By Jesse Ellison
Photographed by David Yellen
Elle Logan rowed in Beijing and London and won gold both times. This summer in Rio, she’s made it three for three. So why haven’t you heard of Maine’s baddest Olympian?
Kids from Boothbay Harbor use boats the way their landlubbing peers use scooters, so the seaside hamlet seems like a natural place for a future rowing champion to grow up.
Ask Eleanor Logan’s mother, Jennifer Kierstead, if she suspected her daughter would someday be an Olympian and she laughs. “When she was 8 years old,” Jennifer says, “she looked up and asked, ‘Is it possible to go to the Olympics?’ My response was, ‘Yes. It’s possible. But boy would you have to work hard. Not everyone can get there.’ Well, that just seemed to fire her up more.”
Then, when Logan was in seventh grade, the family went to see the Head of the Charles in Cambridge, Massachusetts, an annual regatta billed as the world’s biggest two-day rowing event. “She just loved the way it looked,” her father, William Logan, remembers. “Seeing all these people in unison, rowing like a machine, like pistons in an engine. A friend of mine told her, ‘This is the hardest sport there is.’ And she said, ‘That’s what I want to do.’”
Without an outlet to row competitively, Logan channeled her drive into other sports. “If someone said she wasn’t going to do something, well, she did it,” William says. “Girls didn’t play baseball, so she wanted to play baseball.” She tried her hand at sailing, tennis, and softball too, and she excelled at just about everything. When she picked up golf, a coach said that if she decided to make it her primary sport, she could be the best in the state within six months.
“I love to be on the water. It’s competitive but also technical.”
Through all of that, rowing never lost its allure. By the time she went to high school at Brooks School, in Massachusetts, she had become a 6-foot-2, two-sport star in basketball and, now that it was finally available to her, crew, which she dominated.
“I fell in love with it immediately,” she recalls. “I love to be on the water. It’s competitive but also technical. It’s so much fun!”
Everything moved fast after that. Logan started getting invited to development camps for US Rowing’s junior national team and was then recruited to row at Stanford. In the spring of her freshman year, with a summer job lined up at home in Boothbay (and even a dinghy all set to commute with), Logan got a last-minute nod for the Beijing games, where she won her first gold medal. After that experience, which she recalls as “kind of a blur,” rowing has had her entire laser-like focus.
Since Beijing, her team, the Women’s 8, has won every major event — 11 total Olympics and world championships — making them one of the all-around winningest teams in international sports. The teams of eight (or, if you count the non-rowing coxswain, actually nine) “sweep,” meaning that each member rows with one oar on one side of the skinny, 60-foot, super-lightweight boat.
Physiologists say that the 2,000-meter race extracts as much physical toll as playing two back-to-back basketball games, except in the span of just six minutes. It requires a tremendous level of strength, stamina, and skill and calls on every major muscle group. A headline in The Guardian recently coined it “the sport of masochists.” Watch a winning team of rowers cross the finish line and you’ll see the feeblest celebration in sport. The team sinks every last iota of energy into reaching their goal and can barely raise their arms in excitement.
Heading into her third — and, by her own admission, last — Olympics, Logan is the senior member of a team that hopes to win a third straight gold. “She’s pretty phenomenal — as a teammate and an athlete and a person,” says Meghan Musnicki, who competed with Logan in London and will again in Rio. “A lot of athletes have either a physiological gift or super-intense drive. Elle has both. It’s exceptional to train with her on a daily basis because she’s gifted physiologically but doesn’t rest on that. She constantly pushes herself to be better, get faster. Not everyone does that.”
Logan describes her life as “eat, train, sleep — just literally that.” “Free time” is Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning, but training is such a drain that she basically spends every spare moment replenishing her body with calories and rest. And that routine takes up 11 months out of the year.
