For as long as I can remember, I have always identified as an athlete. Born in 1984, I was the first generation to truly benefit from Title IX (passed in 1972). As a kid, I didn’t know a world that didn’t have sports for little girls. Women’s sports and athletes were just starting to gain broader coverage on television, though still sparse compared to their male counterparts.
I was 13 years old when, on the heels of a much-publicized gold medal run by the 1996 USA Basketball Women’s National Team at the 1996 Summer Olympic Games, the WNBA began its first season in 1997. College basketball enjoyed the UConn vs. Tennessee rivalry as the two of the greatest coaches, Geno Auriemma and Pat Summitt battled for title after title. The U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team and the “99ers” were America’s sweethearts after winning the World Cup and setting attendance and television viewership records along the way.
I had an ongoing project that I began in middle school, lining the walls just inside the door to my bedroom with magazine articles or pictures that featured female Olympians, professional and college athletes. I called it my “inspiration wall” and every morning as I left my room on my way to school, I was reminded of who I could be and what I could accomplish. I could see it, so I could be it too.
Ironically, or perhaps of my own volition and determination, I grew up and was a two-sport Division I college athlete and I’m now an Olympian and five-time member of the U.S. National Rowing Team. After first beginning a career in sports media (working in Production and Programming at ESPN for five years), I set out on the challenging journey of being an entrepreneur and building a new company, InstaViser.
Nearly two decades after covering my walls with tape and carefully torn out magazine pages (and probably driving my mother crazy “because I was damaging the paint”), I continue to find much of my inspiration by looking up and around at the women who surround me, many of whom who fought to open the doors that I now walk through. Thanks to social media and the endless number of online outlets available today, it is a lot easier to identify and find the trailblazers and leaders in sports, media, and business.
As I did years ago, I gravitate to reading about those who are making waves, challenging the status quo, and breaking through barriers. Who is disrupting the industry or environment around them with innovation or a fresh perspective? How are they doing it? Who is asking “why has it always only been done this way” or “what if” and then taking the difficult steps to explore that and prove it can be done better?
The root to finding inspiration is finding the right people to aspire to be like and even, to be better than. A lifetime in sports taught me that there is nothing wrong with a little competition to help you achieve greater heights.
2018 is quickly becoming the Year of the Woman. From the fuel and fire behind the Time’s Up movement, to Team USA women bringing home more medals than the men for the first time in 20 years at the 2018 Winter Olympic Games (my favorite Olympic moment was watching Jessie Diggins and Kikkan Randall become the first American cross-country skiers to win an Olympic gold, ending a 42-year drought for the U.S. in the sport!), to Emma Gonzalez, a high school senior epitomizing poise and resilience as she works to pave the way for change, I feel fortunate to live in a time when I have access to an abundance of women role models. It wasn’t that inspirational women didn’t exist before; rather they didn’t have the platform, the power, or the seat at the table to shine and get things done as they are now.
Outside of my professional athletic career, I am the vice president of InstaViser. My work there puts me in front of so many incredible people doing remarkable things. Every day, I get to work with companies, many led by inspiring women, like CSweetener, an organization dedicated to propelling female healthcare leaders forward via mentorship. Or the the United States Olympic Committee and the ACE Mentor Network led by ACE Director, Leslie Klein, that connects Olympic and Paralympic athletes with former athletes and industry experts to help them achieve success in their sport and career. Just a few months ago, during the lead-up to the 2018 Winter Olympic Games, one of the ACE Mentor Network users, Carlijn Schoutens connected with four-time Olympian and all-around inspiration, Lauryn Williams via our platform, for advice and guidance as she navigated Olympic Trials and then the Games. Carlijn made the Olympic Team and went on to win an Olympic Bronze medal.
Through my work as a professional athlete, public speaker, and with InstaViser, I hope to inspire the next generation of dreamers, doers, and high-achievers who are changing the world — many of them the next great women business leaders, politicians, and athletes. As one of the great leaders of the Title IX movement, Billie Jean King said:
“The way to make real progress in business, in sports, and in society is to lift each other up. You don’t fight each other for the same seat at the table — you make more seats by bringing women with you. It’s up to us. By empowering the women around you, you empower yourself and make our world a better place.”
Meghan O'Leary is a United States Olympian and five-time national team rower, motivational speaker, and vice president of InstaViser. She currently lives and works in San Francisco, California.