Meghan Musnicki’s Journey Back To Her Seventh World Rowing Championships
by Peggy Shinn
Meghan Musnicki is one of the most decorated rowers in U.S. history. Over the past 15 years, the woman affectionately known as “Moose” — for her strength helping power the women’s 8 through seven undefeated years — has earned two Olympic gold medals, five world championship titles and a world championships bronze medal.
Now 40 and married, with a full-time job at a tech company in San Francisco, Musnicki is back for one more go-round, this time in the pair with Alie Rusher. In Belgrade, Serbia, she is competing in her seventh world championships, then hopefully her fourth Olympic Games in Paris next year.
While Musnicki has been a stalwart for USRowing since her first world championships in 2010, her journey to the national team then, and her journey back to the team this year, is a story of perseverance, humility, serendipity and heart — the kind of ingredients that make an Olympic dream.
Musnicki first discovered rowing the way a lot of tall athletes do: by the college crew coach saying, “Hey, you should try rowing.”
She was a freshman at St. Lawrence University in northern New York when the crew coach saw her in the gym one day. Her initial idea was to play basketball at SLU, and at first she resisted the crew coach’s invitation.
“Then I went back and thought about it,” she said by Zoom from her home in California a week before leaving for 2023 World Rowing Championships. “It’s not like I was this amazing basketball player that was about to go to the WNBA or something. I was just doing it because I liked being active, I like being part of a team. So I figured I’d try something new.”
The next year, she transferred to Ithaca College and continued to row. Her father had passed away suddenly, and she wanted to be closer to home (she grew up in Naples, New York, an hour-and-a-half from Ithaca). She graduated from Ithaca in 2005 and moved to Boston, with her competitive rowing days seemingly behind her. She was taking prerequisites for nursing school and waiting tables at the time. When CRASH-B’s came along that winter, Musnicki wanted to see if she could lower her 2K time below 7:10 (rowing 2,000 meters on an erg). (CRASH-B’s started in the mid-1980s as the world indoor rowing championships and are held annually in Boston.)
“That really was the only thing I wanted to do,” she said.
Musnicki trained on an erg in her kitchen, and at CRASH-B’s that year, rowed 7:09. USRowing coach Laurel Korholz noticed and suggested to Musnicki that she attend a rowing camp.
“I had no idea what elite level rowing was at that point, like zero knowledge of it,” said Musnicki, who is refreshingly honest. “So I went down to this camp and was immediately cut. I was probably sent home in the first three days of the camp, and rightfully so. I was terrible. I was slow on land, slow on water, and technically worse.”
But the camp had given her a taste of elite athletics, and she wanted more. Back home in Boston, she joined the Riverside Boat Club’s high performance group and tried to improve.
At CRASH-B’s in 2008, she was significantly faster, pulling under seven minutes. Korholz again invited her to a rowing camp, this time in Virginia. At this camp, Musnicki made the women’s four. If they won a trials race in Princeton, New Jersey, this boat would compete at the 2008 world championships. Instead, Musnicki’s boat lost to a four of women who had been the last cut from the 2008 U.S. Olympic Team. It was the second time that she failed to make the national team, and it hurt.
But her effort had not gone unnoticed. Head coach Tom Terhaar invited Musnicki to train at Princeton University for the upcoming fall and winter. She deferred nursing school and moved to Princeton.
Again, she found herself at the bottom of the team. “I was terrible,” she admitted, “probably close to last.”
In May 2009, Terhaar laid it out for Musnicki. She needed to train hard that summer, and if she did not hit a specific time for 6K (6,000 meters on the erg) in September, she would be done with elite rowing.
“He’s like, ‘This is going to be your last opportunity,’” remembered Musnicki.
That summer, with her emotions ranging from motivated to sad to mad, she gave 110 percent. She wanted to prove Terhaar wrong, and she wanted to prove to herself that she could do it. And if she didn’t do it, she wanted to have gone down fighting.
“You have to stare failure in the face with no excuses,” she said. “So that’s what I did.”
In September, Musnicki crushed the 6K standard and was invited to train again in Princeton. The following spring, she was named to the women’s 8 — in seat 6, known as “the engine room” in an 8. The boat won World Rowing Cup III and then dominated the 2010 world championships final, beating Canada by almost four seconds.
For the next six years, Musnicki was a fixture in the women’s 8, claiming four more world championship titles and two Olympic gold medals (in 2012 and 2016).
In 2017, she stepped away from rowing for a sabbatical. The Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 were on her radar, but she needed a break. She met her soon-to-be husband, a rowing coach and former national team member, Skip Kielt, moved to San Francisco, and worked as a personal trainer.
But rowing gets in the blood and the allure of training and competing pulled her back. Musnicki moved back to Princeton in 2018 for one more Olympic cycle. But at the Tokyo Games in 2021, the unthinkable happened: the women’s 8 finished out of the medals. Canada won the gold, over three seconds ahead of the U.S. boat, which finished fourth.
Musnicki retired after Tokyo, married Kielt that fall, and moved back to San Francisco, where Kielt was coaching at the California Rowing Club (CRC). She had no interest in rowing. But her friend Jess Morrison, an Australian athlete who had won an Olympic gold medal in the four at the Tokyo Games, was in the Bay Area. The two women started working out together and decided to row a pair in the 2022 Henley Royal Regatta in England — the Wimbledon of rowing. They trained for five weeks and ended up winning.
“We just had the time of our lives,” said Musnicki. “It was no pressure racing.”
Morrison returned to Australia to continue training for her national team, and Musnicki kept working out. In December, she decided to train for the national team’s 6K test “just to see where I land.” She landed in fourth.
“All right, cool,” she thought, “I guess I’m in decent shape.”
The next step would be the National Speed Order regatta in Florida in March 2023. But with no teammates in California, Musnicki had no choice but to row a single scull — not a good boat for a team-oriented athlete.
“It doesn’t have to be a big boat, definitely doesn’t have to be a big boat,” said Musnicki, “but more than one person.”
One day at the CRC in late February 2023, Musnicki received a text from Alie Rusher, who had rowed in the quad sculls at the 2020 Olympic Games. Rusher was in Florida also rowing a single and was curious what Musnicki was doing.
CRC coach Mike Teti (who coached the national team for 22 years) said, “Tell her to come out here.”
The next day, Rusher was on a plane to California. The two women rowed together in a pair for a week, then flew to Florida to compete in the National Speed Order, where they finished fourth — a good result after just a week in a boat together.
In late April, they won the national selection regatta in the pair, then solidified their spot on the 2023 national team by finishing second in World Rowing Cup II in June — behind Morrison and Annabelle McIntyre, who have rowed together since 2019.
At 2023 world championships, Musnicki and Rusher have medal hopes in the pair. But their first goal is to qualify the boat for the Olympic Games Paris 2024 (by finishing in the top 11).
This fall and winter, they plan to train together in California.
“I don’t want [to try for] the eight,” stated Musnicki. “I’ve done that three times. I would never trade in those experiences. But I want a new challenge.”
“I would love to have one more Olympics in Paris,” she added. “I realize at this point in my career that that’s a tall task, a lot of things need to go well, and I respect that. But that’s the goal.
“It’s a long term project for us, and we just keep laying the bricks, so to speak.”