Natalie Dell, VA Researcher and Olympic Medalist
by Hans Petersen, VA Staff Writer
Monday, February 3, 2014
Natalie Dell, a medal winner at the 2012 Summer Olympics, conducts mental health research for VA. As the next Olympics approach, here are 20 questions about her Olympics experience and her work for Veterans.
- Did you ever fantasize about being in the Olympics when you were a little girl?
To be honest, no. At least, no more than the average person does. If you would have told me when I was 10 (or even 25 for that matter) that I would be going to the Olympics, I wouldn’t have believed it. As an athlete, I’ve always viewed the Olympic Games as sacred, in a way. Sometimes I look back and think “Did that really happen?!”
- Do you remember any particular event or athlete who impressed you early on?
Gail Devers, in 100 meter final at the 1996 Summer Games. She had these ridiculous and elaborate fake finger nails that looked like they were 4 inches long. She looked strong, fierce and bold and most importantly, her own person. It made a big impression on me as a kid.
- Were you athletic as a kid?
Yes, I played soccer in elementary school and later became a state medalist in track in the 400 meter.
- Who encouraged you to pursue your sport?
Throughout my rowing career, many people encouraged me to pursue the sport to higher levels: college teammates, my parents, coaches, friends. But the people who stand out the most are my supervisor Dr. Rani Elwy and my coworkers at the Bedford VAMC. During my last two years of training (which proved to be the toughest) they provided the support, positivity and motivation I needed to truly realize my Olympic dream.
- Your medal at the London Olympics was in rowing. Did you row as a kid?
No, I didn’t know what rowing was until I heard about it in college.
- Where you in shape when you started training?
Not really! “Rowing shape” is a class of its own and there was much work to be done.
- What was the hardest part of getting to where you felt ready to compete?
Self-confidence and believing in my strengths as an athlete.
- What was the atmosphere like at the Olympics?
Wonderful! Everything you would hope it to be: intense, fun and tons of positive energy.
- What did you do in London with your free time?
After we finished competing, we watched a lot of other sporting events and cheered on our fellow Team USA teammates. We watched swimming, track, wrestling and a few others.
- Did you ever feel like giving up while you were training?
During really tough workouts, there would be a moment or two when I would question if I was really strong enough to see my goals through. However, no matter how difficult it got, it was always worth it. Giving up didn’t occur to me. Even on my worst days, I was still living out my dream of competing at the highest level in my sport.
It is an honor to serve those who served.
- When you came home, you visited Veterans in the Bedford VA Medical Center. What did they tell you?
They were excited to meet an Olympian and thanked me for representing the USA — to which I replied “and thank YOU!” I may have represented our country in the Olympics, but it has no comparison to the level in which our Veterans have represented our country through their service. I was honored to meet so many of them upon returning home. They are our real heroes.
- Will you watch the Sochi Olympics?
- Any particular sport?
- You recently worked on research to help Veterans with depression. What was your motivation to do this kind of work?
After earning a master’s degree in public health, I wanted to help improve public health in our country. Veterans and mental health seemed like a great fit and turned out to be a wonderful opportunity to make a difference.
- What was your goal when you chose Public Health for your Master’s Degree?
My goal was and still is to help improve people’s lives through health care.
- How did the folks at the Bedford VA welcome you home?
Warmly with a ton of positivity and energy! We had an outdoor ceremony where I was able to meet a lot of the staff and then we did a tour through some of the patient areas of the hospital.
- What would you tell a Veteran who thinks she is not strong enough to ever think about being an Olympian?
Dream big, work hard and dare to follow your passion.
- Have you met any other VA employees or Veterans who have competed in the Olympics?
I met some of the Veteran paralympians from the London Games. They are an inspiration and true heroes!
- What do you think about your job at VA?
Working for VA has been an incredibly enriching and rewarding experience. I couldn’t ask for better colleagues. It is an honor to serve those who served.
- Some students at Boston University, your alma mater, may read this. What is your advice to them…in sports…and in life?
Use sports and general exercise to balance out all the studying, even if just for 30 minutes a day. And as far as your education, I feel that BU has opened up many opportunities that wouldn’t have been possible without my degree. Hang on and enjoy the ride!