Logan and her teammates don’t just pay a physical price; there’s a financial cost too. The United States is the only major sports country with a government that doesn’t fully fund its Olympic committee and one of few countries in which Olympic athletes receive no direct federal support. (Gold medalists do get a $25,000 bonus from the government, but it’s taxable.) Instead, athletes rely on stipends from the US Olympic Committee, which funds itself through broadcasting deals and sponsorships. About 10 percent of its budget goes to direct athlete support. In 2014, that was $81 million. It sounds like a lot, but once that sum was divided across the committee’s 39 governing bodies, the members of the women’s rowing team walked away with just $833 per month.
“It’s a lot tougher than most people think,” says Peter Carlisle, who heads the Olympics division of sports agency Octagon from the company’s Maine offices. His client list includes the likes of swimmer Michael Phelps and snowboarder Seth Wescott. “There are so many athletes, including gold medalists, who have cut short their career simply because they can’t afford to keep training.” One client even started a nonprofit to help athletes in financial need. “It’s kind of ridiculous given how much money flows through the USOC,” Carlisle adds. “But that’s what it takes.”
Members of the women’s rowing team spend at least 16 hours a week on the water, and that doesn’t count all the time they put in at the gym. The unending routine doesn’t leave time for an outside job — or even to make public appearances and cultivate the sort of recognition that can lead to sponsorship dollars. “It’s just not a very glamorous sport,” Logan says. “We’re training or sleeping most of the time.”
In the days leading up to official selection for the Rio team, Logan sounded not only physically exhausted but also more world weary than the average 28 year old. She is, after all, already having to answer questions about her own imminent retirement from a sport that she has pursued with a singular focus since she was 14.
“I’ve rowed since I was in high school and I’ve put everything I have into it,” she says. Such a seemingly simple statement actually packs two meanings for Logan: on one hand, she’s excited and curious to try something new; on the other, she’ll have to give up the sport that has become the organizing principle of her life. “People are saying, ‘Don’t be too excited, because what you have now is amazing,’” she says. “And it is! It’s incredible! What a life! Every day I try to take in the moment and just realize that this is special and not everyone can do this. But I’m looking forward to afterwards too. It’s a very competitive environment we’re in. Every day we’re on the edge. It’s just mentally, spiritually, and emotionally exhausting.”
Both of her parents use the word “lonely” when they talk about a life so regimented. Another word that comes up often — with any athlete competing on this level — is “sacrifice,” but not in the clichéd sweat-and-guts sense of a Gatorade ad campaign. Her parents talk about sacrifices their daughter had to make outside the realm of competition: missing normal summers in Maine, avoiding Stanford classes she wanted to take but couldn’t because they didn’t fit around practice schedules, and setting aside a long-dreamt-of semester in southern France.
Since college, she’s missed out on basic trappings of twenty-somethinghood. She doesn’t make enough money for her own apartment, so she lives for long stretches with host families. Wonderful, generous people, she is quick and eager to say, but also not exactly what one might want as an adult. She got married last summer, but her husband’s job requires him to be in Seattle; she spent all year training in New Jersey and San Diego.
“It’s super gratifying, of course,” Kierstead says of being a mother to a two-time Olympic champion, “with a little underlying anxiety about a child who’s making such a tremendous sacrifice. But she’s doing it on her own volition. This is what she wants to do and so she’s had total support.”
Logan is, however, taking steps toward building a life outside of rowing. She just adopted a dog, a terrier mix she’s named Bartleby. After Rio, she’ll visit home in Maine, then head to Seattle to see her husband. She looks forward to settling into something like normalcy. She doesn’t want to coach, or at least not right now anyway. She’s thinking about trying her hand at real estate instead.
But there’s a lingering sense that competition still has a grip on her — an ambivalence in the way she talks about retirement. In other countries, rowers can compete into their late 30s or early 40s. “You can actually peak when you’re older,” she notes. Continuing would pose challenges: “As rowers in the U.S., we’re just not supported in the same manner,” she says. “And we have all these new young athletes every year. I would have to get even better.” She pauses. “I actually feel like I could get better. But to go four more years, I would have to be able to find more to give.”