All that’s asked of Meghan Musnicki and her seven teammates is to propel a long, skinny, tippy boat faster than anyone else on the water that day.
All they have to do is sit backward and dip, then pull, eight long-handled oars through water, then feather each blade through the air in perfect synchronicity. Over and over, for about six minutes.
All a rower has to do, as “Boys in the Boat” author Daniel James Brown has said, is to match the formidable challenge of hitting a golf ball on the sweet spot — and have all eight people doing it at the same exact time.
Musnicki was part of the 2012 U.S. women’s eight team that won gold in the 2012 London Olympics. Now she’s trying again, one of 27 women living in dorms at the Olympic Taining Center in California getting ready to duke it out for spots to race in Rio in August.
“It’s what every 33-year-old’s doing,” said Musnicki of dorm living, 11 years after college.
The three-month pressure-cooker of a camp will culminate in a national selection regatta March 21-25 to rank rowers for different sized boats, followed by big boat camp to select the eight.
If the U.S. is to repeat and continue a dynasty of 10 consecutive world and Olympic titles (dating to 2006), including last year’s world championship, it will have to with many new faces.
Musnicki and Stanford alum Eleanor Logan are the only returning members from the 2012 Olympic eight crew. Neither are guaranteed a seat among the pool of young, hungry rowers who might lack once-every-four-years Olympic experience but are accomplished internationally.
They call Musnicki “Moose.”
“It’s not me. It’s my name,” said Musnicki, though she is nearly 6-feet and 170 pounds. “It’s a family name that goes back to my dad and my uncle … It really caught on in college and stuck with me ever since.”
She enjoys being the elder stateswoman in camp, because the younger women remind her of her.
Like propelling a delicate boat through water, Musnicki’s leadership role is a balancing act, said coxswain Katelin Snyder, 28. Snyder says she and Moose share a friendship forged in failure — Snyder coxed the U.S. team to the 2009 world championship in veteran Mary Whipple’s absence, mounting a respectable challenge to win the seat for the 2012 Games. She was crushed when Whipple won it back.
Now the presumptive cox for 2016 (Whipple retired after London), natural leader Snyder appreciates Musnicki’s delicate management of team chemistry.
“In this environment the team is so cutthroat and competitive,” said Snyder. “But at the same time … the team has to be fast in order to be successful. (Moose) does a really good job of making sure she brings her teammates with her when she is working hard.”
None of them have traveled Musnicki’s path. She was cut three times before making the senior national team prior to helping the eight win the 2010 world championship. On a crew with nearly all Ivy Leaguers or alums from rowing powerhouses like Washington and Notre Dame, Musnicki was a late bloomer who rowed for NCAA Division III Ithaca College.
Musnicki went to St. Lawrence University to play basketball, picked up rowing instead and transferred to Ithaca to be close to family in Naples, N.Y., after her dad died her freshman year. She took some time off from her studies but, true to form, made up the work to graduate on time.
Besides basketball, she played soccer growing up. Her family was active and athletic. Her dad, Bill, was an avid sailor and Type A personality, said Musnicki’s mom, Gail. High adrenaline activities are the lifeblood of her older sister, Jaime, current executive director of the American Avalanche Association and senior instructor at the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS).
Though she was an athlete, Musnicki’s beginning rowing days in college were like “trying to write with your left hand if you’re right-handed,” she said. “My body didn’t know what it was supposed to be doing.”
But a doggedness that would define her life had been forged early. Musnicki had to work harder than most on schoolwork because of an attention-deficit problem. Low self-esteem resulted in an eating disorder that surfaced at 14. Two years later, she determinedly worked her way back to better physical and mental health, said her mom.
Fast-forward a decade when Musnicki was told she had one last chance to make the national team. Musnicki trained harder than she ever had. Fourth time was the charm.
“It actually lit a fire under her the likes of which I had never seen,” said Gail.
On the water, history and leadership doesn’t assure you an Olympic berth. The U.S. squad is a deep team in a quest for finding the perfect swing.
“Man, these are fast girls,” Musnicki said by phone from California. “They help keep you honest. There’s no room to slack. That’s one of the great things being on the women’s team.”
But persistence, Musnicki found, can take you places you dream of.
“I didn’t take the most direct path, that’s for sure,” said Musnicki, who will likely retire after Rio. “There’s so much more that goes into it. My personality is such that it plays into my favor. I don’t give up, ever.”
What’s in the water?
Maybe not the coxswain in Rio. U.S. women’s eight cox Katelin Snyder’s not sure that if all goes well in Rio, she’d want to be thrown in the water. That’s tradition for the winning cox. But Rio’s foul water — 13 members of the U.S. junior worlds team fell ill with a stomach virus at the Olympic venue last year — may make winners think twice about a celebratory heave-ho.
“Maybe when the race is over, I won’t care at all,” Snyder said. “I’m not sure any cox is going to care about the water.”
Musnicki said the water is out of athletes’ hands.
“As an athlete who could potentially be down there, it’s worrisome,” she said, “because clean water’s a priority … But it’s nothing I can control. I have to put my trust in the national governing bodies.”
Speaking of health concerns in Rio …
Amid some scary recent findings on the Zika virus — namely, that officials believe deadly or damaging infections can occur even late in pregnancy, the U.S. Olympic Committee is forming a medical advisory group to protect U.S. athletes and staff.
“Obviously, it’s something we’re aware of,” Musnicki said. “You learn after many years of doing this, you can really only worry about things in (your) control.”
UConn’s Breanna Stewart, Olympian?
Breanna Stewart, squeezing in 2016 Olympic selection camp in the midst of her senior season, is continuing a tradition of Husky players destined for the Games.
If she makes it on 2016 — NBC Sports’ Nick Zaccardi says she’s got a good shot Stewart would be the youngest U.S. women’s hoops Olympian since 1988, the last year before pros were allowed.
Stewart, who in December became the only player in NCAA history with 300 blocks and 300 assists, is en route to her third-straight national collegiate player of the year honor. UConn is favored to win a fourth consecutive national title. No Husky has accomplished that multiple double.