Rob Munn, Hans Struzyna and their teammates were in the middle of a heated rowing battle in late May that would either propel them to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil elated in August or back to their training site in New Jersey crestfallen.
The United States men’s 8 rowers — featuring the two former Sammamish Rowing Association (SRA) members — gripped tightly onto their oars like never before and gutted it out with the Polish and Italian squads in an epic race for the two qualifying spots at the upcoming Summer Olympics. In the so-called “Regatta of Death” in Lucerne, Switzerland on May 24, the three squads challenged each other from start to finish, but it was the United States crew that flew past the Polish team in the last 100 meters to notch the victory at the Rotsee race course.
The United States won in 5:29.16, Poland was second in 5:29.62 and Italy took third in 5:29.98.
“We decided to call it the ‘Regatta of Life.’ We survived, we get to live on,” said Struzyna, 27, on the phone. “It’s a pain contest, who can outlast the guy next to them. We said, ‘This is it,’ and put in one final push. Somehow, you have to find a way to do it.”
Added Munn, 25, also calling from Princeton: “It’s incredible. It’s essentially 10 years of hard work paying off. I thrive on the pain. I love the adrenaline of racing.”
Munn likes not knowing what’s going to happen in a race. He just keeps rowing and hopefully it will land his team in a good spot at the finish. Munn said it hadn’t hit him yet, but he knows that soon he’ll think, “Holy cow, I’m going to the Olympics!”
Struzyna, who graduated from Bellevue Christian High, said that during the 2,000-meter regattas, the crew races at an average of 14 mph, but can hit 25 mph for 10-30 strokes at points. Overall, the crew averages 225-240 strokes during these “sweep” — one oar per man — regattas, he added. The boat also features a coxswain, who steers the boat and vocally directs the rowers. As a 14-year-old in the summer of 2004, Struzyna began taking family lessons at SRA and “got stuck in the lily pads and flipped the boat a few times — all that good stuff.” Things got better and an SRA coordinator asked him to join the youth summer program. He rowed throughout his high school years — along with competing in football, wrestling and other sports at Bellevue Christian — and took his skills up a notch as a member of the University of Washington squad, where he helped the Huskies win varsity-8 national titles in 2009 and 2011.
Struzyna enjoys the team dynamic of rowing the most.
“In rowing, you either all win or you all lose,” he said. “To me, it’s having a plan and executing what you practice. You only get this short period of time. If you blink, it’s gone.”
It was always one race at a time and climbing to the next level for Struzyna. He never had Olympic aspirations at the start, but now as he gets closer to Rio, he can’t help but get excited for what’s to come.
“I feel I have the validation that I’m good enough to go to the Olympics,” he said. “For the rest of my life, I’ll be able to say that.”
Munn got into rowing at age 15 and was also drawn toward the team aspect of the sport and the SRA culture. The key to his success was striving to get better each time he hit the water, he said. He rowed in high school and in college at UW, where he was a member of the varsity-8 national championship team in 2012. Both he and Struzyna were also members of the U-23 United States national team.
The Olympic-qualifying regatta was a memorable one for Munn, even though he doesn’t remember all the details because of the adrenaline rush. There was some stress and pressure the day before the race, but that all melted away once things kicked off.
“I remember being confident when we were into the last 500 meters. We still knew we had a good push in us,” he said.
Becoming an Olympian didn’t register on Munn’s mind until his UW junior season when his junior varsity squad snagged its second consecutive national title. Now he’s all in, but there’s still a lot of grueling work to be done before the squad’s plane touches down in Rio.
“We’re full (into) training. Full speed ahead,” he said.