Olympic standout returns to Syracuse

Natalie Mastracci, a silver medalist in the London Olympics, looks to instill a winning culture within the SU women's rowing team

Natalie Mastracci is an Olympian. There is no denying that. The Syracuse senior has an air about her that simply exudes excellence. Her glowing smile shows how happy a person she is and her laughter and sense of humor are easily noticed. But, overall, you can feel the passion and drive Mastracci has. In her confident voice, with words backed up by emotion, you know she feels it; you know she is an Olympian.

Mastracci and the rest of the SU women's rowing team practices before sunrise each morning on Onondaga Lake. Photo by Emily Shearing

Mastracci, 23, has a drive, a determination that you can feel just sitting across a table from her. She is intense, but not overbearing. Her need to excel in whatever it is she is doing, be it rowing, school, or even an interview about herself, is easily noticeable; she is going to do it really, really well, even if it takes an enormous amount of work.

“Where Natalie has driven herself to be is to be excellent at sitting on her bum and going backwards faster than anyone else in the world,” Syracuse women's rowing coach Justin Moore said. “A lot of people think that's ridiculous, but I think the pursuit of excellence in any capacity is really, really worthwhile.”

Mastracci is tall, with long, curly hair. She wears a genuine smile and a politeness one may not expect from a woman who was in London winning an Olympic Silver Medal in the women's eight for Team Canada last summer.

“Sometimes when you have someone that's achieved so much and done so well they can be really serious, and not enjoyable to be around, because there's so much pressure, but you don't get that being with her. It's comfortable to be around her. She's easy to get along with. There is a laugh on the water, it's not all 'we must be the quickest.' You enjoy it. It's 'enjoy what you're doing' and she definitely makes it enjoyable,” Syracuse crew teammate Carmen Failla said. “Even though she's won a silver medal at the Olympics, she's not like 'Oh I went to the Olympics.' You can tell that's not it for her.”

Mastracci's road to the Olympics began six years ago, in her senior of high school. Mastracci was a lifelong basketball player who had a dream of playing for the Syracuse Orange.

“I actually really wanted to come to Syracuse to play basketball, because I always wanted to play in the Carrier Dome,” Mastracci said. “I always watched the Big East, I thought it was so cool.”

Her mother began pressuring her into trying out rowing her freshman year of high school at Denis Morris Secondary in St. Catherines, Ontario, but Mastracci's focus laid with basketball.

“I was really stuck in a basketball rut, I was all about basketball. Basketball was my life,” she said. “I played basketball for 18 years. I'd been doing basketball for so long I didn't think I could be good at anything else.”

In the fall of her senior year, in 2006, Mastracci began practicing with the crew team in order to get in better shape for basketball.

“I started going to rowing practice with them every day, ran with them, got some extra practice in, but eventually they made me get on the IRM, the indoor rowing machine,” she said of her first days as a rower. “After that, I pulled at a 2K at an indoor regatta.”

That was when Syracuse's rowing coach, Kris Sanford, approached Mastracci. 

“The Syracuse coach came up to me and said 'Hey, how would you like a scholarship to go the University?'” Mastracci recalled. “And I said, 'Of course, I would love that! That sounds like a great idea!'”

From then on, Mastracci became completely devoted to the sport.

“I fell in love with the sport. It was amazing. All my best friends are rowers, so maybe that had something to do with it,” she noted excitedly. “The amount of camaraderie that you get from rowing and the amount of teamwork that has to be put in play in order to row successfully is just amazing.”

It only took a month of serious rowing training for Mastracci to be offered a scholarship and only a month on Syracuse crew before she made varsity.

“I had to work really hard at it, but rowing is one of those sports that rewards people that work hard,” Mastracci said. “So, the harder I worked, the better I got, and I kept doing that for five years.”

After three years at Syracuse, constantly coming up short in the standings, Mastracci was given the opportunity to move on to the next level.  She made the Canadian developmental national team, but not yet the senior national team (the Olympic team) each year after her first year rowing. After her junior year, Mastracci was approached by Rowing Canada.

