Q&A WITH FELICE MUELLER ’08
The decorated Olympian looks back on a lifetime of rowing and forward to what the future might hold.
Every once and a long while — if you're lucky — someone will say something that has the power to change your life. From the dock overlooking Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, FELICE MUELLER could not help but think of what her old Pomfret crew coach had said almost ten years earlier, something that had led Felice to this very moment. "You could go all the way to the Olympics. You have the talent. You have the drive. You just have to believe." This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Did you always know you wanted to be an Olympian?
I remember in fifth grade, there was an all-school meeting and someone came in to talk to us and asked, “What do you guys want to be when you grow up?” I remember raising my hand, and I said, “I want to go to the moon, I want to climb Mount Everest, and I want to go to the Olympics,” and everyone started laughing. I knew those weren’t traditional occupations, but those were the things that were really interesting to me.
I always knew I wanted to go to the Olympics. It’s interesting, because my family didn't really watch sports. I was aware when the Olympics were on, but I wasn't necessarily the biggest fan of the Olympics. But the idea of it was really interesting to me. And as a little kid, I had a lot of energy and I loved being active. I remember going to friends’ houses for sleepovers, and I would always ask if we could go on runs together. I felt good when I was active and doing sports, and I think those traits really helped steer me toward my future career as an Olympian.
When you dreamed of being an Olympian, what sport did you have in mind?
When I was very young, I imagined myself competing in the Winter Olympics. I thought Picabo Street [the alpine ski racer] was really cool and I’d sometimes do downhill races just for fun. Once, as I was finishing a race, the person on the loudspeaker said, “Look out Picabo Street!” and I loved that because I just thought she was so cool. When I was exploring high schools, I actually looked at schools that had ski teams, but I ended up falling in love with Pomfret.
Were there other sports you were interested in during high school?
I didn’t necessarily stick with them, but I explored a lot of sports when I was at Pomfret. I loved that Pomfret had a squash team because I’d played with my dad growing up, so I already had some experience with the sport. I also played soccer and ice hockey, and I competed on the cross country team. And, of course, I began rowing at Pomfret.
When did you discover your passion for rowing?
I was first introduced to rowing through my brother, Wells. He’s two years older than me and rowed at The Gunnery [now The Frederick Gunn School]. He really took to the sport and talked about how much he loved it. I remember going to the Founder's Day Regatta and watching him race for the first time and seeing them going backwards and thinking — “What is going on? This doesn’t make any sense!” It was just really intriguing to me and I was interested in learning more and finding out what he loved about it. And then, of course, the day I first arrived at Pomfret School I was greeted by my dorm parent, Vanessa Thorne, who was also the crew coach. One of the first things she said to me was, “You have to come out for rowing,” and I told her I was already planning on it. I had never rowed before; I learned pretty much everything at Pomfret.
Was there someone at Pomfret who had a great deal of influence or impact on your life?
Coach Vanessa Thorne. She identified me right away. I didn't like rowing at first; it’s really hard, it’s a lot of work, and it’s not really that exciting. I didn’t necessarily want to stick with it. But she saw something in me and made sure that I kept coming back. During my sophomore or junior year, she called me down to her office, sat me down, and told me that she could see me going to the Olympics one day. At that moment, I just couldn’t believe what I was hearing. As a little girl, that had been my dream, but I didn’t really have a particular sport to pursue. Her belief in me and her continuous encouragement — pushing me to show up and to work hard — made me feel like it was something I could actually achieve. Through her mentorship and my time at Pomfret, I changed and grew so much. I learned to take responsibility for myself and the things I wanted to do.
Are there lessons you learned at Pomfret to which you attribute your success?
Before Pomfret, I didn’t really understand what I could accomplish if I pushed myself. I was never a bad student, but I was also never a great student, just because I never really tried that hard. Coach Thorne and my teachers at Pomfret held me to a higher standard. Even though everything was very scheduled, I was required to take responsibility. I had to really show up, give it my all, and get everything done. My experience at Pomfret definitely helped me going forward into college and beyond. Pomfret laid a solid foundation for how I was going to approach the rest of my life.
Tell me a little bit about your journey to the Olympics
When Coach Thorne sat me down and told me how much she believed in me, I thought — “If I'm gonna do this, I need to keep getting better.” She set a benchmark for me to break seven in the 2k by my senior year. That didn’t end up happening, but I was PRing [hitting a new personal record] by quite a lot every year, so that seemed like a good trajectory to shoot for. To try to make that happen, I would train on my own in the winters and during free periods. She later talked to my parents and me about the junior national team and encouraged me to try out. I ended up making the team and that raised my awareness and my level a little higher. When I came back for my senior year, I continued to work hard to improve and be my best. So the journey was really filled with a lot of hard work and persistence.
You've raced in many boat classes. Is there one you prefer over the others?
