Portia McGee

S: To start, can you list what sports you’ve done, how long you’ve done them, and any awards or leadership positions?
P: Um sure, and I can send you some stuff too if you don’t want to record everything. I’m sure I have things written down somewhere. I was um, kind of a – a late blooming athlete. I played a lot of sports growing up but I wouldn’t say I was really good at any of them. I played soccer, I swam, um, you know I played softball at Bush in the middle school and I played basketball. I always had fun doing sports but I wasn’t all that competitive. That wasn’t really my mindset. I was also just physically not athletic. I remember when I was growing up I was a pretty big kid, uncoordinated, I just wasn’t like a natural in any way. And I think like 8th grade was kind of when I kinda grew into my self, I got taller, I just got a little bit leaner, got a bit stronger, you know my body weight ratio came together a little bit more. And in 8th grade is when I tried rowing for the first time. Rowing is great- my mother rowed in Seattle as a master, which is what they called adult rowing, so she was on a pretty competitive team. My sister rowed at Lakeside, um , and so it was pretty natural that I would try rowing. We used to live in Mount Baker – my parents still live in Mount Baker – and they have the club right there, MT Baker Rowing club so it was just right down the street for me. And you know, my dad was a sailor so we were pretty geared towards the water. So I tried rowing in 8th grade and the thing I loved about rowing was um, it’s not – i mean there’s certainly an aspect of talent that comes into it and more and more it’s becoming a more competitive sport – but rowing is kind of, it’s um, very heavy reward on effort. It was the first sport I played where I realized the harder I worked the better I’d be. That correlation as so much more satisfying to me whereas for soccer or basketball I didn’t see that because I wasn’t as quick or I couldn’t make the shot or whatever. It’s a pretty simple sport from the onset. You just put your oar into the water and push as hard as you can and if you’re willing to do that then you get a lot lot better. It’s the first sport I really saw myself progress in and get better. I really, from 8th grade on, was a rower. Now I do more things because I don’t row now but now I enjoy some other sports and I probably do as much as then but just for fun. But uh, so I rowed through high school and the rowed in college and then continued rowing on the national team. I stopped rowing in 2008 after the Beijing Olympics. That was my um, the end of my rowing career. That was a lot of rowing. So I started rowing in, ‘91? ‘92? Trying to think of what year that was…. I graduated ‘97 so 97-96-95-94-93, so like ‘93. 1993 I started rowing and I stopped in 2008.
S: Dang!
P: Yeah, so that was really the main sport I did, and I was able to be, you know throughout the span of time I was on a lot of really good teams, which was exciting. My MT Baker team we won the national championship, the youth nationals 3 times, and then one really exciting thing was that in college I was on the first team at Brown to win a NCAA championship and that was the Women’s Rowing Team. And we won that twice, and were second my senior year. And then I got onto the national team and I ended up 7th at the Olympics so I didn’t win an Olympic Medal. But I think the two most exciting things that um, I like accomplished in the sport were that at Brown it meant a lot to the others, I think one year, my senior year I was a captain but you know there are a lot of people senior year who’ve been on the team for a long time, and I was voted Most Inspirational my senior year and I think that meant more than anything I got after that you know because it’s like recognition from your team and I’ve always been someone who has tried to lead by example and tried really hard and I felt like that was proof that um, that was worth it. That meant a lot to me. in 2007 when I was on the national team, I got an award for being Female Athlete of the Year, um, yeah that meant a lot to me and I was really proud of it. That was awesome because it kind of came… I was thinking about um, I guess we call it retiring, but quitting before the Olympics because I was always um , I tried to make the team in 2004 and I just missed it and I came back because I felt like maybe I could still give one more shot and I worked really hard but I was never really an automatic, like the girls you know are gonna make the team. I was always kinda like scraping to get in like on the last spot, the last seat, the last try… I was always on the edge of the bubble. and in 2007 summer I was pretty much thinking that I would just finish that summer and my chances of making the Olympic team were pretty slim. I just got married, and my husband was living, actually back in Seattle at that point coaching in UW and I was still at Princeton, New Jersey. You know, I was done with this, it wasn’t going to turn out the way I wanted and I had a really great World Champs and got this really unique opportunity to actually sub in for somebody who would potentially go to the Olympics and we did a really good job so I came back from that and I got that award, so I was like, “Okay well now I gotta stick it out.” And I made the team! Which was really exciting after all of that. So those were two awards that meant a lot to me.

 S: What was the Olympics like? Did you ever see yourself getting there?