“They said 'If you left your school, and you committed – right now – to rowing, I really think you could make the Olympics,” Mastracci recounted, gulping down the words. “It was a very hard decision to make, leaving my scholarship, my education.”

“It was a very, very, very tough decision. You leave a scholarship, you leave your academics,” Mastracci said. “I left not with a certainty that I was going to get a seat in the boat, without certainty at all.”

“I had to be prepared for the fact that I might fail, that I might completely fail. It might not even be 'Oh, you missed by a few seconds,' I might just be completely so bad that it would have been worthless that I came here. And I have to be OK with that before I decided. It was a lot of soul searching,” Mastracci explained of her thought process. “I kept coming back to this one question: Is it worth it? Is it worth it to do this? Is it worth it to leave all this? Is it worth it go and try? The fact that I could answer 'yes' to 'Is it worth it?' made all the other questions really easy.”

But it wasn't as simple as that. The four months leading up to the Olympics held the toughest emotions that Mastracci had ever experienced.

Mastracci broke her ribs – a very common injury for rowers – three times during her time with Team Canada. After her third break, she needed eight weeks to rehab.

“I thought, 'I'm here because I'm a fighter, and I'm going to keep fighting,'” Mastracci said, her voice cracking. “So, I kept doing what I could do, be it biking, leg strengthening, whatever I could to get me faster.”

After her return, she, like everyone else on the team, was put through seat racing, where she fought for a seat in the boat. She didn't make it.

“I had resigned myself to the fact that I would be support for the girls that did make the boat and do whatever it took to help them,” Mastracci said dejectedly. “That's why I am here, I support and love my team.”

“How do you explain putting all of your effort, all of your desire, and all of your self-worth into something you might fail at, something you might never get?” she asked. “You're working at your peak maximum, and you may just not be fast enough. You could be as fast as you will ever be, and may not be fast enough. And you have to be able to accept that, because, at the end of the day, my goal was to make Canada fast, and if I wasn't in the boat to make Canada fast, I would have to live with that.”

However, Mastracci did not have to just live with that. In May 2012 she was placed in a two-person boat for a late-qualifier race in Lucerne, Switzerland. A month later, she and her partner were competing against pairs who had been training together for years. The top two teams would qualify for the Olympics. Mastracci's pair finished third.

“She went there, they came in third, by three-tenths of a second,” Moore recanted. “So, Natalie finished that race in June saying 'My Olympic dream is over; my Olympic dream is done.'”

While still in Lucerne, Mastracci raced as a spare for the eight when one of the other women's ribs was acting up. Then, something amazing happened. Another one of the women in the boat was having issues with her rowing technique, so the coach opened up seat racing again, less than two months before the Olympics began.

“I thought to myself, 'This is it; either I take all the chances I can get, or I sit down and let someone else take my Olympic dreams away from me,'” Mastracci recalled. “So I fought, I fought with every inch of my being. And I got in the boat.”

“Talk about an emotional roller coaster: you're in the eight, you qualified for the Olympics, oh my gosh, you're going to the Olympics, you go into re-qualification, you're deselected, your Olympic dream is now in limbo but you have an opportunity to go and race, three-tenths of a second you miss by, your Olympic dream is over, oh, wait a minute, there's an opportunity for you to get into this boat, boom, you're in, boom, you're at the Olympics, boom, silver medal,” Moore said. “It's incredible to think about what she emotionally must have gone through.”

So, she'd made it. Natalie Mastracci was going to the London Olympics. But, when she got there, it didn't feel like it, at first.

“It didn't feel like the Olympics until all of our racing was done. We had our own hotel, because our coach said, 'You have prepared so well, I don't want anything to shake you.' We made that ground Canada, we made it our home,” she said. “It felt like any other world championship we'd ever been to. We'd done it a hundred times. We'd go the course, we'd do our practice our certain way, and we would go and show people what we were made of. And that's what we did. So, it didn't really feel like the Olympics. I would see the Olympic rings and think, 'Huh, that's kinda cool. That's kind of weird. This world championship is kind of a big deal.' It wasn't until after I crossed the finish line that I thought to myself, 'Oh...my goodness...I just won a silver medal in the Olympics.'”