I’ve had experience in almost every boat class and I’ve raced nearly every boat class internationally, except for the women’s double, which I’ve raced domestically. I really like the smaller boats. I love the single and I love the women’s pair. In the smaller boats, you have such an effect on how the boat is running. You can really own everything, from how you want to approach the race to how you want to row to what you're doing outside of practice. I just feel like there's a lot of control. There’s also a really high level of teamwork with your pair partner, and that's exciting. To me, it just feels like there’s a little bit more ownership over the whole process. It feels really good when you succeed, and you can take responsibility for it if you don't succeed.
What was the most rewarding part of your rowing career?
The most rewarding part of my journey came when I was competing to make the team in Lucerne, Switzerland. My partner and I had to race the pair that we were going to race at the Olympics; if we placed high enough, we would get to go. We made the team and I had another race in the women's eight about an hour later. We docked and put our boat away and I went off by myself to do a cooldown/warmup run for my next race, and in that moment, I just felt the overwhelming support of everyone that was behind me throughout my journey, from my family and friends, to my coach, to people I’d worked for and people I’d babysat for — everyone who supported me in the journey. I still get choked up when I think about it. It was just an amazing feeling that I’ll never forget.
You were originally planning to compete in the 2020 Olympic games. What was your initial reaction when the games were postponed?
It was really, really tough. I was totally devastated. I think the writing had kind of been on the wall for about a week to ten days before they decided to postpone it. We were training as a team through that time and our coach felt strongly there was no way they’d postpone. "There's too much economically at stake here. They're gonna have the Olympics no matter what, it will just look different." The morning the news came in that it was postponed, I just laid on the ground and cried; it was awful. It took me a long time to process it. I was lucky that I was able to go home. My dad has a little separate guest house that I could quarantine in and I spent three months at home still training, but also just taking a little bit more time to feel everything I was feeling and to figure out if this was something I wanted to keep doing.
You’ve described other athletes' decisions to retire as brave. Can you explain what you mean?
I think there's always going to be a question of “what if?” whenever someone decides they are ready to move on. What if they stay and go on to win gold at the Olympics? I think a lot of athletes really fear that regret. Being confident enough to know that there's something else out there for you and it's going to be just as good — to me, that’s incredibly brave.
I came back to rowing in 2017 because I felt like there was so much more about the sport I didn't understand. Being one of the top athletes in the US system and placing fourth at the 2016 Olympics, I had to ask myself — “What was different about my performance? What could I have done better?” I wanted to figure that out. I began working with a coach outside of the training center, Francisco Viacava, and he was amazing. He taught me so much about both feel and technique. It was an incredible experience. There’s a whole other world to rowing that I didn’t really understand, and that was exciting to me. But when the 2020 games were postponed, I no longer felt like I was doing it for the right reasons. I wasn't really growing as an athlete or as a person anymore. While I felt like I could have trained at a mediocre level and still likely made it, that's not what it was all about in 2016. It was about pushing myself to be the best that I could be. I felt like doing anything less than that — being less than excited to give everything I had — was kind of an insult to the whole pursuit. I decided it was best to leave that to someone who still had the room and the desire to push herself and grow.
What does your fitness routine look like when you're in training for Worlds or Olympics versus when you're not?
It is incredibly different! I think about that all the time because I'm out of it for really the first time in my adult life. Training for the Olympics, you get up at around 5:30 a.m., go down to practice, probably warm up at 6:30 a.m. or 7:00 a.m., and then go for a 20k row, so you'll be done in a couple hours. You’ll come back, have a break, eat some lunch, go back to practice at around 1:30 or 2:00 in the afternoon, row for another couple of hours, take a break, go back to practice, and do lifting or some other sort of cross training activity. Then go home, eat dinner, and go to bed. So it really was kind of an all-day training thing. And now it is so different, especially when I'm in school. For instance, just before this call, I was able to have like thirty minutes, so I went on a thirty-minute jog. Now it's kind of like, whenever I can get fitness in, I'll do it. But I typically just try to get in at least sixty minutes a day. And if I can do more, that's great. But it's very, very different.
What are you doing now?
I’m actually back at the University of Michigan Business School (Go Blue!), and I'm finishing up my first year as an MBA. I decided business would be a really interesting area for me to go into. My undergraduate degree is in art and design and art history, so everything I’m learning is completely new. I’m pushing myself to be the best I can be at this now, and it doesn’t feel like I’ve missed a beat.
If you could offer one piece of advice for a young person, particularly a young woman pursuing their dream, what would it be?
Find something that you feel confident in and then build off of that. I think it's hard to be a woman. There are a lot of things that are expected of you and a lot of ways that you're “supposed” to look and act. I say find something you're interested in and go out and do it unapologetically. Be confident in the fact that you're going to get better, and you're going to be able to do it. One thing I’ve learned throughout my life is that it’s less about the destination and more about the process. It’s about growing. It’s about becoming who you are.