In her own words, Francia explains how dedication to hard work as a way of life and seeing setbacks as an opportunity defined their two successes.
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There is a Hungarian song my mother used to sing to me when things got particularly difficult or overwhelming during the Olympic trials. The title in English roughly translates to “Diamond and Gold”. It’s about how gold shines so much brighter when you’re the one who goes down into the earth and mines it. If it’s handed to you, it’s just another thing – but if it’s something you fought for, it means a lot more.
She taught me that hard work is part of life, and if you take it, there will be a reward. I would be overwhelmed. This persistence is pretty much my family’s life in a nutshell – defying the odds, trying to keep moving forward, even when all kinds of challenges are thrown at you. I know what it is in sports, and my mom experienced it in science.
I was born in Hungary at a time when the country was still behind the Iron Curtain. When I was two, my mother lost her job at a university there. We moved to the United States so that she could continue her work in biochemistry at Temple University in Philadelphia. At the time, people living behind Eastern Bloc countries were not allowed to take more than $ 50 out of the country in order to discourage citizens from emigrating. My parents [Dr. Katalin Kariko and Bela Francia] had to sell their car on the black market for 900 pounds sterling (about $ 1,200). My mom unstitched the back of my teddy bear, carefully put the money inside, then stitched it up and gave it to me to hold on the day of our flight to the United States.
Now that I’m a parent, I think about what I would do if I had to go find my family and move to an entirely new place, especially with those kind of political restrictions for me. It makes me really proud of their courage to do it. We came with so little, and while the streets aren’t paved with gold here, you can have incredible success if you work hard.
When she commuted between our home in Philadelphia and the NIH in Washington, my mother sometimes slept in the lab under her desk. This is a testament to her dedication that she was really looking for answers about mRNA technology and how it works. People doubted her, she struggled to find grants, at one point she was demoted.
She was telling me about her failures, and I think she was frustrated with it, but that also didn’t take away what she saw as the potential of mRNA. Looking back, I think those setbacks actually helped her get there. It’s like when someone doubts you and tells you that you can’t do something, and you work even harder to prove they’re wrong.
This persistence became exactly what I relied on when I joined the US rowing team. All the natural advantages of being 6’2 ″ that I had in other teams were gone; it was a level playing field. There, everyone was also 6 feet tall. of these socks were very reminiscent of my mother’s socks and demotions.
Rowing was the first thing I was naturally good at, but if you don’t keep up that hard work you can get complacent. The training was hard every day, but the last 2 months before the selection of the Olympic team were the most exhausting. Finally, our coach sat me down, shook my hand and said, “Welcome to the 2008 US Olympic team.” I was so relieved; I think I fell back into the chair.
Before these Olympic Games, Romania was in the lead, they had [won at the three] Previous games. We had won the world championships before it so we knew it would be a good race.
It ended up being the culmination of all of that hard work that we put in so long. The Olympics are every four years for everyone, but for us, it’s every day. So many days, so many hours have passed in this moment, so it was amazing to finish it, and even more to have my parents there. They were crying, I was crying – we were all delighted and almost relieved.
Before the 2012 Olympics, I told my parents to go ahead and buy tickets for the Games. I knew I was going to do whatever it took to be in this boat. At that time, I had back pain and went to a chiropractor to help me fix it. When it came time to adjust, I got off the table and said, “Am I supposed to feel like this?
I had an MRI, and I could see it in the pictures across the room – it was a herniated disc. It was a constant throbbing pain that radiated through my legs and even made sitting or driving almost unbearable. I was a year away from the Olympics and couldn’t even lift a plate of food from the dinner table.
I almost covered my entire back with patches of heat and pain and endured the selection ordeal. I was going to do this damn race and I was going to do my best. My mom used to tell me to listen to my body, to make sure I was smart. She reminded me that I didn’t have to do this. But that’s when I saw her the most in me – there was no way to relax; we have to go and win.
The power I felt from all eight of us in that last London Games race was just unreal. At the thousand-meter mark, halfway through, I knew we were going for the gold. I told myself that no one would take it away from me now. Certainly not.
With this gold medal, I just felt this wave of relief that my body can rest now. We had done it again; we had proven that we were no longer the outsiders. I think my mom was really proud of all these values that I had learned from her to achieve this goal. I don’t know if she knew it then, but her turn was coming.
When she left Penn to join BioNTech in 2013, she had already invested years of research and it was time to put it into practice. I was delighted that she took the leap, as her goal has always been for one person to have a better quality of life through the science she has worked on all of her life.
When the pandemic hit, she and her company immediately changed course to work on a vaccine. She was eager to see the clinical data because she knew it would be really good. She had told me the day before to look at the news and read the press release. When I saw that it was 95% effective, I was amazed. This is not a number that you see very often in clinical trials for any type of vaccine. It was deep. My mother was in seventh heaven. I can’t even describe how happy she was that this technology she had been working on for so long, the job she truly believed in even when others turned away, was so successful.
My mom is very factual and didn’t celebrate with something big and crazy. No follies or fancy dinners or anything flashy. Instead, she ate a whole box of Goobers, the chocolate-coated peanuts, all alone at her desk.
Seeing my mom succeed with this vaccine meant the world to me. Much like my race for the gold medal, it is more than gratifying to see all these years of hard work and struggle pay off.
We have lived the American dream. We came here with very little and were given little opportunities. We had setbacks, but we took the opportunity to move forward and be the best we can be.
In rowing, most of the team is facing backwards, so you can’t see when the finish line is approaching. It was the same for my mother. She didn’t know when the end was going to come, so it required trust in the process that each pull, each step brought us closer to the things we wanted to accomplish. Looking back now, it really worked that way. We did it, mom.
Additional reports by Mike Farrell