Entering the ‘pain cave,’ perfectly in sync

  • Melissa Wenthrup, left, Brianne Doherty, Evie Villeneuve, Emily Lane and Sydney Michalak after winning the Collegiate Fours at the Head of the Charles Regatta. Ronald E. Michalak

  • Sydney Michalak, second from left, and her UNH teammates at the Head of the Charles Regatta. PHOTO BY RONALD MICHALAK

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Wednesday, November 15, 2017 6:9PM

Winning the Head of the Charles Regatta, twice, is an incredible feat for any rower. Too bad Sydney Michalak can’t remember the whole experience. Michalak is one of those endurance athletes — “crazy,” maybe, as she put it — who yearns for the dark depths of the pain cave, pushing herself to the limits of performance.

“Before a race, I’m so excited to feel that, I’m so excited to black out,” Michalak said. “I can’t even remember half the race most of the time, and you finish the race and it’s like ‘What just happened?’ ... You don’t get to feel it that often, and when you do get privileged enough to get to push yourself that hard, it’s a really rewarding feeling.”

Michalak, a senior rower at the University of New Hampshire, has felt that plenty over the years. The Peterborough native was one of ConVal’s most accomplished Nordic skiers, but converted to rowing and joined the club team when she got to UNH. She was instantly hooked. Rowing offers the same individual stamina challenges as skiing, but with the added wrinkle that all four team members have to be perfectly in sync.

“You can attain that togetherness – physically, how the blades are going into the water, but also mentally, just deciding to go into a pain cave together. It’s unique.”

Michalak and her UNH teammates found that togetherness at the Head of the Charles Regatta on Oct. 21. Billed as the biggest two-day regatta in the world, the event features a series of races of varying levels. Michalak and the Wildcats competed in the women’s collegiate fours against 35 other colleges.

Under the leadership of coxswain Emily Lane, UNH found success.

“The Head of the Charles is sometimes referred to as a coxswain’s race because it’s really important to have them get a good line,” Michalak said.

UNH finished the three-mile race in 18:20.141, three seconds ahead of Lafayette College.

“It was so incredibly exciting,” Michalak said.

It was the second gold medal and third straight trip to the podium for Michalak and UNH.

“It’s interesting,” Michalak said, “because the first time I won it, it was the best thing that had happened to me, for sure, and since then, I’ve kind of been opened up to the possibilities of where rowing can take me and all of a sudden you start to see the next step. I see it in my mind as this stepping stone, this little block that is just like one step closer to reaching those final goals.”

Rowing has opened up many doors for Michalak. She said she hopes to take home a win at the National Club Championships this spring before graduating and attending Syracuse for graduate school on a rowing scholarship. Not only will she have the chance to row for a Division I program, she’ll be furthering her work in mechanical aerospace engineering, with hopes of working for one of the big boatbuilding companies designing rowing shells.

“I think being an engineer and an athlete, specifically a rower, I would have a lot to offer in doing something like this,” Michalak said, “because oftentimes, an engineer is not necessarily an athlete, and an athlete is not typically an engineer. So there’s sometimes a disconnect in between, like a game of telephone that’s played.”

Michalak, ever pushing herself, has one more lofty goal in the rowing world — becoming an Olympic rower.

“I would say that yes, it is attainable, and it will be attainable at a very high cost, and at this point I’m just going to do anything I can to reach that goal,” Michalak said.

She’s had some exposure to the Olympic world, training on the Charles River alongside Boston rower Gevvie Stone, who’d go on to win silver for the United States in 2016.

“Just getting to see her row every morning was really inspiring,” Michalak said.