When University of Wisconsin women's rowing coach Bebe Bryans wanted to orchestrate a pick-me-up for athletes who had their season cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic, she didn't have to think long about where to turn.
Vicky Opitz never says no when Bryans calls for a favor. And the Middleton native and former Badgers rowing All-American has a compelling story to put behind a message of resilience.
When Opitz told the UW team that the shutdown of the rowing season was a perfect time to implement the idea of controlling only what's able to be controlled, it could have been based on her own experiences in high-level rowing.
Injuries forced her to miss most of a season and set her back from the chase of a spot on a boat for the 2016 Olympics. She returned to become a world champion and be in line for a key role in the next Summer Games.
"She's the best," Bryans said. "I can't say enough about her."
Opitz, who turns 32 in June, was hoping to make the Tokyo Olympics her final act in competitive rowing. If not for the coronavirus outbreak, she would be getting ready for a World Cup event in Switzerland, part of the USRowing audition for one of the seats in the women's four boat.
The year Olympic delay has changed things, but Opitz is playing the long game in her mind.
"I don't see it necessarily as a detriment," she said. "I think it was the absolute right decision to make. I think with more time and more training to tweak things and play around with things, I can only think it's going to make us better."
Since 2013, Opitz has trained with the national team in Princeton, New Jersey, an effort that requires participants to give most of their life to the sport, with little financial benefit.
Six hours of training per day doesn't include recovery and physical therapy, all part of an exhausting regimen that doesn't allow much time for outside interests.
Things have changed during the coronavirus quarantine, with athletes now on their own for training with bikes and body weight. Opitz doesn't mind the monotony of it as long as she has a good playlist — pop from the 2000s on is her guilty pleasure — to accompany her.
At some point, the race to get in a seat for the Olympics will resume, and Opitz has a drive to be there after watching from the sidelines in 2016.
Injuries alter course
She was an alternate in the Rio Games as the women's eight won gold. A stress reaction in a rib put her off course that season.
"It was a double-edged sword because I was happy to be there and to support my teammates," Opitz said. "But also I'm in this sport to compete so it was hard not to be in the boats racing and to watch it."
In 2017, she was diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome after her left arm swelled dramatically while racing in Poland. A 3-inch blood clot in her chest had to be removed along with part of her first rib, costing her most of the competitive season.
Her return for the 2018 season concluded with Opitz being named the USRowing Senior Female Athlete of the Year. She was part of the world championship eight boat and also raced in the pair.
"On a personal level, I had been through a lot the two previous years to get to that point," Opitz said. "I think as a squad, reaching that point where our women's eight and four won that year, in 2018, was a really great team moment, too."
It represented new heights for a rowing career that started as a walk-on at UW in 2006, when Bryans said Opitz didn't lack for effort but didn't fully grasp the sport's complexities.
The granddaughter of longtime Badgers coach Randy Jablonic and daughter of two former UW rowers, Opitz grew up playing tennis, soccer and basketball in Middleton. She wanted to try rowing in college and had to work her way up from the bottom.
Things started to click midway through her junior year, Bryans said, and as a senior in 2010, Opitz was an all-conference and All-American pick after helping the Badgers to their first Big Ten championship.
Bryans called Opitz "a quintessential Badger" in that she did the work necessary without a drop of entitlement.
"It just was a matter of time for her to figure it out," Bryans said. "She was in love with the sport from the beginning and is the perfect example of somebody who puts effort in to get what she's gotten."
Change in boats
After the 2018 season, Opitz moved to the four with the national team, a boat that requires the power of the eight but also involves finesse. It also is a much more competitive level because more nations can bring together four elite athletes.
Former UW rower Maddie Wanamaker also is in contention for an Olympic spot in the four. Sophia Vitas, who rowed for the Badgers from 2013 to 2016, competes in the quadruple sculls.
USRowing typically doesn't choose which athletes will sit in the boats for the Olympics until less than two months from the start. Opitz said she doesn't mind that because it keeps those under consideration on their toes all season.
If she's chosen to take part, Opitz is planning on the Tokyo Games to be her transition to a life after rowing. She doesn't want to completely close the door on a return, but she has missed out on enough with family and friends over the last few years to start to look beyond the sport.
"It's sort of been all I've known for, gosh, the last almost 10 years," Opitz said. "So I would like to kind of see what else is out there."
The Olympics being delayed by a year in the best-case scenario of the pandemic has extended the timeline. When Bryans asked Opitz to craft a message to this year's team after the COVID-19 shutdown, the UW coach started thinking of the impact on the international stage.
If anyone deserved a better fate, Bryans said, it was Opitz.
"She's the last one that would ask for one," she said, "and the one that deserves it the most."