For one competitor, the end definitely justifies the means
It was supposed to be the swan song. The last hurrah. The final chapter of a compelling story six years in the making.
Ali Cox wasn’t just waving to the crowd as she walked off the podium with her silver medal at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece; she was waving goodbye to competitive rowing. After all, she and her U.S. Women’s Rowing teammates were still recovering from an epic and enervating showdown with Romania in the Women’s Eight Final. Despite being second best, Cox and crew had absolutely nothing to hang their heads about, as they had pushed the best team in the world from start-to-finish of the 2,000 meter race.
Now it was time to move on.
“I was so incredibly proud of our team,” Cox recalls. “Yeah we were bummed that we didn’t win the gold, but Romania was awesome that day and we put together a tremendous race. I was OK walking away from that.”
And it wasn’t like Cox was tip-toeing gingerly into a life unknown after rowing. A communications major at USD, she had interviewed for a position with global sports and entertainment marketing titan IMG prior to leaving for Greece, and had a job waiting for her in New York City once she returned stateside. From there, the small-town girl from Turlock, Calif., took a big bite out of the Big Apple, cultivating a successful marketing career that would eventually lead to the launching of her own start-up consultancy, Ali Cox & Company.
“I’m a native Californian, but I love New York City!” Cox enthuses. “I love the pace of life, just the sense that you really can be anything you want to be. I feel that, in that type of environment, you get what you give, and I’ve given a lot to achieve the level of professional success I have.”
And, truth be told, Cox hadn’t given rowing much thought after her turn with the 2004 team. That would change, however, at her 30th birthday party in 2009, where a fateful conversation with 2004 U.S. team Coxswain Mary Whipple would have an immediate ripple effect on Cox’s life path.
“I don’t know, maybe it had something to do with turning 30, but I started grilling Mary about rowing and how the (U.S.) team was doing,” Cox says. “Obviously, what she said planted a seed about (coming back), because I started to ramp up my workouts with the idea that maybe I might be able to make it back on the team.”
The challenge was clear: In order to regain her place among the elite athletes in the sport and qualify for the 2012 Summer Games in London, Cox was going to have to go full throttle, full time. The time commitment associated with such an auspicious undertaking is extensive to say the least, but when you’ve also got a business to run, things can get downright overwhelming.
Yet, where most would shrink from such a challenge, Cox shines. “I’m training with the U.S. National Team now, and each week after our coach posts the practice schedule, we all start scheduling our personal lives during those precious hours of free time,” she explains. “I am constantly squeezing in conference calls and client work during the small windows of the day when I can…” she pauses, the enormity of the task seeming to really register. The moment passes as quickly as it arrives, and is then dismissed completely by Cox’s unbridled optimism. “But of course I wouldn’t have it any other way!”
As a transfer student at Alcalá Park in 1998, rowing wasn’t even on Cox’s radar. She had been a three-sport varsity athlete in high school, and was looking to take a break from the playing field, in order to, well, play.
“I was pretty burned out on sports when I came to USD, and, to be honest, I had just moved to San Diego and was looking to enjoy the beach lifestyle,” she remembers. “I was walking down Marian Way one day, and that’s when (then USD Women’s Rowing Coach) Leaanne Crain asked me if I had ever thought about rowing.”
Initially dismissive of Crain’s solicitation, Cox eventually accepted the invitation to attend one of the team’s meetings, and the rest is history.
“I fell in love with rowing immediately, and when I look back at my time at USD with Coach Crain and those wonderfully dedicated women I rowed with, I realize just how important that chapter of my life has been to my success.”