There’s a different level of appreciation for the miracle of growth when directly involved in the planting process.
Former SMU student-athletes Madison van Meel and Juliet Traylor were both there to see the seedling that was the SMU rowing program sprout from the Earth and blossom into the top-15 program it is today.
But of course, that wasn’t always the case.
There was a time when the Mustangs were ranked 93rd in the country.
Back in those days, winning a conference title seemed pretty far-fetched.
“So we were both actually recruited by the old coaching staff, which ended up getting replaced by the new staff around spring time of my senior year in high school,” said Traylor. “When the coaching staff was replaced, the original goal of building the program remained the same. We were just in a better position to accomplish the goal, and refresh the team’s culture under new leadership.”
“In my head, initially, it was all about the education side of things. SMU had a great offer on the table, and it’s a tremendous school for academics. I thought to myself, ‘Why not? Go get your college education and use your rowing skills to assist with the financials.’ So I joined the team.”
van Meel gravitated towards SMU on the basis of knowing what it was like to see a fledgling rowing program grow into a powerhouse. Nobody was talking about Greenwich Crew when she first started her journey at the Connecticut-based athletic club.
By the time she was a senior, it was one of the most talked about programs in the area. Just being there throughout that entire transformation compelled her to roll up her sleeves and join the rebuild with the Mustangs, too.
“I didn’t want to just join a good team and be somewhere in the mix,” van Meel said. “I wanted to have an impact and join a team where I could help grow it to places it hasn’t been, you know? I was there when my high school team wasn’t super known or at the top of any charts or anything like that. Now, everyone knows Greenwich Crew by name.”
“We were one of the top high school teams in the country. These days, they’re winning all of the eight events at nationals. I wanted to experience that same turnaround with SMU. So I decided to give it a shot. Once I came on that first visit, I fell in love with the place.”
The culture change with the new staff was felt immediately.
Student-athletes were consistently held accountable, and the training really picked up to the point where people started to actually quit the team.
It was a tough weeding out process that set the stage for what was to come for the struggling program.
“The team’s dedication was tested when the training picked up,” Traylor said. “To become a top-10 team meant training like one. The team grew smaller, leaving only the athletes that were determined to achieve their goal. Ultimately, the teams culture shifted, and the SMU rowing team of the past was replaced with a hungry group of athletes, coaches, and recruits with something to prove.”
“We had a lot of conversations about that, and the coaches would say, ‘If you’re not here for the right reasons, here’s the door. We’ll help you leave this team.’ By the end of it, a large group of about 30 girls was whittled down to a very small team of strong, resilient teammates, who’d show up every day for each other and themselves.”
For van Meel, the surprising success for the Mustangs boiled down to only one word: commitment.
“It was all about commitment, not only to the sport, but it was about showing that commitment to yourself, teammates and coaches by showing up every day and giving it your all. You might not feel like training some days, but that’s when you remind yourself that it isn’t just about you. I’m not only doing this for me, you know? I’m doing it for the girl next to me.”
It was far from an easy fix, and even though the team lost some student-athletes along the way, the payoff was greater than anything anyone could have ever imagined.
The SMU rowing team went from being ranked 93rd in the country to a top-15 program with back-to-back conference title victories and NCAA berths. In 2021, they finished 11th in the NCAA tournament, which was the best finish for any American Athletic Conference member in rowing history.
And to think, they were being sold a dream by a completely new coaching staff just a few years prior to that finish. Traylor admits to being able to see the writing on the wall for the success of the program following the COVID shutdown.
The team had made dramatic improvements, but the opportunity to prove it in competition was snuffed out by the global pandemic.
“Rowing is a sport where you don’t get to celebrate your victories often. You don’t get to race often, either. You train and train the same motion for hours and the same workouts for years—all for a six-minute race. Those six minutes are what determine your worth, basically. I’d never been more confident in the team’s ability to compete, but just when we were ready to prove we were good enough to be looked at as a top team, everything was canceled.”
It was a devastating blow for the Mustangs, but they never stopped working. They put those emotions aside and accepted their situation as a minor setback.
Traylor explained it as a blur from the moment she put her hands on the boat to start the race to crossing the finish line and bursting into tears.
“I was crying before and after the race. I was just so emotional because I knew we were going to do it. But there’s a big difference between knowing and actually going out there and proving it. I probably cried that entire day,” said Traylor.
van Meel had the rare fortune of being a part of two successful turnarounds with two completely different rowing programs. For those that would chalk SMU’s success up to luck or simply being in the right place at the right time, it’s an obvious contradiction.
It has never been about luck as much as it’s been about the hard work of everyone involved in the respective programs.
“Honestly, I’m just so proud,” van Meel said. “Just being able to look back and see where we started—you know, being ranked 93rd. Now, we’re ranked 11th in the country. That’s huge! If anything, just being able to concretely see that everything we did was for something is the most amazing feeling ever.”
Traylor and van Meel are leaving the SMU rowing program better than when they found it. They can look back on the now fully grown seed that was planted and sold to them as a freshman dream five years ago.
Days, months, and years will come and go, but the roots will always remember.