May 20, 2015
Life in the bubble of a US Olympic champion
Meet Meghan Musnicki. Just turned 32, standing at 182cm (a sliver under six foot) she fits smoothly into the world of international rowing without being unusual. She has no shadowy back-story. She is an Olympic and world champion, but in a team where champions are every way you turn: the US women’s sweep squad. They have now won nine world or Olympic eights titles on the trot, a staggering achievement, and Musnicki has rowed in the last five of those.
What makes Musnicki, her name shortened to ‘Moose’ by her team-mates, fascinating is her very normality. Nothing’s come particularly hard to her, but it hasn’t been easy either. A walk-on (new recruit) to rowing when she reached college at the age of 18, she’s steadily pushed her way up to the top of the sport, learning her craft until she’s become an expert, but taking several years to break into the big time. It’s a story many oarswomen would find familiar. Ò
Now she lives in the bubble that is international squad-based rowing, and is focused only on one goal: making it into the team for the Rio Olympics. It’s a world away from the work-family-sport balance of club rowers, and it reminds us how much those who compete for their countries have to give up.
When I speak to Meghan she is in the middle of a lengthy training camp for the whole team, at the US training centre at Chula Vista, south of San Diego. “Three months all at one go – we left after New Year’s,” she says. “It is a long time, but it’s beautiful out here. The East Coast is getting hammered for snow and cold weather, and out here it’s sunny and 75 degrees almost every day.”
College dorm living
It’s a weird life for someone who could be mid-career as a professional woman. “It’s a bit like college dorm living,” says Musnicki. “We live in suite-style rooms with two beds and a common room. People who’ve been on the team a while bring things from home like our own pillows or blankets, whatever makes the training centre most comfortable for you.” They switch dorm-mates every few weeks, and have benefited this year from the camp including openweight and lightweight men as well as the women, to give them a variety of faces around. “Normally in Princeton [the USRowing headquarters] we train with the men, but their schedules are different, so it’s nice to have a sense of community here now.”
How does she keep up her social life with non-rowers while away for three months? “Social life with non-rowers? Is that a thing?!” Having trained with the team since just after Beijing, she admits most of her social life is with the team, but is able to Skype her family while away.
With an active outdoor mum and dad and sporty sister, it was a given that Musnicki would end up competing in school. She took to basketball and soccer first and played year-round, but didn’t get a scholarship to college for either so was open to the idea of trying a different sport. Since the rowing coach’s office was on the way to the basketball coach’s, and Musnicki was taller than average, it was perhaps natural that she would be persuaded to give rowing a go.
“Rowing just kind of stuck with me”, she says. “I liked the intensity of training and the camaraderie amongst the team. I liked the long training and being very close to each other. Having our boathouse about 30-40 minutes away from college and piling into the bus about 4:15-4:30am each morning, breaking the ice to row, was kind of a badge of honour.” A lot of her attraction to the sport is the intimacy of those who train together for longer periods than in many sports, and race in unison. “You’re so close, never more than a couple of feet from each other.”
Going the distance
The biggest sadness of her university years came in 2003, when her father died suddenly from a heart attack. “I think he’d only seen me row once, but that’s it,” she muses. “It’s sad and also a little interesting that he’s been gone so long that I’ve gone from not rowing at all to training with the US women’s rowing team. He’d have come to all my races and would have been cheering loudly – you definitely would have heard him.”
It prompted Musnicki to move college to Ithaca so she could be closer to her family, but rowing was a strong thread which kept her going. After graduating with a degree in psychology in 2005, she started gaining nursing qualifications, twice being invited to summer national team development camps, and moving to Boston to row at Riverside, while she started training as a nurse.
She’d been accepted to university for nursing in 2008, but at almost the same time was invited to row with the national squad. “Obviously I chose rowing,” she says, “but it wasn’t that hard of a decision. Being an athlete is something you can only do for a finite period in your life, but I could always go back to school to become a nurse.” It took nearly two years for that invitation to convert into a place on the team, with Musnicki having to watch her training partners go off to race in 2009 without her, but that just fired up her determination to improve. In 2010 she was finally selected and became world champion, the start of a long run of success.
After the London Olympics, in 2013 Musnicki decided to actively try for the women’s pair’s spot, winning the final selection regatta with newcomer Taylor Goetzinger. They qualified to row at Lucerne in their first international race as a pair, and won bronze a few seconds behind the Kiwi and British duos, earning a ticket to South Korea. But when it came to the worlds Romania slipped into the mix, demoting the US to fourth. Musnicki won a gold that year anyway, drafted back into the eight from the heats onwards when an oarswoman was injured.
