UCF biomedical sciences major Leonie Hamel juggles being exceptional at rowing and being in agony with rowing every day.
The Ireland native is a national champion in her home country. She’s a conference champion in the States. Since she was 14, Hamel has demanded 100 percent of herself every time she is in the boat.
That expectation has never wavered, even after she was involved in a serious boating accident two years ago. That accident could have kept her from walking again, which would have derailed her future as a student-athlete at UCF. But it didn’t.
Although she still has nightmares from the collision and her back is in pain every time she competes, she refuses to be defined by the accident.
“It never crossed my mind that I was going to quit this sport,” she said. “I wasn’t finished. I wasn’t ready to give up on the dream yet.”
Hamel grew up in Cork, Ireland. Although her grandmother and mother both rowed before her, Hamel didn’t start until her early teens. She picked it up because of a friend, and within three months, the head coach of her club insisted she train with the boys’/men’s side.
She immersed herself in rowing. When she wasn’t studying or going to school, she was on the water. She loved the simple competitive nature of the sport.
“It’s you and the other boats and that’s it,” she said. “You cross the line and whoever is there first is the best.”
Hamel attributes her competitiveness and mental toughness to her early days as a 14-year-old training with young men, aged anywhere from 15 to 20 years old. Emboldened by her parents’ “anything is achievable” upbringing, Hamel became an unstoppable force.
She raced for the national team for three years before switching clubs to experience training with females. In her senior year of high school, she qualified for Ireland’s coxless quadruple scull for the World Junior Championship in Lithuania.
Then July 28, 2013, happened, and her world changed dramatically.
“It suddenly went from being the happiest time of my life going to the nightmare of `Oh my gosh am I going to walk again? Not to mind row again? Not to mind get a degree?'” Hamel said. “In a split second it all changed.”
The accident happened in the final week of training before the World Championships. A collision occurred between her boat and another men’s European coxless four sweep boat.
First came the impact. Fast and unexpected.
Then the blade that crashed full force into her back and fractured it in six places.
The second oar came in and cracked her rib.
The collision caused her boat to capsize, dumping her crew in deep, cold water.
Wailing and drowning, her legs refused to move. Her teammates — in the midst of screaming at the counterparts of their crash — kept her body and head afloat until help arrived.
She was driven 20 excruciating minutes to the hospital. Hamel, unsure of the extent of her injuries, hoped she would still travel to Lithuania to compete with her team and leave for the States nearly three weeks later.
“I could see out of the window and I just remember the tears. The whole time I was like this is the dream over,” she recalled. “At the same time I said to myself, `No, no you’re fine, it’s a spasm.'”
The test results came back and revealed the fractures. Her spinal cord wasn’t severed.
While doctors enthusiastically told her she would walk again, Hamel fixated on what her diagnosis meant for her chances of competing at junior worlds.
“I was devastated when I heard the word fracture. I knew there was definitely more than a one week recovery period,” she said. “I couldn’t even talk. I couldn’t believe what was happening. Still, when I look back on it, I think this is someone else’s life I’m re-living.”
Meanwhile, Hamel’s mother emailed UCF head coach Becky Cramer to inform her of the accident.
At the time, Cramer was on vacation in South Carolina. She happened to turn on her phone shortly after the email was sent and immediately began putting the family’s fears of Hamel’s future at UCF to rest.
“It never even crossed my mind that we wouldn’t stand by her,” Cramer said. “We recruited her as a person. I didn’t want her family, while worrying about her health and her getting better, to worry about us here.”
Hamel, a redshirt sophomore said, hearing the news that her UCF scholarship was still waiting for her was the happiest moment she experienced during the next five months. She said from day one, she told her physiotherapist nothing would keep her from going to America in January.
“There was always that light at the end of the tunnel for me. I was coming to America, and America wasn’t going to define who I was,” she said. “At home, `Oh that’s the girl who broke her back, right?’ I hated that. I really did.”
Her family acquired an orthopedic bed and converted the ground floor of their home into Hamel’s recovery space. Getting out of bed was a feat in the first three to four weeks. She remembers dripping with sweat the first time she climbed up the stairs.
Looking back, Hamel says she hardly recognizes the depressed person she was through her fight to get back to her normal life. Anyone who knows her wouldn’t recognize that person either.
Though months of hard work in rehab and recovery, Hamel reached her goal made it to UCF for the start of spring semester in January 2014.
Mentally, she was ready to contribute to the team upon her arrival. Physically, she needed to continue therapy for three to four months before she was cleared to compete. She continues to attend treatment every day.
Hamel said there are moments — like when UCF won the conference championship last year — that reaffirm why she continues to row. She believes that her role in helping UCF build a successful program is bigger than one person and bigger than her injury.
“She had a huge setback that could have stopped anybody from going to school down the street, let alone crossing an ocean by yourself. She chooses not to focus on that. That’s not the story the team hears,” said Cramer, who mentioned it’s the worst injury she has dealt with in her 20 years around the sport. “People know she had an accident. People know that she hurts. But it’s not what’s foremost in your mind when you see her. Her priority is her education, her time here and her team and to enjoy it as opposed to thinking about what could have been.”
In addition to her dedication to rowing, Hamel has been equally committed to becoming a doctor. She said she first entertained the idea as a 6-year-old, but became really serious about it after her cousin died of brain cancer when Hamel was 16.
That’s why she’s working hard on her science classes and preparing for medical school. She will not be daunted. Her journey back from the rowing accident makes that pretty clear.
Hamel got a second chance to exorcise some of her demons on that national course in Ireland. She rowed in the Irish National Senior Women’s Championship when she went back home in the summer of 2014.
Her team, which had been put together just weeks before, won.
“For me it was like `Yes! Yes. This racecourse did not get me,'” she said. “I know that whole accident still has an effect on me, but I am confident that it is has made me stronger for the rest of my life.”