Rowing for Gold: UW-Madison alumni to compete in Paris Olympics

Rowing for Gold: UW-Madison alumni to compete in Paris Olympics

MADISON Wis. (CBS 58) – This year Wisconsin will once again have representation in the summer Olympics.

Two UW-Madison alumni, Sophia Vitas and Maddie Wanamaker, are Paris bound to compete on the U.S. Women’s Olympic rowing team.

They will continue the long-standing Badger tradition of having at least one UW women’s or men’s rower that’s competed in every Olympics since 1968.

“It's cool to have this badger connection going through and keep up the streak of Badgers for so long as well,” said Wanamaker, who will be making her second trip to the Olympics after placing 7th in the 2020 Tokyo games.

The streak of sending former badgers to the Olympic games is one that’s proudly celebrated at the UW Porter Boathouse and it’s one women’s rowing head coach Vicky Opitz hopes to continue.

“To make it to this level, this far is a tremendous accomplishment and I think that's something that often gets overlooked,” said Opitz. “There is so much these women, these athletes, give up… to make it to this level.”

Opitz, a former UW-Madison rower who now leads the next generation, is no stranger to stiff competition. The four-time world champion first met Vitas and Wanamaker at Princton’s National Rowing facility.

“To have baby badgers come up through the ranks and make the national team was a big deal and it was very evident from their first step into Princeton they were determined.”

Vitas and Wanamaker never rowed before coming to campus. Both joined the UW rowing team as walk-ons in 2013 and they quickly fell in love with the sport.

From there they went on to train for an international stage, each competing separately and winning World Rowing Championships. It’s been a journey they say has prepared them for an even bigger moment – representing their county at the Paris Olympics this summer.

“You're not only competing with people from other countries but 90% of the year you are competing against yourself and against your teammates,” said Vitas. “Rowing is the kind of sport you're never good enough at, you can always do better, you can always push yourself harder, faster.”

When athletes push their bodies to the limit, sometimes injuries are inevitable – something Vitas and Wanamake know a lot about.

Vitas, a Franklin native, will be competing in her first Olympics after an injury sidelined her during the selection process for the 2020 Tokyo games.

“I broke my fractured rib and it was painful,” Vitas said. “It wasn't the first time and kept going and I was just like, this isn't worth it.”

Vitas said she decided to pull herself out of the selection process, a difficult decision but one that came with a renewed dedication to succeed.

After recovery, she went on to win a bronze medal in the Women’s Double Sculls at the 2023 Rowing Championships, a victory that helped secure the U.S. an Olympic spot.

“It's been a lot of patience and figuring out my body because rowing is such a high impact sport,” said Vitas. “Now that it's all coming together right before Paris is great. Better late than never!”

Wanamaker, from Neenah, is also coming off an injury that almost cost her another shot at the Olympic games.

This past winter she had surgery after being diagnosed with Thoracic Out Syndrome (TOS), a common issue in rowers that limits blood supply to and from the arm.

Her rehab went extremely well, in fact, it allowed her to compete and take home gold with her teammates in the World Rowing Cup II in Italy last June.

“I think that was a big moment for us and learning from that experience,” said Wanamaker. “I think that was a sign we are on the right track and I've kept going with that mentality.”

Wanamaker now has her eyes set on an Olympic podium after placing 7th in the women's four in Tokyo games that were shuttered by the pandemic. And this year will be extra special because she will likely cross the finish line one last time – marking an end of her rowing career.

“I plan on retiring after this and to finish with my family there, two of my Wisconsin rowing teammates, and really good friends,” Wanamaker said. “It's special to be able to share it with people.”

Every stroke has been a testament to their journey and for Vitas and Wanamaker, they say it’s not just about winning medals, but proving that with passion and perseverance anything is possible.

“At the end of the day I can't control how good my competition is and if I don't win a medal I have to be okay with that,” Wanamaker said. “I think that I've been a lot happier this cycle because I have made it a point to enjoy it more.”

Vitas said one of her best qualities is not overthinking things and taking one day at a time because “no one is perfect at the sport.”

The Paris Olympics will take place on July 26 - August 11.

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