Renee Hykel Cuddy went from Boathouse Row to the Beijing Olympics, thanks to some good old-fashioned Philly grit
Published in 2021 Pennsylvania Super Lawyers Magazine on May 20, 2021
Renee Hykel Cuddy has some advice for anyone attempting to complete law school while training for the Olympics: don’t.
“Not a good idea,” she says. “I don’t know why I came up with that plan.
“One of my professors pulled me aside and said, ‘You’re late to class every day. You’re a disaster. You’re not going to be a good lawyer.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I know, I’ll work on it.’ Although I wanted to get to class on time, juggling law school and training was very challenging. My attendance didn’t improve much, and the professor gave me death stares when I continued to arrive late. My plan was always, I’ll figure it out. I’ll become a good lawyer at some other time in my life.”
The Philadelphia attorney, who today heads up immigration-focused Hykel Law, was at one point one of the country’s top competitive rowers after her storied undergrad career at Saint Joseph’s University.
Between her junior and senior years at St. Joe’s, Hykel Cuddy began learning the art of sculling (the version in which rowers pull oars in each hand, as opposed to sweeping, in which they pull one oar apiece). Sculling demands precision and synchronicity, as every tiny hand movement can wobble the boat’s position. She fell in love with it and spent the subsequent months around Philly’s famous Boathouse Row on the east bank of the Schuylkill River. She took the summer of 2001 off but returned to the sport in early 2002. “I just got inhaled into the environment,” she says. “And then luckily I just had good progress with my times.”
By 2003, the same year she got accepted into law school, she earned a spot on the U.S. National Team. After years of intense training and competing, intermixed with grueling attempts at part-time law school, she finally earned a shot at the 2008 Olympics at a dramatic qualifying event in Poland just two months before the opening ceremonies, where she and lightweight doubles boatmate Jennifer Goldsack edged out the host Polish team to earn one of two slots to Beijing.
“The Olympics themselves were surreal, and it’s like a fog,” Hykel Cuddy says. She was disappointed she and her partner didn’t medal (they placed 10th), but she says there was no experience like living in the Olympic Village among the world’s best athletes. She says marching into closing ceremonies at the “Bird’s Nest,” Beijing National Stadium, was a personal highlight.
At Hykel Law, she’s cultivated a niche in immigration: coordinating fiancée, visitor and tourist visas, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals cases, same-sex immigration, asylum and employment-based cases.
“Obviously, I like being around international people,” she says. “Globetrotters are just generally pretty cool, and to pick up and move is a really courageous thing to do—whether you’re fleeing some horrible situation or if you’re pursuing an opportunity because you’re the best in the world or some version of that. I enjoy the people and I really enjoy the practice.”
The casework is tough, but she appreciates hard-fought victories for the underdogs; like landing green cards for an Indian couple whose initial applications were denied; or earning asylum approval for a gay man from Honduras escaping threats to his life.
“One of the benefits of a smaller practice is that I can really take a case that is going to need a lot of work and a lot of finesse and a lot of creativity,” she says. “And then I can dig my heels into that and have the persistence that I’ve gained from Philly athletics: Just grind it out to a win."