams have started wearing the laces. If Taylor Ritzel makes the Olympic boat, there will likely be a handful of family members wearing them, including one beaming 84-year-old former football coach.

“I told her that I’ll be there,” said Miller, recounting a promise he made to Ritzel when the 2012 games started to become a possibility. “If she’s 100 percent physically, she’ll be there too. I’ve felt that way the past two years.”