Olympic rowing champ’s mom helped pave way to coronavirus vaccine

Susan Francia
Courtesy Susan Francia

Years ago, Katalin Karikó shared a life goal with her young daughter, Susan Francia.

Karikó, who for decades has studied mRNA, hoped the research would ultimately lead to somebody being treated for therapeutic use.

“If it could help at least one person,” Francia said, “she felt that her work was done.”

Now, 35 years after Karikó was fired from a Hungarian biological research center and, with her family, came to the U.S. with about $1,200 sewed in 2-year-old Susan’s teddy bear, she is lauded for helping lay the groundwork for a coronavirus vaccine.

She’s on CNN. In the Wall Street Journal. In British newspapers suggesting she should be a Nobel Prize candidate.

Francia, a 2008 and 2012 U.S. Olympic rowing champion as part of the women’s eight dynasty, now concedes that her mom is the most famous person in her family.

“I thought my two gold medals were carrying us, but, nope, mom has definitely surpassed me,” she joked by phone this week. “Athletics is a great way to test yourself and be part of a team and be part of something greater and represent your country, but this is just so incredible that she has this chance to save lives and have such a big impact.

“I don’t think that she ever thought her work would have such impact.”

Francia, now 38 and six years into competitive rowing retirement, said she was inspired as a kid by her mom’s perseverance. It began with the family’s move from Hungary to Pennsylvania and included numerous grant and funding rejections.

“She was just so adamant that this technology could work and it would work and it could help save lives,” Francia said. “If I was bratty at all, she would remind me, we came to this country with basically $1,000. And so I’ve always kind of lived my life like, OK, my parents made this really big sacrifice, and I need to make sure that I live up to that.”

That manifested athletically when the 6-foot, 2-inch Francia was a sophomore at Penn. She was choosing between trying out for track and field or rowing. The first track practice called for a five-mile run. She balked and grabbed an oar.

Four years later, Francia was in the U.S. eight at the 2005 World Championships. The next year, Francia and her teammates began a streak of 11 straight Olympic or world titles — dominance that superseded the U.S. men’s and women’s basketball teams. Francia earned Olympic golds in 2008 and 2012 and was featured in an emotional profile of the U.S. women’s eight in Bud Greenspan‘s 2008 Olympic film.

Then came the 2014 World Championships and a difficult conversation with longtime U.S. head coach Tom Terhaar.

“I can’t continue on,” Francia told him. “My goal was still Rio, but, unfortunately, my body was done.

“I had been on the U.S. team for 10 years, and I loved every single minute of it, the ups and the downs. … I couldn’t keep up with the training with the team, and I really loved the team, and I loved the training — I loved all of it, even though it was hard, hard as hell. But, yeah, it was constantly like the ribs [stress fracture], my lower back [herniated disc], this aching, that hurting. So it was time to see the youth carry on that fighting spirit.”

Francia settled in California and, last year, joined the Stanford rowing program as a volunteer women’s lightweight assistant coach under head coach and fellow U.S. Olympian Kate Bertko. Francia planned to stay on through 2020, then reassess, but then the lightweight program was among 11 sports set to be cut after this season, the university announced in July.

“It was pretty shocking and very disappointing, obviously,” Francia said, “especially to those athletes.”

Meanwhile, Francia read a newspaper article that BioNTech was working on a coronavirus vaccine. Karikó is a senior vice president at BioNTech. Francia asked her mom if she was involved.

“She was like, yeah, yeah, our research group is working on this,” Francia said. “She didn’t really allude to too much more.”

In October, Francia married Ryan Amos in Virginia. Her parents gave a welcome speech. Her dad joked that her mom would be more than happy if anybody had questions about the vaccine. Everyone laughed.

The media spotlight really started shining in the last month.

“A couple times, she would tell me, you should watch the news tonight or you should look online tonight at the company results or things like that,” said Francia, whose full-time job is in biotech. “And so, every time, I’d be like oh my gosh.”

Two of Francia’s old rowing teammates recently unretired for Tokyo Olympic runs — Meghan Musnicki, who is three months younger, and Caryn Davies, who is seven months older. Francia also got in a boat with younger national teamers — when a rower was injured while training in San Diego a year ago.

“I was pulling my ass off,” she said. “I pulled so hard, and I think the other athletes were just out for a light row, so it was a good reality check.”

A comeback was not in the cards.

“It wasn’t just the actual rowing part,” that made her career special, Francia said. “It was the team that we grew up with. So I will let the younger, healthier athletes have that spark.”

She’s cheering on the next generation that hopes to reclaim eight glory after recent world championships defeats. And applauding her mom, seeing parallels between the two worlds.

“In my mom’s science and her research, it wasn’t just her,” Francia said. “It was the people who have come before her and also her research teams and the lab. It’s the same way in rowing. I just always felt lifted up and inspired by my teammates, and they’re also the ones who helped me to get success.”

