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Meghan Musnicki (stroke) and partner Susan Francia launching for Musnicki's first international race

Meghan Musnicki's Moving!
The Story of a Long Journey onto the U.S. National Rowing Team

     Meghan Musnicki's story is one of those classic American tales- the feisty dreamer who, after a long struggle, makes good (Musnicki would correct me here: after a long struggle, gets a good start on making good).  Anyway, I love those stories. 
     At 27, Musnicki recently returned home from Lucerne, Switzerland with a silver medal, a gold medal, and her first international race under her belt.  Prior to talking with her, the only thing I really knew about Meghan was that she was relatively new to the National Team group training in Princeton, New Jersey, and that she had one of the top erg scores on the team.  Her age (many first-time international rowers are in their early twenties) and recent accomplishments hinted at winding road to success I needed to know more about. 

     Musnicki embraces a good challenge.  Her rowing successes are the result of what can be described best as a series of "Uhhh Sure Moments" that started as a college freshman at Lawrenceville University.  She had been a serious high school basketball player, so naturally when Meghan arrived at school she headed straight to the basketball coach's office.  She never got there because the crew coach intercepted her in the hallway.  He took one look at her and decided she needed to join his team.  Meghan said, "Uhhh sure, but I'm going to try out for the basketball in the winter."   "Sure, but" turned into a strong commitment to a new sport she quite liked.  
     Meghan continued rowing at Lawrenceville through the first half of her sophomore year.  Her father's sudden death prompted her to transfer to Ithaca to be closer to her family.  "Rowing helped.  I really immersed myself in it and it helped me focus," she said.  Her "immersion" helped her new team as well: her first year there she made the V8 and the Bombers finished third at NCAAs, her second and third years there they were DIII NCAA champions.  

     Meghan's next Uhh Sure occurred post-NCAA-winning row her senior year. University of Virginia coach, Kevin Sauer approached Meghan and offered her a spot in his summer development camp. Meghan agreed and put off her plans to start studying for nursing school.  Musnicki reported enjoying the camp and added that she learned how to scull (with a laugh that suggested rather large quotation marks might surround "learned to scull"), but nothing really came of it.  Despite Kevin's urging to continue with rowing, Meghan stuck to her original plan of applying to an accelerated nurse practitioner program. She moved to North Hampton, Massachusetts and spent the next year taking pre-requisites classes and waiting tables.

     "Then I decided to train for C.R.A.S.H.-B.s on my kitchen floor." Meghan said.  "It was a pretty horrible place to train, but I had pulled a 7:11 in college and I really wanted to break 7:10."

      I couldn't help it, I started laughing.  First, I confirmed that there was in fact an erg located on her kitchen floor.  Then we mused about the fact that her current 6k PR split is a solid 3 seconds faster than that of her college 2k PR.  "I know, it's pretty funny now," Musnicki said. 

     Once again, Meghan's Uhh Sure attitude was shining through. She (totally voluntarily!) went to C.R.A.S.H.-B.s and pleased herself with a new PR of 7:09.  She was surprised when Laurel Korholz, one of the U.S. National Team coaches, approached her with an invitation to a selection camp for the 4- that would race at the World Championships; but, of course, Meghan said, "sure." 

     Musnicki's first 4- camp was an eye opener.  "I showed up and was surrounded by all these huge athletic women from Yale, and Cal, and Radcliffe, and...  I was wondering what I had gotten myself into.  We did 2x6k one day and people were crushing me on the erg. I remember thinking, 'I am such a fish out of water.'"  She also remembered helping Susan Francia and Caryn Davies (two rather tall, rather successful, future Olympic Champions) carry a boat one day.  "My shoulder didn't even touch the boat!  I had been the tallest one in college!" 

     Meghan got cut from the camp.  She left without getting close to making a boat, but gained a new enthusiasm for the sport and a strong motivation to train.  Then, once again, an Uhh Sure Moment: Meghan packed up her life and moved to Boston to train at Riverside.  "I was nervous about putting my life on hold when rowing is never a sure thing no matter how good you are."  Just in case, she continued with her classes.  She trained at Riverside for two years before once again getting invited to 4- camp for a chance to compete at the 2008 World Championships. She had just put in her deposit for nursing school, but she said yes to rowing and headed off to camp.  This time she was more fit (her 2k had dipped just under 7 minutes, still a far cry from her current fitness level) and was eager to see her training pay off.   

     This time Musnicki didn't get cut from camp.  Final selection for the 4- came down to trials- the final two camp boats would face off for one spot.  Musnicki's crew lost by .1 seconds.  She had improved greatly since her previous camp experience two years earlier, but said, "it was more than a little disappointing."  A long summer of training followed- she stayed on at the camp so the selected 4- could practice racing against another crew.  "I think I drove back and forth to Virginia three or four times that summer."  She started laughing, "I guess I can laugh about it now, but it was not how I wanted things to turn out."

