PRINCETON, N.J. – After two-time Olympic gold medalist Meghan Musnicki finished atop the podium in the women’s eight at the 2016 Rio Olympics, she decided it was time to hang up the oars.
Time to get a job, earn some money and “exist in the real world” for a little while. After all, rowing for the United States had been her primary focus since she made her first national team in 2010. She shipped out to San Francisco, moved in with former teammate and women’s Olympic pair coach Kate Bertko and started her new chapter as a personal trainer.
Her retirement lasted two and a half years.
“I really missed the part of being part of a team,” Musnicki told USA TODAY. “I decided that I was gonna seriously consider coming back after one trip I went down to Chula Vista when the team was training (there) and I rode around in the launch with one of our coaches, Laurel (Korholz).
“I was just watching, and I turned and I looked at her and I was like, ‘I miss this so much.’”
Musnicki worked herself back into rowing shape and returned to international competition in 2019 with her sights set on Tokyo. Now, she will be the most veteran member of the U.S. women’s eight, which seeks its fourth straight Olympic title at the Tokyo Games. This time around, the eight is composed mostly of Olympic first-timers – Musnicki and coxswain Katelin Guregian are its only members who have been to the Games before.
But a lack of Olympic experience shouldn’t be confused with a lack of experience at the highest levels of the sport. First-time Olympian and two-time world champion Kristine O’Brien knows how it feels to have her resilience tested, so much so that she nearly quit rowing after failing to make the Rio squad. Dismayed, she left the national team, returned to her alma mater at the University of Virginia and became an assistant coach on the rowing team.
“A lot of what I experienced going back to UVA coaching was like where I fell ... I'm gonna get emotional,” O’Brien said. “Where I fell in love with rowing the most was when I was a rower, a student athlete at the University of Virginia.
“It just changed my perspective and helped me fall back in love with rowing again after the heartbreak of being cut.”
Gold is the only goal for the Americans
O’Brien rekindled that passion in Florida during a training trip in January 2017. While watching the athletes race on the same water she raced on as a student, O’Brien decided it was time to succumb to the desire that nagged her shortly after she left the national team. She began to put more time in on the ergometer, an indoor rowing machine, over the following months. That spring, she gave women’s eight head coach Tom Terhaar a call.
She decided she was ready to return to the Princeton, New Jersey, boathouse and rejoin the team.
“He said, ‘Great, come back,’” O’Brien said. “I was like, ‘I want to come back and win an Olympic gold medal. And I'm not coming back just to come back. I'm coming back to win an Olympic gold medal.’”
Gold is the goal for the women’s eight, which could hold the most consecutive Olympic gold medals in the history of the event with a victory. But O’Brien, Musnicki and the rest of the boat won’t coast comfortably thinking they’re an easy lock for gold. At the 2019 World Rowing Championships, the last time the women’s eight raced internationally, the boat fell short of their aspirations.
Australia took an early lead, but New Zealand passed the Aussies in their final sprint. The U.S. managed to hold on to bronz. Their third-place finish marked just the second time the eight fell short of winning the title in 14 years.
“I don't train to get bronze,” Olivia Coffey said. “I train to win. And I think we all do. So when you don't win, it's a huge disappointment. But we just weren't fast enough and I knew it.”
Veterans have confidence in young rowers
Back at the training center, Coffey detected the bronze-colored frustration among coaches and teammates. The members of the boat had two years off from international competition due to COVID-19 to mull over the race. While O’Brien erged in her host family’s screened-in porch when the virus kept rowers from working out together, visions of gold eclipsing bronze kept her motivated through lockdown.
Five members of the 2019 World Rowing Championship eight – Musnicki, O’Brien, Guregian, Coffey and Gia Doonan – will row the eight in Tokyo. The four others – Charlotte Buck, Brooke Mooney, Jessica Thoennes and Regina Salmons – had a combined five years of national team experience before making the Tokyo Olympic team. Buck and Mooney will make their senior national team debuts.
But the most veteran members of the boat said they’re confident the younger rowers can succeed in the eight on the Olympic stage.
“The eight is better when you're very internal and I know that everyone in the boat can do that,” Guregian said. “So I don't feel like the fact that for some of them it's going to be their first senior team race or their first international race is going to matter because you get in the boat and you put blinders on and you just back up the person in front of you. That's the only thing that matters in the eight.”
Heading into their first international regatta for the first time since 2019, Musnicki operates under the assumption that other nations are moving very fast and rowing very well. Although they haven’t raced internationally recently, all the U.S. women’s eight needs to gauge their speed is a stopwatch. They focused on hitting time standards in practice throughout selection camp and in the weeks leading up to Tokyo.
Now, they’re racing to uphold the elite expectations set by the women that came before them. In many ways, they’ve already accomplished that – they made it through a yearlong Olympic postponement and a COVID-19 outbreak at the Princeton boathouse, and came out the other end more resilient.
But the women’s eight, youth and veterans alike, won’t settle for anything less than their best performance in Tokyo.
“There's a huge group of women that have come before me and before us that have put in the work and have showed up every day and gone above and beyond in every way and kind of paved the way for us,” Musnicki said. “Whether it was the boat that first won the silver medal in Athens or the first gold medal boat in Beijing or going back to the boat in (the 1995 World Rowing Championships).
“We would not be able to do what we do today if they didn't come before us.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: US Rowing women's eight seeks fourth Olympic gold at Tokyo Games