She rowed, rowed, rowed her boat vigorously rather than gently down the stream, teaming with crewmates to win Olympic gold in London in 2012 and in Rio de Janeiro four years later. And she very well could add a third precious medal to her collection this week in Tokyo.
But what makes Meghan Musnicki’s odyssey all the more fascinating is the way it began. Or, rather, the way it almost didn’t. She wouldn’t be rowing for the gold if a coach hadn’t talked her into stroking oars rather than jump shots during a chance meeting two decades ago.
This unexpected, life-altering event occurred shortly after Musnicki showed up at St. Lawrence University in the North Country for her freshman year. The Naples resident had been an outstanding basketball player at Canandaigua Academy, and wanted to continue playing hoops in college. So, after unloading her belongings into her campus dorm room, she headed to the athletic center in hopes of convincing the women’s basketball coach to let her to try out for the team. Luckily for Musnicki, Saints crew coach Nick Hughes got to her first.
Her recruiting story is not unusual because crew coaches are always on the look-out for tall, athletic students walking around campus. As unsophisticated as that may sound, that’s how they do some of their best recruiting. And when Hughes laid eyes on the nearly six-foot-tall Musnicki, he had to be thinking, “Now, there’s a rower.”
“He sees me, and he says, ‘Hey, why don’t you try rowing, instead of basketball?’” she recalled the other day by phone from Tokyo. “And, I’m like, ‘But I don’t even know what rowing is.’ I hadn’t rowed in high school. He told me that didn’t matter. I could learn. I figured what the heck? It’s a team sport, and I love competing and being a part of a team, so why not?’’
It was love at first stroke.
And now at the advanced rowing age of 38, Musnicki and her crewmates are favored to take home more gold in the Women’s Eight finals this Friday, adding to an unprecedented streak of 11 consecutive world titles.
It’s funny how life turns out. What if her timing had been different? What if she hadn’t run into Hughes when she did? And what if she hadn’t decided to come out of retirement following her second gold medal?
Musnicki thought she had enough after Rio, but discovered otherwise. In January 2019, after a more than two-year hiatus, she climbed back into the boat, and wound up defying the odds by making the U.S. Olympic team once more.
“I came back because I didn’t feel like I was done,” she said. “I love the sport. I love competing. I love being a part of a team working toward a common goal. I consider it a privilege to be able to go another round.”
Not even the coronavirus-forced postponement, which pushed the Olympics back a year, could torpedo this final ride.
“It was disheartening when we received the news last year, but there was no way I was going to stop,” she said. “The only negative was that it pushed my wedding back a year and meant I would continue to be away from my fiancé (Skip Kielt) because he was based on the West Coast, and I would have to train with the national team on the East Coast. But Skip’s a rowing coach. He understood, and has been so supportive.”
Musnicki’s experience at these Olympics has been different from her first two. Safety concerns over COVID spikes in Tokyo prompted Japanese officials to make the difficult decision of banning fans. And Musnicki and her fellow rowers have taken extra precautions to lessen their chances of contracting COVID, especially after one of their crewmates, Olivia Coffey, suffered a mild case in April, forcing her to quarantine for two weeks before rejoining the team. Musnicki and Co. wear masks, follow strict sanitation procedures and undergo daily testing.
“We’re all acutely aware that COVID is very real and you don’t want to do anything that might jeopardize your health or the health of others and squander this opportunity,” she said. “So, these Games are different, in that you don’t have as much close contact with people that are outside your bubble.”
Though the circumstances may not be ideal, Musnicki said she and the other 10,000 athletes are just grateful to be there.
“Everybody is very happy because most of us were uncertain this was even going to happen,” she said. “The Japanese people have been wonderful hosts and what little I’ve seen of the city is beautiful. It’s been a different experience, for sure, but it’s still the Olympics.”
Since her first Games nine years ago, she’s evolved from new kid in the boat to elder stateswoman. She’s nearly 10 years older than most of her fellow rowers, and that age gap occasionally leads to some good-natured razzing.
“They’ll call me Mom or Grandma, but it’s all in fun,” Musnicki said, chuckling. “We have a good time with it. Several of them are competing in the Olympics for the first time, so I’ve tried to mentor them, just as I was mentored in earlier Games. I know how anxious you can become when you’ve never been through this before.”
Although the races call for her and her mates to row in a straight line, Musnicki’s journey can best be described as circuitous. Her father, Bill Musnicki, died unexpectedly during her freshman year, prompting Meghan to transfer to Ithaca College so she could be closer to her family. And despite her rowing success on the Division III level, Musnicki’s perseverance was severely tested while trying to make the national team. She was cut three times, but didn’t give up. And those experiences caused her to develop and embrace a philosophy of “failing forward,” which she has talked about often in her motivational speeches.
“We treat failure as this awful thing, when, in reality, it’s just a part of life that can teach us things about ourselves,” she explained. “If you come out of your stumbles with one thing that you’ve learned, it’s not a failure; it’s a lesson. And you can take that lesson and use it when you try again. Everybody fails at something, but if you learn from it, you’re better equipped to move forward.”
She continues to move forward with the help of family, friends and total strangers. Compared to high-profile sports such as swimming, soccer, gymnastics and track and field, rowing doesn’t receive a lot of endorsement and sponsorship money. That’s why Musnicki is so grateful for the grants she’s received from the Greater Rochester Amateur Athletic Federation.
“GRAAF has reduced some of my financial concerns, allowing me to focus on what is most important — my training,” she said. “I’m super grateful for the support I have received from GRAAF over my career.”
She’s also grateful for the support she’s received from her close-knit family, particularly her mom, Gail. And she thinks often of her late dad, who got to see her compete in rowing just once, when she was a freshman at St. Lawrence.
“My dad was the hardest worker I knew, and I like to think some of that work ethic has been passed down to me,” she said. “Every time I’m lining up to race or do any sort of hard practice, my dad pops into my head. . . . I like to think he’s smiling down on me and proud — not only of what I have accomplished, but of how hard I have worked to put myself in a place where I have the opportunity to accomplish those things.”
Musnicki is laser-focused on giving him another reason to smile. And, when all is said and done, she’ll think of him and of that moment two decades ago when she climbed into the boat for the first time.
Switching from basketball to rowing proved to be a stroke of genius.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.