Even though Meghan Musnicki theoretically hung up her oars at the end of the Tokyo Games--her third Olympics--catching her at the start line of elite pairs race, as at this past weekend's Winter Speed Order, is starting to be as common now as it was when she was a full-time member of the US National Team.
Last year, after she turned up (and won) the pairs race at Henley, Musnicki told row2k that she much prefers the term "sabbatical" to the word "retired" when it comes to her current status as an international rower--and we keep getting a hearty laugh from the two-time Olympic Gold Medallist anytime we mention the word "comeback" or ask about her plan.
"I'm married. I live in California, I have a full time job. This wasn't 'in the plan' at all," she said about racing the Speed Order.
Plan or no--and regardless of whether you call it a comeback, sabbatical or just very active retirement--it turns out there is a pretty good story behind how Musnicki and Alie Rusher wound up in that pair this past weekend.
To start, Musnicki insists that it is really just as simple as the fact that she loves to race and to train. That love of racing got her into the Henley winning pair last summer with her friend and fellow Olympic Champ, Australia's Jess Morrison, while that love of training got her thinking about pulling a 6k this past winter.
"Around the beginning of December, I found out there was a December 6k that people had to do," Musnicki confessed, "and I thought, 'Well, sure, let me see if I can train for three to four weeks and see what kind of a 6k I can pull.' That was all I was thinking about; I was very compartmentalized."
Her 6k that month ranked fourth, so she started thinking about the next step, she said, which was the Winter Speed Order--but getting into a pair would prove tricky, with most of the current US Sweep women still based in Princeton, 3000 miles away.
"I'm not in a position in my life where I'm ready to, or even want to, uproot myself and move across the country and be away from my husband, my full time job, and my life, to go move to Princeton." The option, then, was to "hop in a single," she said, which was easy enough for her to do at California Rowing Club, where her husband Skip Kielt coaches.
"I would say it was probably after the New Year, when I jumped in the single two to three times a week out at CRC." At the time, her thought was, she said, "If I'm going to race the Speed Order to see potentially what happens, the only option I have is a single since there were no other female rowers out there.
"So I was in the single and it was fine, but I love the sport of rowing because I like pushing myself with at least one other person. I don't have a desire to be a single sculler. I want at least one other person in the boat with me."
Musnicki knew she could have found a pair partner at the Sarasota Camp that preceded the Speed Order, and told row2k, as we reported Monday, that Josy Verdonkschot, the US High Performance Director, was very supportive of her coming to camp together with the other sweep women.
She was just five days away from heading to Florida to try that approach, or at least do the Speed Order in the single, when she got a well-timed text from fellow Tokyo Olympian Alie Rusher.
"The Monday before the weekend I was scheduled to fly down to the camp, Alie Rusher texted me. She was curious what what I was up to because she was saying, 'I'm thinking I want to go back to sweep rowing.'"
Rusher had been sculling with the Cambridge Boat Club group and was already in Sarasota in her single, so she was reaching out from across the country when she texted. She had been thinking about switching back to sweep and talking that over with her parents who, as two-time Olympians themselves--in 1988 and 1992--had some pretty good advice.
"My dad reminded me that Meghan was training out of CRC and suggested that I give her a call," says Rusher. "I knew that rowing with her would be a best case scenario for me, so I sent a text casually asking what she was up to."
Musnicki remembers thinking, "This is interesting," and she talked with the CRC coaches, Mike Teti and her husband Kielt, a conversation that went like this:
"They said see if she'll fly out here, and I said, 'Mike, I leave in five days to go to this camp.' He says well, will she come out tomorrow?"
"All the credit to Alie," Musnicki laughs. "I text her at 8 or 9 pm that night, and ask, 'You want to come out here tomorrow?' She flew out 12 hours later, got on a 7am flight after talking to me at 9pm on Monday night."
"My first thought," Rusher remembers, "was 'How am I going to get to the airport?' It was pretty late on the east coast and I had been about to go to sleep, so I called my parents again for more brain power and they helped me book a flight out the next morning.
"I scheduled an Uber for 4am, threw a few unis in a bag, and texted my roommates not to worry when they woke up the next morning and found me gone."
The two knew each other but, as Musnicki put it, "it's not like we text regularly or anything"--in Tokyo, Rusher had raced in the Quad, making her senior team debut, while Musnicki was in the Eight. After Rusher's dash across the country, the pair had those four days of practice in Oakland before Musnicki's flight to Sarasota, then got back together early in the Sarasota Camp to prep for the Speed Order.
The Musnicki/Rusher pair turned out to be pretty competitive: third in the opening time trial and a close fourth in the final, the duo was in the top eight athletes all weekend. That puts both Musnicki and Rusher in a good spot, potentially, as the selection process unfolds, with fourteen sweep seats on the National Team between the pair, four, and eight, if there is no doubling, and another chance to race the pair at the National Selection Regatta at the end of April.
"It happened on such a short timeline," said Musnicki after the racing was over this weekend, "so to be in the mix with all of the women's pairs is great. I haven't been back in the boat for a while and it's just fun; I'm having fun.
"That's how I'm looking at it right now," said Musnicki. "Can I enjoy what I'm doing? I'm not 26 years old anymore, and the [National Team] landscape looks a little different, but it's actually credit to the new system that allows me to do it, to actually train out of CRC where, conveniently, my husband coaches, and to still do what I love."
In her first three Olympic cycles, Musnicki was very much a product of the centralized National Team Training Center model. The Princeton Training Center developed her, as a former walk-on rower from the smaller D3 college program at Ithaca College, into a multiple time World and Olympic Champion.
"I don't sell that short for what it was," she says of the former model she came up in. "I mean, basically that [system] gave me all of my success in rowing--110%--but at the age that I'm at now, having the opportunity to do it a different way, it's very exciting.
"I'm definitely very one step at a time right now. I'm going back to CRC and Alie is flying out. We'll get in the pair and take it one day at a time. See what happens, see what unfolds, see what opportunities present themselves."
In other words, the sabbatical continues.
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