For one reason or another, her senior year as a rower for St. Joseph's didn't turn out as Renee Hykel had hoped.
She was captain and team MVP, but the success and camaraderie she had enjoyed her first three years had become elusive. So as graduation approached in the spring of 2001, Hykel decided to set aside the oars and apply for a position with the Peace Corps as an English teacher.
Leaving behind an athletic endeavor for a worldly pursuit isn't the traditional path to becoming an Olympian. But when Hykel's lightweight doubles scull crossed the finish line second, three seconds behind the Netherlands, in last month's Final Olympic Qualification Regatta in Poznan, Poland, she was, indeed, just that. An Olympian.
"It still seems surreal," said Hykel, 29, who attended Haverford High School and is a law student at Rutgers.
The other-worldly feeling isn't because Hykel and her sculling partner, Jennifer Goldsack, grabbed one of the top two spots necessary to get to Beijing next month. She knew they had a great chance to reach the Olympics, and she believes they have a legitimate shot at a gold medal.
"The crew that beat us was second at the World Cup, and they have a bronze medal from the Athens Olympics, so we're really competitive," Hykel said. "We didn't really go after them like we would if it was the last race at the Olympics. We were protecting second place. We definitely have a chance to win."
In so many ways, the chance Hykel will get in Beijing came by chance.
Her application to the Peace Corps was lost when the World Trade Center came crashing down on Sept. 11, 2001. A subsequent application got hung up at a post office because of the anthrax scare.
"It just kept dragging out," she said.
As time went by, Hykel felt the pull of the Schuylkill. "I just kind of got sucked back in," she said.
The previous summer, Hykel had learned to scull at the Undine Club. She was living in the city's Fairmount section, so she figured, why not get back into it?
"But I didn't anticipate I'd ever be trying out for the Olympics," she said.
Then again, Hykel never thought she'd ever pull an oar in the first place. She did not participate in a high school sport and regretted that when she enrolled at St. Joe's. The wife of a friend who had rowed told the tall, lithe, broad-shouldered Hykel that she should try rowing.
"It was pretty much the only sport you could join without previous experience," she said. "My first few workouts, I turned five shades of purple. It's when I realized I was not fit. I thought I'd be a benchrider. But I had a natural stroke, and I have the build for it."
By 2003, Hykel was competing on a national level. In 2006, she won the lightweight singles sculls in the Head of the Charles Regatta in Cambridge, Mass., and the lightweight doubles sculls in the National Selection Regatta.
"You could see that her passion for the sport might accelerate into something like this," St. Joseph's rowing coach Gerry Quinlan said. "Renee was always driven. And it's very unusual to get a rower who never played a high school sport."
Last year, Hykel was second in the lightweight singles sculls in the U.S. national team trials. She was favored to win, and she expected as much. But out of nowhere came Goldsack to edge her out. Goldsack had won the lightweight single in the 2007 Women's Henley Regatta after two years racing with the British national team. With an American mother, Goldsack, who lives in Trenton, has dual citizenship.
Meanwhile, Hykel's doubles scull was listing. A cracked rib hindered her in the doubles, and her relationship with her former rowing partner had become strained. She was looking for another rowing partner. It just so happened Goldsack was as well. They struck up a friendship, trained together here and in England, and won the U.S. Olympic trials to qualify for Poland.
"Jen and I have a great time rowing together," said Hykel, who trains on Carnegie Lake in Princeton. "We're just in a really good groove right now. We come down to practice really excited and really looking forward to training every day. It's kind of special. I've been training for six years, and you don't always have that. We just seem to have all the right components."
Just think, if Hykel's Peace Corps application had gone through . . . if a friend's wife hadn't encouraged her to row . . . if she hadn't cracked a rib . . . if Goldsack hadn't been cut by the British national team . . .
Those are a lot of ifs, which is why Hykel will be among the more unlikely Olympians in Beijing.