ROCKPORT, Maine — Anna Goodale returned to her alma mater Wednesday, not only wearing an Olympic gold medal but also sharing a message for others who, like herself, may not have been the star athlete in high school.

“Stay open to new things, new experiences and new opportunities that might come your way,” said the 2001 Camden Hills Regional High School graduate during an afternoon assembly held in her honor. “Because you never know where they might lead.”

The 25-year-old Goodale — along with Elle Logan of Boothbay Harbor — was part of the U.S. team that won the women’s eight rowing event at the Summer Olympics in Beijing.

But her introduction to the sport didn’t come until after her high school days at Camden Hills, which included time on the school’s girls basketball and soccer teams.

“You probably didn’t see me playing a lot because I spent a lot of time on the bench,” said Goodale. “I loved sports, I loved playing and I loved being on teams and playing with friends, but I didn’t have the skill level.”

That changed when she arrived at Syracuse University. During her first day on campus, she was approached by a member of the women’s crew team who thought the 6-foot Goodale would be a natural in the sport.

“Sports were a huge part of my high school life, but I hadn’t planned to focus on athletics in college,” Goodale said. “But this was an opportunity and I decided to take hold of it. Before long the national team coaches were telling me about potentially being a national team member and representing my country.”

The rest of Goodale’s story is laden with gold.

After an All-American career at Syracuse and with a bachelor’s degree in illustration in hand, she became part of that national team in 2005 and went on to help the United States win gold medals at the 2006 and 2007 world championships.

“Each step along the way I set a goal,” Goodale said. “First, I set a goal of making the national team, and I got there. Then I set the next goal of wanting to be a world champion, and I became a world champion.”

“My next goal was that I wanted to be in the Olympics,” she said. “… When I was growing up, the Olympics were one of my favorite things to watch on TV. I admired the work and dedication it took to get to that point, and I held those athletes up on a pedestal.

“To think I might be one of those myself was a dream.”

The dream came true June 25, when she was named to the U.S. Olympic team.

“It was the hardest-working year of my life,” she said. “Not everything was rose-colored. I had incredible highs and incredible lows.”

The highest of highs was yet to come, as she was part of a U.S. women’s eight that won both its preliminary race and Olympic final by concentrating on advice shared with them by their national team coaches — “be there now.”

“You can only worry about what you can control, and all you really can control is this moment right here, right now,” Goodale said.

Goodale and her teammates went into the Olympics determined not only to focus on the moment but on each individual stroke, determination that enabled them to win the 2,000-meter final at the Shunyi Olympic Rowing-Canoeing Park in a time of 6 minutes, 5.34 seconds, two seconds ahead of the second-place Netherlands. Romania, the 2004 Olympic champion and with the United States the favorites in Beijing, settled for bronze.

“To put in all the hard work and time and to have that goal realized is out of this world,” said Goodale, who spent time after the Olympics traveling in Nepal before returning to her Maine roots this week.

And it’s an inspiration to many who have followed not only her career path but also her school path through the halls of Camden Hills.

“It’s so awesome, especially since we don’t have crew at our school and she went off to college and picked it up and won an Olympic gold medal,” said Katie Weiler, senior captain of the Windjammers’ field hockey team. “It’s amazing. It definitely shows that through hard work and if you love something enough what you can do.

“I’m sure we have a ton of kids who don’t play any sport or who do play sports but sit on the bench, and something like this can give them a huge boost knowing that if they go off to college, they can do anything they want and be good at it, even if they haven’t done it before.”

Ernie Clark is a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters...