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Success Breeds Success: How The U.S. Women’s Rowing Dynasty Continues To Build Depth

By Peggy Shinn | June 18, 2015, 12:56 p.m. (ET)

Taylor Goetzinger and Meghan Musnicki compete in the women's pair semifinal at the 2013 World Rowing Championships on Aug. 29, 2013 in Chungju, South Korea.

When Meghan Musnicki rowed to an Olympic gold medal at the London 2012 Olympic Games, she was the relative newcomer in the women’s eight.

Now, she’s the veteran — an Olympic gold medalist and five-time world champion. Rowing at World Rowing Cup II in Varese, Italy, this weekend, Musnicki is the only woman with Olympic experience competing in the eight. She is also rowing in the women’s four this weekend, in USA 2.

Last weekend, USA 2 — with Liv Coffey, Emily Regan, Musnicki and Tessa Gobbo — won the women’s four at the Bled International Regatta in Slovenia, beating USA 1 by over 3.5 seconds.

Olympic hopefuls Heidi Robbins, Amanda Polk, Lauren Schmetterling and Vicky Opitz are rowing USA 1. These eight women are combining to also compete in the women’s eight this weekend.

“We spend so much time competing against each other in practice, it's going to be a blast lining up in one boat! #oneteamonedream,” tweeted Regan after the Bled regatta.

The U.S. women’s rowing team is known for its depth, and Musnicki, along with other Olympic veterans like two-time women’s eight gold medalist Elle Logan, 2012 women’s quadruple sculls bronze medalist Megan Kalmoe and 2008 Olympian Ellen Tomek, are helping foster the newer oarswomen — while also trying to make another Olympic team themselves.

Logan and Kalmoe are competing in pairs, with Felice Mueller and Kerry Simmonds, respectively. Tomek is rowing with Meghan O'Leary in double sculls.

Coaches decide the boat lineups for the Olympic Games and major international events based on individual performances throughout the year, said Coffey. Often, leading up to an Olympic year, rowers opt to compete in smaller boats (pairs and sculls) to improve their rowing. The smaller boats, which quickly respond to rowers’ movements, help reveal strengths and weaknesses, and rowers can more readily feel how technique changes improve boat speed. Lesser experienced rowers can also improve technique and training when paired with veterans.

“You can see the characteristics of what makes them successful in our daily training,” said Coffey via email from Italy. “Meghan (aka Moose) is an athlete that always has her nose to the grindstone. She puts in endless hours improving base fitness and never shies away from hard work. Moose consistently turns out impressive erg scores, despite being a relatively smaller athlete, because she’s done the grunt work ahead of time. She’s fast because she’s earned it, which is a good lesson for all rowers.”

Not that Coffey is a rowing neophyte. The 26-year-old Harvard graduate won a bronze medal at the 2014 World Rowing Championships in the quadruple sculls and is a three-time U23 world championship medalist in the eight.

She also has an Olympic pedigree. Coffey’s father, Calvin Coffey, stroked the men’s pair to a silver medal at the Montreal 1976 Olympic Games.

Other women in the eight at this at this coming world cup have similar rowing resumes. Robbins, Polk, Regan, Schmetterling and Opitz helped set the world record for the women’s eight at a world cup in July 2013 (5:54.160, nipping the previous record set by the U.S. women in 2012 by 0.01).

“Being the most experienced oarswoman in the eight honestly doesn't occur to me that frequently,” wrote Musnicki from Italy via email. “The group of women I race and train with on a day-to-day basis all have a lot of racing experience. With U23s and the junior team, I would say most of them have raced internationally just as much as I have.”

The 32-year-old oarswoman learns from her newer teammates as well.

“Just the other day I pulled aside one of the ‘younger girls’ to pick her brain about a technical focus,” said Musnicki. “Every woman brings something different to the boat so there is a wealth of knowledge in there, you just have to be willing to ask and be open to a different point of view. You never know what you might come away with!”

The U.S. women’s eight has dominated international competition for the past decade. And at the 2015 World Rowing Championships in France at the end of August, they will aim to win their 10th consecutive world or Olympic championship.

Also at worlds, the top five boats in the women’s eight will earn a berth for their country at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. The top nine women in the single sculls and top 11 in the pair and the double sculls also earn Olympic berths for their countries.

Olympic rowing events for the women are the eight and pair in the sweeps events (one oar per rower), and the single, double, quadruple and lightweight double in the sculls (two oars per rower).

Next year, all the women on the U.S. team will be gunning for a spot in one of the Olympic boats, and the queen of the regatta is the eight — the fastest of the women’s events.

“You have eight incredibly strong women putting every ounce of their energy onto the foot stretchers and into the oar all at the same time,” explained Musnicki. “The boat flies. It feels likes you are on a freight train and nothing can stop you.”

Should the women’s eight win the Olympic regatta in 2016, it will be Team USA’s third straight gold medal in the event and fourth consecutive trip to the podium.

Coaches will select the U.S. Olympic eight and quad next year, while rowers can qualify for the single and double sculls at U.S. Olympic Team Trials next April.

“I feel comfortable racing in any boat class,” said Coffey, “so I’m just going to put forth my best effort, try to improve consistently in all aspects of training and competition, and let the chips fall where they may.”

Musnicki will no doubt be a favorite to make the eight. But she is open-minded.

“My goal is to make the team for Rio,” she said, “whichever boat that may be!”

A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered three Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.

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Meghan Musnicki

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Elle Logan

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Ellen Tomek