     Another selection camp, another failure to get selected, but Musnicki was getting closer.  She spent 2009 training with the National Team in Princeton.  She said it was great to be invited and described her first year there as "a really good learning time."  Musnicki was 26 at the time and felt a lot older than the other first-years coming right out of U23s.  "There I was with all these young girls and Olympians." 

     Musnicki's "learning time" came and went without making a boat for the 2009 Worlds.  Watching her teammates pack up and leave for Poland marked a major turning point for her. She had trouble articulating the attitude shift that occurred then:

     "I just remember being so angry.  The competitiveness and stubbornness came out when I didn't make the team.  I made a conscious decision that I was going to do this..."  She trailed off trying to figure it out, "I guess it was a conscious refusal to lose.... No it wasn't quite that... there was more of a trust in my ability and I knew if I just got- if I just got myself... I can't describe it.  I was just really angry because I wanted to go, but I knew I didn't deserve to go- I didn't give myself or my coaches enough reasons to deserve to go." 

     While Meghan's teammates were off racing at Worlds, and while they were taking a well-deserved break upon returning home,  Meghan was doing A LOT of solo erging and running.  "I just didn't stop.  I said to myself, 'I'm here for a reason so I might as well keep going.'  I wanted to stop at numerous occasions but stopping doesn't get you any closer to the World Championships or London."
      The first day back this fall the National Team rowers who hadn't raced at Worlds took a 6k erg test.  Meghan pulled a 21:11, 30 seconds better than her previous test.  "I remember I was feeling great and part way through I wondered if the projected time was right... then I thought, 'wow, this training stuff really works.'"  A few weeks later she pulled a 21:08 at the Fall Speed Orders.  Her most recent PR is a 20:58.  Meghan Musnicki was taking a big move.
     And so, after several failed attempts, a newly fit, newly confident Meghan Musnicki faced the 2010 racing season.  She earned a spot to race in the World Cup in Bled, Slovenia. During a training row in Bled her pair partner cracked a rib.  The crew withdrew from the race.  SO CLOSE!  "I was upset, but I told myself I'm in a beautiful place and I can learn a lot from watching experienced rowers. It was like regular practice on the erg... but in Slovenia." 

Musnicki, better known by her teammates as "Moose,"overlooking Bled Castle in Slovenia

     Finally, earlier this month, at the World Cup Regatta in Lucerne, Switzerland, Meghan Musnicki raced down the course in a USA uni for the first time.  She won a silver medal in the 2- with partner Susan Francia (remember Susan?  The one Meghan "helped" carry a boat years ago during her first 4- camp?).  Then she turned around and won a gold medal in the 8 . 

     "I had complete confidence in Susan because she'd done it a bunch of times and was really good at it.  I knew I was going to be 'that girl rowing with Susan Francia.' People were going to wonder, 'who's that rando sitting in front of her.'  They had no reason to know me.  I didn't think about it that much.  I was just trying to be internal and execute what we came there to do."

     Meghan said her excitement about earning a medal in her first international race lasted about thirty minutes.  Soon she was thinking, "Damn, I wonder what we'd have to do to come in first." She added, "That's how I am.  I'm always a little dissatisfied." 

      Francia told row2k that the silver was a win for them, "It was a great race... I'm just so proud of Meghan, this is her very first international race and first international medal."  Meghan told me this meant quite a bit to her. 

     "Even though we're friends and we practice together all the time, she's still Susan Francia.  To race with her and perform well and know she's happy with me- it meant a lot for her to say that because I wanted to go out there and give her a reason to want to race with me."
     The success in the pair calmed Meghan down for the eight and left her hungry for a different color medal.  Musnicki sat 6-seat, and before the race she leaned over and whispered to Francia in 7-seat, "we need to go out and win this." Francia responded, "Yep, I know."

     After the first 500 the U.S. was about a length down on Great Britain and Canada.  They started pulling back in the middle of the race.  By the 1250 they had made their way past Great Britain and were starting to hunt down Canada.  By the last 500 they were still good five seats down, but they were moving.  The U.S. finished .2 seconds ahead of Canada. 

     "I wasn't convinced we had won," Musnicki said.  "It literally happened in the last 5 strokes.  I remember peeking out and thinking maybe we won because I saw not 6-seat of the other crew, but I wasn't sure.  Susan said, 'yeah we won.'  It was great."

     And so, Meghan Musnicki had finally completed her first races as an official member of the U.S. National Rowing Team (and had two medals to show for it).  "It's a really great start, but I didn't come all this way for winning and coming second in a World Cup.  This is just a step toward and end goal.  Now I need to put my head down and keep working because there's a long way to go."   
     Meghan's a great example that when you approach challenges with a Sure attitude and agree to put in the work, good things happen.  She told me, "You can give yourself all the reasons in the world that something shouldn't happen, but convincing yourself that it should and that you're able to do it is much more important."  She added, "The big difference between this year and last year is my goals are more concrete.  Last year I was kind of feeling things out.  Now I keep going because I have the end goal in mind."
     When I asked her what her advice was for aspiring rowers she said, "Don't put limits on yourself."

Lou Kinder - July 28, 2010