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Frances Tiafoe, Taylor Fritz exit French Open, leaving no U.S. men

Frances Tiafoe French Open

Frances Tiafoe kept coming oh so close to extending his French Open match against Alexander Zverev: 12 times Saturday night, the American was two points from forcing things to a fifth set.

Yet the 12th-seeded Tiafoe never got closer than that.

Instead, the 22nd-seeded Zverev finished out his 3-6, 7-6 (3), 6-1, 7-6 (5) victory after more than 3 1/2 hours in Court Philippe Chatrier to reach the fourth round. With Tiafoe’s exit, none of the 16 men from the United States who were in the bracket at the start of the tournament are still in the field.

“I mean, for the majority of the match, I felt like I was in control,” said Tiafoe, a 25-year-old from Maryland who fell to 1-7 against Zverev.

“It’s just tough,” he said about a half-hour after his loss ended, rubbing his face with his hand. “I should be playing the fifth right now.”

Two other American men lost earlier Saturday: No. 9 seed Taylor Fritz and unseeded Marcos Giron.

No. 23 Francisco Cerundolo of Argentina beat Fritz 3-6, 6-3, 6-4, 7-5, and Nicolas Jarry of Chile eliminated Giron 6-2, 6-3, 6-7 (7), 6-3.

There are three U.S women remaining: No. 6 Coco Gauff, Sloane Stephens and Bernarda Pera.

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Women | Men | Broadcast Schedule

It is the second year in a row that zero men from the United States will participate in the fourth round at Roland Garros. If nothing else, it stands as a symbolic step back for the group after what seemed to be a couple of breakthrough showings at the past two majors.

For Tiafoe, getting to the fourth round is never the goal.

“I want to win the trophy,” he said.

Remember: No American man has won any Grand Slam title since Andy Roddick at the 2003 U.S. Open. The French Open has been the least successful major in that stretch with no U.S. men reaching the quarterfinals since Andre Agassi in 2003.

But Tiafoe beat Rafael Nadal in the fourth round of the U.S. Open along the way to getting to the semifinals there last September, the first time in 16 years the host nation had a representative in the men’s final four at Flushing Meadows.

Then, at the Australian Open this January, Tommy Paul, Sebastian Korda and Ben Shelton became the first trio of Americans in the men’s quarterfinals in Melbourne since 2000. Paul made it a step beyond that, to the semifinals.

After that came this benchmark: 10 Americans were ranked in the ATP’s Top 50, something that last happened in June 1995.

On Saturday, after putting aside a whiffed over-the-shoulder volley — he leaned atop the net for a moment in disbelief — Tiafoe served for the fourth set at 5-3, but couldn’t seal the deal.

In that game, and the next, and later on, too, including at 5-all in the tiebreaker, he would come within two points of owning that set.

Each time, Zverev claimed the very next point. When Tiafoe sent a forehand wide to end it, Zverev let out two big yells. Then the two, who have been pals for about 15 years, met for a warm embrace at the net, and Zverev placed his hand atop Tiafoe’s head.

“He’s one of my best friends on tour,” said Zverev, a German who twice has reached the semifinals on the red clay of Paris, “but on the court, I’m trying to win.”

At the 2022 French Open, Zverev tore ligaments in his right ankle while playing Nadal in the semifinals and had to stop.

“It’s been definitely the hardest year of my life, that’s for sure,” Zverev said. “I love tennis more than anything in the world.”

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2023 French Open women’s singles draw, scores

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At the French Open, Iga Swiatek of Poland eyes a third title at Roland Garros and a fourth Grand Slam singles crown overall.

The tournament airs live on NBC Sports, Peacock and Tennis Channel through championship points in Paris.

Swiatek, the No. 1 seed from Poland, can join Serena Williams and Justine Henin as the lone women to win three or more French Opens since 2000.

Having turned 22 on Wednesday, she can become the youngest woman to win three French Opens since Monica Seles in 1992 and the youngest woman to win four Slams overall since Williams in 2002.

FRENCH OPEN: Broadcast Schedule | Men’s Draw

But Swiatek is not as dominant as in 2022, when she went 16-0 in the spring clay season during an overall 37-match win streak.

She retired from her last pre-French Open match with a right thigh injury and said it wasn’t serious. Before that, she lost the final of another clay-court tournament to Australian Open champion Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus.

Sabalenka, the No. 2 seed, is her top remaining challenger in Paris.

No. 3 Jessica Pegula, the highest-seeded American man or woman, was eliminated in the third round. No. 4 Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan, who has three wins over Swiatek this year, withdrew before her third-round match due to illness.

No. 6 Coco Gauff, runner-up to Swiatek last year, is the best hope to become the first American to win a Grand Slam singles title since Sofia Kenin at the 2020 Australian Open. The 11-major drought is the longest for U.S. women since Seles won the 1996 Australian Open.

MORE: All you need to know for 2023 French Open

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2023 French Open Women’s Singles Draw

French Open Women's Singles Draw French Open Women's Singles Draw French Open Women's Singles Draw French Open Women's Singles Draw