“I got to know Taylor really well that year,” says Musnicki. “You just kind of learn what works with your pair partner and what doesn’t.” After three years in the eight, she “just wanted to try something new. The pair is totally different and I wanted to challenge myself, see how it went. Obviously I would have liked to have won a medal, and it sounds very cliché, but I learned a lot that year. It’s very different than sitting in the five or six seat of the women’s eight. I thought it was super-beneficial: I don’t have a ton of pairs experience, and it was fun to race against the girls from other countries who are so talented in the boat.”
Other American pairs were faster than Musnicki’s in 2014, so last season it was back to the eight. “You have to earn that spot — even if you’ve earned it once you aren’t going to be given it the next year,” she says. “I think that’s part of what makes the [US] women successful: it doesn’t allow for complacency at all.”
It was, of course, another winning season, but there’s a perceptible hint of resignation when she says, “It was great – I won a world championship gold. How much better could it have been?” Could the victories perhaps have started to feel run-of-the-mill?
Musnicki has as good a perspective as anyone on what makes the US women’s eight tick, but isn’t spilling. “There’s really no secret, I’m just lucky to be able to train with such a solid deep group of women. We push each other day in, day out all year.” One advantage is their strong eights racing background from school, college, or on the junior or under-23 teams, which stands them in good stead when they only get a couple of international races each year. And another, the hugely successful coach, Tom Terhaar, who presided over the longest winning streak in international rowing, when his eights did not lose a single race between 2006 and 2013, and who fosters a battling spirit amongst the women.
“We compete against each other, but at the same time we all support each other, because we have the same goal. There’s no room to slack off, since there’s always someone waiting.” There is relaxation between training sessions though, and Musnicki explains that she’s become more expert at “being on when it’s time to be on, and knowing when to have down-time. And then coming back the next day where you left off.”
The US camp athletes (those who train year-round at the national centres) are funded for their training, camps and trips away thanks to USRowing and generous fund-raising by the National Rowing Foundation. But there isn’t much to live on. “The day–to–day expenses are challenging,” says Musnicki. “For most of the women having a job isn’t feasible for us, given the intensity of training and competition inside the team. So you do rely on the support from friends and family. It’s an ongoing battle.”
“But it doesn’t affect how I live my day. Yes it would be easier if I didn’t have to worry about having enough money to make rent and buy my groceries, but I don’t think if I had more money, it would make me train harder or less hard.” She suggests the US attitude is one of intrinsic motivation – self-driven not by external factors – but ponders briefly whether more funding might help senior athletes stay around the team longer.
This May will see Musnicki delivering the commencement address at Ithaca, an honour confirming how proud her old college is of her. Does she remember her own graduation? “Yes, I do remember, it was [actor and political commentator] Ben Stein,” she says, “and he was actually pretty funny. It’s definitely the end of a chapter when you graduate, all these things you intend to do and you are going to experience, the spark it brings to people. I’m excited to go back, but I haven’t worked on what I’m going to say yet.”
Peaking for Rio
She feels she is still heading towards her athletic peak. “I’ve got 17 months to find out if I’m going to make the Olympic team, so I’d better not stop,” she says. Having become one of the older members of the team, she notices it takes her longer to recover than it did when she was young. “You know more about how your body functions for the best. Nutrition and rest play a huge role – that’s a very obvious answer, but if I eat something that is not great for me, it’s almost as if my blood feels thicker.”
“I’ve always been a relatively healthy eater but I do love chocolate – I’ll never stop eating chocolate. I don’t eat a lot of dry food or processed carbs. I eat a relatively high-fat diet: nuts, oils, avocados, nothing too out of the ordinary. I can’t pass judgement on what everyone else eats: it’s whatever works for your own body.”
And what will come after Rio? Perhaps retirement – although Musnicki says she hasn’t yet decided. Nursing has now taken a back seat in her ambitions, which have turned more towards the health and fitness industry when she does leave rowing.
Her family, she says, take her athletic career in their stride. “It’s just something I’m doing. It does define my personality a little – not everybody trains for the Olympics – and they’re all very proud of me and supportive, but to them it’s not really a big deal. It’s totally normal. I couldn’t have made it through the last quad [Olympic quadrennial] without them, and I won’t make it through this one without them.”
This year a seat at the worlds will place her back in Aiguebelette, which in 2014 was the scene of one of her most memorable finals. “Not because it was a particularly great race, but because it was one of the times when I could feel the shift in energy of the boat,” she says.
That’s eights racing for you.