row2k Features
George Washington's Alexa Nealy
March 6, 2024
Erik Dresser,

Alexa Nealy (right) with teammate Ezi Emmineke at NCAAs in 2023

We continue our preview of the 2024 spring collegiate season with an interview with graduate senior George Washington rower Alexa Nealy. We chat with her on how she found the sport, overcoming injury, and more.

row2k - How did you get your start in rowing?

Alexa Nealy - I started rowing during winter training of February 2017 as a junior in high school in Indianapolis, IN. I was a basketball player for many years, but I felt like I was stuck in a rut and was nearing the end of my career as an athlete as college quickly approached. I had a friend in school who was a talented rower for the only club we knew of in Indiana at the time, Indianapolis Rowing Center (IRC), and suggested that I start going to practice. Seeing how hard they worked inspired me. I realized that rowing is a sport in which determination and commitment, even in a relatively short period of time, can go a long way. There is opportunity for anyone anywhere. I started seeing rapid personal growth in the sport and as an athlete, and became passionate about rowing almost as soon as I started.

row2k - How did you decide to attend GW?

Alexa Nealy - My friend who introduced me to the sport was recruited to row for a D1 collegiate team and suggested that I reach out to college coaches to see if I could do the same. IRC’s varsity girl’s and head coach at the time, Emanuel Pagán, had an invaluable impact on this process and really encouraged me throughout. He is still a valuable mentor to me. GW was one of the first schools that I reached out to, the first to respond and to offer me an official visit, and just as quickly a spot on the team. I loved the Potomac, the team, the coaches, and the city of Washington. D.C. was an absolute dream for a midwestern girl. I feel so lucky to have lived in this city for six years now. It’s a home away from home and it’s where I’ve met my life-long friends.

row2k - You had some previous health issues, what is the story there?

Alexa Nealy - Like many other rowers, unfortunately, I started feeling pain in my right hip with activity. I was diagnosed with a labral tear in my hip at 19, as is common with female rowers, but also an undiscovered congenital (from birth) condition called femoral retroversion, which was a slight displacement of my femur (the largest bone in the body, the “upper leg” bone) in the socket. In other words, it was slightly naturally twisted in the wrong direction, causing it to track incorrectly against my hip and little by little to tear my labrum with the repetitive motion in rowing. They could easily repair the tear, but without additional surgery to the bone, I could expect the tear to keep coming back.

I was told that if I wanted to keep rowing (or run around with my kids later in life, for that matter), I should get the surgery then, as a young and easily recovered person. I received what is called a de-rotational femoral osteotomy in March 2021, during which they cut through my femur with a bone saw, twisted the top portion to its proper placement (done to keep the bottom portion of the femur which is attached to my knee in its proper place), and finally secured everything with a rod through the middle of the bone pieces and pins on either end to keep everything in place.

row2k - What was the recovery to rowing like?

Alexa Nealy - I think as rowers we like to believe that, having survived the pain of many 2k erg tests, we are prepared for almost any type of physical pain. At least for me, this was terribly untrue. I was utterly shocked by the pain. I relied on my brother to carry me to the bathroom for days, maybe weeks, post-op. Even now, it brings tears to my eyes to think and write about how much he and my parents (and friends and teammates and coaches) helped care for me at that time. I am beyond grateful for their patience and generosity.

I was told initially that I should be able to comfortably walk again in six weeks and start slowly getting back into training for rowing at around 12 weeks post-op. When sixteen weeks passed and I was still unable to move from room to room without holding on to the walls and countertops, I was certain that something was terribly wrong. I consulted my doctors from home and discovered that two mistakes were made during my surgery. First, they had used only one screw to secure the bottom portion of my bone to the rod in its center. It broke at some point during my recovery. (Standard in this surgery is often two screws, according to subsequent opinions). This meant there was nothing keeping the two pieces of my bone together and from sliding up and down the rod, fully separate, as I moved. The bone hadn’t yet fused in that amount of time.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, they made a large incision two inches from where it should have gone in my hip. In doing so, they damaged and nearly severed a nerve in my glute that is essential for walking. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t fire that muscle because the nerve was barely responding, if at all.

I was told that there was a small yet real chance that I would forever have a limp the way I did then. It is difficult to describe what that was like. The best I can do is to explain that I had to hoist up one side of my body to get enough momentum to get that leg off of the ground, then step very quickly off of the other to avoid balancing on my bad leg for more than a moment. A well-meaning stranger in D.C. once rushed over to me and asked if I was okay when they saw the way I was walking. Needless to say that this was a terribly emotional and mentally challenging time. I started feeling like a life where I couldn’t move as I always had wasn’t worth living.

Months of physical therapy and several professional opinions later, it was decided that I needed to have the surgery re-done to replace the rod and broken screws. There was nothing they could do about the nerve. I had to just hope and work to try to get it to regain function.

Ultimately, it was rowing that I believe saved me. I actually started erging before I could walk without crutches. I used to come to practice and walk up to my erg with crutches and put them down to sit down and row. Believe it or not, the nerve isn’t one that you need to push off of the foot plate while sitting. The sport gave me passion and determination. Just when I thought I had lost my zest for life, rowing gave me something to push for and actually helped me regain strength and range of motion along the way.

I came back faster and fitter and more focused than when I originally became injured. My senior year, I sat stroke seat of the 2v which earned a first-time win at our conference championship.

Nealy (2nd from right) at A-10s
Nealy (2nd from right) at A-10s

row2k - Your team won their first conference title last year, describe that experience.

Alexa Nealy - Yes! Last year, as a graduate student in my fifth year rowing for GW, I sat six seat of the first varsity 8 that helped earn the program title. It was thrilling and amazing, but I believe it was also well-deserved. Every member of the team that raced that day did so bravely, but the work was built over months and years of preparation and building cohesive culture. Head Coach Marci Robles worked tirelessly to get us to that point and deserved that win in her last year. We raced that day for each other and to honor all of that work from all sides of the program.

row2k - How has this season gone and what are your goals for this spring?

Alexa Nealy - In my opinion, with the perspective of the last six years of GW Women’s rowing, this has been an incredible year for us already. A new coaching staff has meant some changes, but with that same hunger and spirit that has been building for years. Each coach, coming to the team with invaluable individual perspectives, has been welcomed with open arms. We’ve been quite pleased with some fall performances, but we are even more excited to showcase in the spring what more we can learn and gain from months of training together and building cohesion. We’ve returned to D.C. this semester following a week-long training trip to Austin, TX where we enjoyed a solid week of good vibes and rowing in a new and warmer place.

We are also obviously working hard to try and win the A-10 Conference Championship again this year. The competitive spirit and hard work required to repeat a conference win against worthy competition is not lost on us. We understand the pressure of defending a title, and we’re taking it seriously. We’re working for another opportunity to show what we can do on the national stage.

row2k - What are you studying at GW and do you have any plans for after graduation?

Alexa Nealy - I will graduate this May from GW’s School of Business with a Masters in Interdisciplinary Business with certificates in Entrepreneurship and Global Management. I’m currently working remotely as a Consumer Insights Analyst for a national scholastic achievement firm called Herff Jones (they supply caps and gowns and class and championship rings and stuff like that to high schools and colleges, etc.), but I’m hoping and actively looking to move to New York City and work in-person in wealth management/client services in the financial sector. Still looking and open to any connections.

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