P: You know, I don’t’ think I thought too much about it. Once I made… like in high school I was on the junior national team so once I was there I knew I wanted to make the U23 team and when I made the U23 team, I was like “Well I want to make the national team.” So once I made the national team – if you’re on the national team then your goal is to make the Olympic team. I feel like it was the small goals along the way that added up to that. I don’t know, I guess I was surrounded by athletes who had that goal and it’s a little bit different in rowing that in another sport where there are so many people playing whatever it might be. In rowing you know if you’re one of the best rowers in college then you know that that could be a shot, something you’re thinking about doing. When I was at Brown that was definitely something I knew I wanted to try to do. It wasn’t really until 2004 when I missed the team, when I didn’t make the team, and where I was like, “I really want to do this.” It’s really funny because I wasn’t that competitive, but I just became somehow … it unleashed a very competitive beast in me. I was like, “Why can’t I be on the team I should be able to do that!” So it was always kind of out there, I don’t think I would’ve said it out loud to anybody because there are so many ways it might not happen so I tried to stay focused on “I wanna make it on the national team. I want to make it in an Olympic-class boat. I wanna make it on the year before the Olympics.” You know, the little things, instead of putting the big ones out there – which I know some of my teammates probably felt more comfortable doing. But I think you also in rowing – you know I graduated from college, by the time I actually went I was married – there were a lot of things I wasn’t doing because you know that was my goal. Like you’re missing all the weddings, all the fun stuff that people in their 20s do. So to stay on the schedule for that long you kind of have to know what you’re doing it for. And I think in my mind that was my goal. By that time. Maybe not in high school but for sure then.
S: Aw yeah. That’s so cool though. What about obstacles – what were some struggles you’ve faced?
P: The biggest thing was I just wasn’t… I don’t know if I see it as an obstacle actually. But I think there’s so much pressure now to be really athletic as a kid, you know? Like I have an 8 yo daughter and she’s involved in a lot of sports and just having fun but she’s not a competitive kid – she reminds me of myself. She wants to have fun and go sing and dance and whatever, paly, but she’s not super focused. And there are a lot of kids who are super focused and really good athletes already and there’s so much pressure to do youth athletics and take it really seriously. I’m actually kind of happy that I didn’t have that and that I found a sport where I didn’t have to be that. If i’d been a swimmer or played soccer you’d have to do that so young and be really good so young and do it for so long and so it meant that, um, you know maybe I could do it ogner. Like I wasn’t burned out, i was having fun in college. I wasn’t burned out by the time I was done with college, I was just finding myself as an athlete. But I think one of the biggest obstacles was that I was really good in high school. I came out of high school and I was like, “I’m the best rower,” and I got recruited to a school and I got to college and I was like, “Oh… people who are better than me.” and then you’re just like, “Okay, this is the level of competition.” That was the end of me ever being the best. I got to college and I knew I had to work really hard. It was going to be about grittiness and fortitude and just putting my head down. I found that if I did that I could compete against the best people. But you know, I was just never naturally gonna be just the best like in high school I could just show up and I could be really good but I realized that it was gonna take more work. And when I made it to the national team, I was like, “I’m really not the best, I’m lucky they let me stick around and now I have to prove myself every single day.” So… I just think you know, maybe if I’d had that pure talent, I wouldn’t have tried as hard, I don’t know. I got lucky like I didn’t have a lot of injuries and that’s part of it is being able to continue. I had a pretty great career, the biggest thing was having to prove a lot of people wrong. The higher up I got in the sport, you know, people and coaches wanting someone taller and stronger, and having to keep showing that you’re the one that shows up so they have to pay attention to you eventually.
S: What about like as a woman playing sports, especially getting to such a high level.
P: I think almost the opposite. Being an athlete and being a woman to me has brought so much respect to me. Sometimes I’m like, “Oh, but there are other things about me,” but it terms of job interviews and just making connections with people and talking to male colleagues and people from other sports, it gives me a lot of credibility. That I participated in sports at such a high level, and people know that rowing is a really hard sport and doing it all the way through college and do it al the way through national takes a lot of focus and perseverance and you know. I think there’s a lot of men who thinks “Oh I’m such a good athlete I played JV soccer for a year in college,” and you’re like, “Oh yeah that’s great, I rowed NCAA, I have an NCAA ring too, and I was on Varsity and I went to the Olympics.” SO it’s kind of nice to quiet people down like that like “Oh yeah, she knows what she’s talking about.” I do think it’s opened a lot of doors for me because it’s unique and it’s something unique that I’ve done that a lot of people haven’t had the chance to do. I almost think the opposite. I think the hardest thing when you’re an athlete and you’re a woman, rowing is a really… I’ve never had a problem wanting to be really strong and have great muscles. I’m 5’9” I’m not really really tall. But I think I can see from my teammates – I have teammates who are really big, tall, strong women and that can be the thing that can be the hardest. You’re in a sport that really rewards you for being a certain way and then you go out on life and you’re like, “Oh all of my friends and all of the guys like these girls who are shorter and smaller,” and you don’t fit that ideal. I think that also depends on who you’re surrounding yourself with. My husband is a rower and you just gotta be around people who really respect that. And that’s something I think about for my girl. I’m gonna have really big, tall girls like their dad’s really big and tall – he’s 6’7”, so they’re gonna be 6’ tall. There’s part of me that really hopes that they do find a sport they love because having such a big, strong body is really great to be an athlete because it’s a place where you feel like you fit in. That would be the one thing that I would say – body image as an athlete can be really tough.