“When I got to the podium, and they put it around me, I thought, 'Who did this? That's awesome! Do I get to keep this? That's really cool!' Then, the Olympics took over, and I was totally into this whole big movement,” Mastracci said. “Being there, it's indescribable; everyone there, you know what they've gone through, you know what they had to do to get to how good that they are.”

“Once they get to the Olympics, they are already winners. It doesn't really matter. It's so hard to get a medal at the Olympics, the level of competition is just incredible,” she continued. “There's a profound respect – when we finally did move into the Olympic Village – of the work that you have to put in to get to where we all are.”

After two years away, training for the Olympics three-to-four times a day, Natalie Mastracci is back on the Syracuse University campus, a student and an athlete. Not just an Olympian.

“I liken returning from the Olympics to returning from Afghanistan. You've got these patterns, you've got these things. In Afghanistan, you're hyper-aware of your surroundings, of the danger. You're in your fight-or-flight response. When you go to the Olympics, while you're not in danger in the same way, you're in a state of fight-or-flight. You're patterned, you're being told where to go, being told who to talk to. You're being told what to think, what to eat, when to sleep, you know, when to train, what to think,” Moore said. “Then, you come back and they're like, 'OK, good job.' There's an adjustment period...I think that's why she sometimes finds her way into the crew room, just to be around rowing and feel at ease, at peace, and then go on with the rest of her day.”

Training with Team Canada was different from what an outsider might expect Olympic training to be.
“Instead of bringing someone down, they wanted to bring everyone up, including themselves. Together we would raise the level of in-squad competition at the training center. I think it was that commitment to the team, selflessly, that made all the difference in the world,” Mastracci noted. “I really think that's something I see starting to boil here at Syracuse, and I'm very excited about that. I want to keep pushing that environment, because I think excellence really breeds in that environment.”

Mastracci has returned to a Syracuse team much different from the one she left.

“When I got here originally, they were kind of on a downward turn, because all the people that had been in that good boat had graduated, so they were in a building kind of year. We kept building all the years that I was at Syracuse, and I think, finally, in my last year at Syracuse, we got third in the Big East, the biggest accomplishment we had gotten,” Mastracci recalled. “That was a kind of nice note to end on. If I was saying goodbye to Syracuse and goodbye to my education, that was a nice note to end on. But I'm glad to be back here.”

The head coach has changed, and the atmosphere as well, a fact Mastracci is happy about.

“I just identify really well with Justin Moore. I just think he has a sparkle and a light inside of him...he's just so inspiring to work with every day. He truly cares about you, cares about who you are, and wants to make you better,” she said.

The team that Mastracci has returned to is much better prepared to compete at a high level than the one she left.

“I think we're on the cusp of being able to win the Big East, which will take us forth to the NCAAs, and I'm so excited how things could go,” Failla said. “People came in, people have really stepped up, you can tell people want it. The drive that we have now is the type of drive Natalie had in the first place.”

“Every time she's in a boat she wants to cross the finish line first, and that's now that attitude of the whole team. Last year, people were devastated, because we were always just on the wrong side of the margin. They don't want to stand for that anymore,” Failla continued. “To have someone like Natalie really reinforces that it's not OK to be on the wrong side of the margin. I think it's going to be great for her to be here, just to reinforce that if you want something bad enough, you will work hard to get it, and I think that's the way the team is moving.”

Natalie Mastracci herself, driven as she is, has her sights set high.

“I have the highest hopes that we can have. I want to get back to NCAAs. I think every woman on our team can see us back in the NCAAs. And that means winning the Big East championships. We're not there right now, but I am completely and one-hundred-percent behind these women. I know we can get there, and I'm so excited to see what happens.”

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