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Olympic rower motivates Mae Hensley students
Former Olympic rowing champion Ali Cox prepares to let Mae Hensley students Siri Gudino, Robert Mahon, John Moreno, Jonathan Marshall and Tyler Ely-Atterbury hold her medals. Cox spoke to the students Thursday afternoon and urged students to set big goals and aim for them. - photo by JEFF BENZIGER/Courier photo

Alison "Ali" Cox, a Turlock native who participated in several Olympic women's rowing events, dropped by Mae Hensley Junior High School last Thursday to motivate students to do their best. She urged them to set lofty goals and work hard to achieve them.

Ali, 36, came armed with a silver medal she won in the 2004 Olympics and golds in the 2000 and 2002 World Championships.

In 1997, Ali graduated from Turlock High where she was accomplished in sports, and went on to study at U.C. San Diego where she got interested in rowing as a sophomore. One day a rowing coach approached her on campus after noticing the athletic tone of the 6-foot-tall woman, and invited her to try out. She agreed to try and "liked it, I didn't love it." She said she wasn't wild about getting up at 5 a.m. on a regular basis to train.

An Olympic rowing coach saw Cox's score on the rowing machine and was impressed. He invited her to train for two weeks. By her junior year in 2000, she made the first U.S. national team. For a month she practiced daily, waking up at 5 a.m. to row, and also working out at lunch and afternoon. She had a goal of becoming a member of a four-woman team to compete in Copenhagen. She qualified and competed.

"It was the first time I ever heard the U.S. National Anthem played in my honor for winning a race, which is an unbelievable feeling," Cox told the Ceres students.

The former athlete called up five students to wear her medals. Ali handed Siri Gudino a 2000 gold medal won in Denmark.

She explained the next gold medal before handing it to Robert Mahon. It was earned on the senior national team in Seville, Spain.

After winning for two years, the team went to Milan, Italy for the World Championships in 2003. Ali committed "a massive, massive mistake." She placed her oar in sideways, which caught the water and "stopped the entire boat." The team recovered to place fifth, to qualify for the Olympics.

"It was like the most gut-wrenching awful experience but at the same time probably one of the most rewarding experiences because I really learned that you really can't be a hotshot."

The team practiced like never before. The team won their heat and set a world record by beating Romania. The 2004 Summer Olympic silver medal was handed to John Moreno who wore it for the next few minutes.

Cox went into marketing while living in New York City but in 2008 and 2009, after a six-year hiatus, she decided to go for the gold, training with women about 10 to 12 years younger. After a year and a half of training, Cox made the women's four.

"That was a huge, huge accomplishment because I didn't know if I could do it anymore. I was super scared."

Jonathan Marshall wore a bronze model from her comeback race won during horrible weather conditions.

"Jonathan, wear this with pride because this was a really hard, really painful medal to win," said Cox.

The last medal went to Tyler Ely-Atterbury. It was won as a member of the women's eight in the Lucern, Switzerland World Cup.

Cox played a video of her Olympic race from Athens, narrating how she had to keep eyes forward, not look at competitors and "just pull as hard as you possibly can."

Cox tried to relate the physical exertion of the Olympic contest, asking students to think of a time they ran their hardest, "then have to do 200 push-ups and 200 sit-ups immediately and then times that about a hundred - that's how we felt." She said it required "mental toughness" and the belief that they could accomplish the race.

Watching the last minute of the race she commented that "if you could die, you would."

Her experience in athletics taught her that: "Sometimes you have to lead, sometimes you have to follow as long as you're following and you think this is morally and ethically correct, making sure that you do whatever is best for the team. Teamwork and a positive attitude and good goal setting is really what it takes."

Cox told the students that accomplishments sometimes require a person to give up fun things and hard work.

"I sacrificed going on vacations ... and I sacrificed a lot of fun to do that. But I'll tell you what, I had so much fun after the Olympics because I accomplished my goal and it's something I can always think about.

Today Cox is owner of Ali Cox & Company LLC, a marketing business that specializes in brand building with expertise in digital media, brand strategy, digital media and social media. She started the business in New York City, and worked alongside Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, Emanate Public Relations, IMG Worldwide and a tech startup. In May 2013, Cox relocated to Turlock to be closer to her family and focus on agricultural marketing, gaining clients such as Central Ag Products Inc., The California Dry Bean Advisory Board, and a rice company. Other clients of Ali Cox & Company include Turlock's Swenson Shear, Los Angeles-based, and several others.