S: Do you have any athletic goals for the future?
P: I don’t have too many more goals at this point. I like having something out there like I like having a race. But being a mom and working and being really busy, I mostly run and you know I do weights and I run with a group. There’s a pretty serious yoga class – I never did anything like that until I was in my 30s, I thought yoga was so stupid but now I’m like, “Oh it’s hard!” These people are amazing in a totally different way instead of being miserable all the time and always pushing yourself. There’s a whole other world out there. But you know, running is my biggest thing now. I compete against myself by signing up for half-marathons. I say I’m gonna do it for fun but then I get mad if I don’t go faster. I’m always comparing my times. That stuff doesn’t leave you. It’s fun to get to a point, I think, as an adult, there’s so many people who like working out and just being healthy and strong. Like maybe it’s something they do sometimes, or it’s not part of who they are, or they’re trying to figure it out in their 30s. And for me it’s like an integral part of what I do every day. I have to do something physical, it’s just part of who I am, it’s what I do. I consider it as important as eating well or doing anything else. I just do something physical and my kids can have a babysitter. That’s a part of me that’s really important to me and who I am and I really enjoy still pushing myself in other, smaller ways. And doing that with friends! It’s really fun and social and it’s probably where I see my friends the most. Like running the stadium or going for a run or doing something. Like Melissa, who you know, I met her running in Seattle and it’s where I met a lot of my good friends. I don’t have too many friends who don’t like to do a sport at some level. I just think it’s so much healthier because you go to college, you play a sport in college, and then you leave, and you think, “Oh, well I can’t do what I did before so I won’t do anything.” That’s like the one thing that happens to people a lot. They’re like, “Oh, I can’t go to practice for 2 hours a day and hang out with my friends, so I’m not gonna do anything.” It’s so hard to get back into it. So I just now, sports are more fun. It did take me awhile to realize it could just be fun – and for me fun is a little different from what my other friends think is fun. But it doesn’t have to be miserable to be fun, it can just feel good.
S: Last question, at the end of my project I’m going to be presenting to young students – maybe about third through fifth graders – about everything I’ve learned and my goal is to educate them on what it’s like growing up as a woman in athletics but also empower the young girls to play sports. So is there anything you’d like to tell them?
P: Oh, yeah! What grades did you say?
S: Third through fifth grade.
P: Awesome. So yeah, I guess I would say like, first of all don’t be scared to give a new sport a try because you never know what might fit you. It’s not necessarily what your friend likes to do for your sibling did or whatever. Trying new sports is always the best. And then, um, I think that another thing is don’t worry about it if you’re not the best right away. Most good athletes are good athletes because they stuck with it and they tried really hard. They put in the practice, they went to practice and they did that for along time. Depending on what level that is, just getting up and going and getting to the best of their game or just seeing what happens. Being willing to get to know the sport and learn the sport and out time in. That’s how you know if you like something or if you’re going to be good at something. You never know right away. Um, and then the other thing is making small goals like when I first started rowing I couldn’t run a mile. And when I ran a mile a couple weeks into practice I was like, “Mom! I ran a mile!” And from that you know, the Olympics was a pretty long journey, but that’s where it started. It was being excited about all the little things I could do. My daughter was playing ice hockey and just one goal, that was one of the most exciting things she’s ever done. She was even like, “did you see? I passed to someone who shot a goal!” And so I think it’s just like the little goals, the little victories and being excited about the things you accomplish along the way and not worrying about the end of the season or what position you’re gonna be, but you know, trying to find little places where you can get better every day because that adds up to be really great.
S: Awesome, thank you so much! That was great. Is there anything else you want to talk about or any questions you have for me?
P: Uh, no not really. Actually, I don’t know how much this relates to your project but I think Bush now has more sports than it used to when I was playing sports. But I think it’s good for – I’m sure a lot of kids play sports outside of school, too, and I’m not sure it’s something they want you to do all the time. For me it was a huge positive – like I loved Bush, I was there for middle school and high school – but it was really nice for me to have some hobbies outside of school because it is a small school. I was able to be, you know, by the end of senior year with my classmates I was like, “Oh my god, it’s still the same people,” but for me I had two different worlds. It made being in a small school really nice because that was just a piece. I did my rowing thing and I did school and I did other activities in school. I did a lot of outdoors stuff. I think it’s good when you’re in a small school to explore other hobbies outside of school because you can just keep expanding your group of friends and people you get to meet, and people of diversity and variety and people you get to interact with. That would be my plug for enjoying a small school for so long. I don’t know how big it is now, how many people are in your class?
S: We have 57, but we’re the smallest class in the school right now. The sophomores have 80.
P: Oh wow, 80, yeah. I mean we had 50, it was really small. Or 54 or something like that, I guess 57 is not much bigger than that. But yeah, I loved Bush and I think it’s something that kept me happy for so long at such a small school.