Alumni Spotlight: Shelley Pearson

Shelley Pearson’s rowing career has been something of a transatlantic saga. The Bermudan export first started competing in 2005 at The Peddie School in New Jersey. As work ethic and talent began to produce some real speed, Shelley (possessed of dual citizenship) decided to attend selection camp and take a shot at making the junior national team. She got her first taste of elite rowing when she was selected to the squad in 2008 where she also had the pleasure of meeting our very own Molly Hamrick for the first time!

After high school she attended Harvard, but following that initial experience with US Rowing, Shelley knew that she one day wanted to compete for Bermuda. Since her best opportunity to do so would be in the single, she spent each of her summers sculling. Shelley knew that she needed to join a program with like-minded athletes and coaches if she was going to accomplish her goal and so the summer after she graduated from Harvard, she joined Riverside’s High Performance Group. “I'm not sure I can emphasize enough how much confidence Riverside gave me,” says Shelley. “It completely changed my perception of training and erging. I had the biggest drop in scores that I've had in my life and I suddenly began to realize that rowing at the highest level was something I could reasonably consider pursuing.”

But in February of that year, Shelley was faced with a significant and unexpected challenge. After suffering from pain and discomfort in her legs and hips during training, Shelley finally got diagnosed with aneurysmal bone cysts. These cysts are fibrous, tumor-like lesions which develop on the bone, and while they are benign, they can be extremely painful and can cause fractures and other structural damage. Not one to be slowed down, however, Shelley underwent anti-inflammatory injections and raced in The Head of the Charles. Unfortunately, a short time later, it became clear that she needed further and more aggressive treatment, when she fractured her pelvis simply getting up from the couch.

Around this time Shelley had also begun to lay the groundwork for the pursuit of another one of her dreams: to attend Oxford and compete in the Boat Race. Shelley had been studying education and development, and Oxford had a program which offered a joint MBA and social impact masters degree. It was perfect, but she had some hurdles to clear before she got there. Shelley would need a number of surgical procedures (nine over two years). Not to mention recuperating from her pelvis injury, this would pose a serious set back for her training. Uncertain with the outcome, yet determined to try to make the boat at Oxford, Shelley began taking a week off for surgical procedures, then returning to training for as long as possible before repeating the cycle. “My medical situation left me uncertain about whether The Boat Race would be a possibility but I was hopeful. Unfortunately, things went from bad to worse when I had a follow up surgery in August that led to complications and left me on crutches for two months.” Shelley arrived at Oxford on crutches, unable to train, but not yet deterred. “I began training again in December,” says Shelley, “and raced in [and won] The Boat Race in April. Without the base that I had developed at Riverside, I'm certain that wouldn't have been possible.”

That was in 2015, and Shelley had not lost her ambition to represent Bermuda. Fortunately, her island home was on board with the idea. “After The Boat Race, Bermuda completely rallied behind what I was doing,” remembers Shelley. “It completely solidified my decision to try to qualify for Rio. I was lucky enough to receive both a scholarship for the MBA and sponsorship which has further enabled me to pursue my goals.” So Shelley continued to train with the OUBC squad. “They were a great group of girls to train with,” she says “and the training plan perfectly aligned with when I also needed to peak [for trials]. Although I did a LOT of pieces alone on the water.”

But it all paid off. On March 24, Shelley qualified for Rio, making her the first woman to represent Bermuda in rowing on the Olympic stage. And while the qualifying race did prevent her from enjoying a repeat performance with Oxford in 2016, she was still able to get back in time to watch her teammates compete. Shelley, who has perfected the art of working during the commute to and from practice, is still taking classes at Oxford (she just finished finals!) and balancing a full training load. While her journey to Rio has been rather Odyssean to say the least, it makes one thing abundantly clear: whatever life throws at her, whatever the conditions between now and the finish line this summer, Shelley will be able to handle them.

Good luck from Riverside Boat Club, Shelley!

By: Graeme Calloway