Speed Five with Matt Muffelman
1). A couple of years ago you and I were sitting in 6th place in a light quad together, it is a now couple a couple of years later you are now a World Champion in the light weight eight. Some have heard of your story but can you give us a break down on what has happened to you in the last two years?
After finally making the team in the light 4x, it still took me a while to get noticed by any coaches or higher ups. But finally in the winter of 2005, I got invited to go and train at PTC. I was pretty sure that every day I was gonna show up to practice, have a bad piece, and be cut. I didn’t even totally unpack for several months. But as the winter rolled on, I was able to hold my own, and come spring time, I was in the pack with the top guys. As we moved into pairs, I kept progressing, and by the end of the spring, I was usually in one of the top two pairs. I made the light 4- that summer at 2 seat and we came in a disappointing 9th in Eton at the World Champs. So we came back the next fall, and it was great because we had a solid group of guys that got along well, as well as a few powerful new additions. That fall and winter, I PR’ed on all of my erg tests, and really figured out how to make the boat go fast. I felt like I was firing on all cylinders and that I was maximizing my physical capabilities. Pat Todd and I won the 2nd NSR by about 5 seconds with a time of 6:33. But for a while I had been noticing that my arms were…. lopsided. My right arm was larger than my left, but everyone, including myself, just made a joke of it. But as the spring turned towards summer, it started getting really big, and while I didn’t say anything, it occasionally started going numb. We were planning all sorts of trips, Pan Ams in Rio, a World Cup in Austria and Lucerne, and Worlds in Germany. Four countries that I had never visited. We had Pan Am trials at the very end of May, a Wednesday and Thursday, and then we were leaving for a World Cup race in Austria on Sunday. I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t say anything. Going on those trips, racing in exotic places, not to mention that the 4- was really flying at that point, it was all too tantalizing. On Wednesday, we won the first piece at Pan Am trials, but I knew something was really wrong. My arm went totally numb for the last 500, and I was having trouble managing my weight. But I sucked it up, thinking, hoping, praying that it would pass. We won the deciding trials race on Thursday, and that’s when I realized I was in trouble. I was basically able to get us off the line and into the lead for the first 1250, but my arm went numb, swelled, and I couldn’t tell if I was squaring up. I spent the last 500 just making sure that I didn’t crab, trying to square with my outside hand. But we managed to win, and I just tried to play it off. “Yeah, I’m just gonna get it looked at before we head to Austria. No big deal.” I went into Dr. Tim Hosea’s office that Friday morning, and an initial X-ray didn’t show anything, so he sent me over to the Princeton Hospital to get an ultra-sound… of my arm. Again, I joked about it, “what, you think my arm is pregnant?” After several hours of tests, I was directed back to Doc Hosea’s office to get the official word. I had an “occlusion of the upper right extremity”, or in layman’s terms, a blood clot. I was happily naive of such terminology up to that point, but when Dr Hosea told me that I needed immediate surgery to correct the problem, I told him, “Well, I can’t…. I’m leaving for Austria on Sunday.” And to his credit, he held back emotion when he replied, “No. You’re not.” I still didn’t get it. “No, no. My flight leaves in two days, I’ll deal with it when I get back.” …. “No. You won’t.” I saw a pain-stricken, somber face, and it didn’t totally sink in, but my brain threw out a few red flags. If you’ve ever seen a movie where a person goes mentally numb, hearing and seeing what is around them, but not properly responding,.. that was me. He wrote a prescription for blood thinners, he gave me phone numbers of thoracic surgeons, he pulled strings, but none of it really registered until he simply said, “I’m sorry.” I had all of the pertinent information, and in a daze walked out of his office. My rowing career was over.
I’ll say that again. Because he has been so much of a friend, parent-figure, and advocate for every rower, he didn’t say it. But he knew, MY ROWING CAREER WAS OVER… I stumbled out to my car and sat for about 20 minutes, numb, confused, completely out of it. And then it hit like a ton of bricks had fallen on my head. My first thought was to call my coach, and let him know my situation. But as I called, and explained my situation, it all came crumbling down. For all of the selfish, glorifying reasons that I had wanted to go on the upcoming trips, my phone call came out the exact opposite. I told John, my coach, that I was sorry. He didn’t understand. The first line out of my mouth was not an explanation, but an apology. He didn’t know what I was talking about before I broke down. Through the tears, I explained to him my situation, and what had transpired. He reassured me that it was all going to be ok, but we both knew i was f@c%ed. That was the low point of my life and rowing career. I hit rock bottom, but I had friends and family. It was a true testament to the rowing population, the outpouring of support I received.
Long story short, I needed surgery, and I decided to be pro-active about it. I didn’t wonder or question my status. Everyone I talked to agreed that my condition, Venous Thoracic Outlet Syndrome only had one remedy: surgery. So I found the best thoracic surgeon in the country, and through the help of my dad, Dr. Hosea, and my coach, I spent three of the following five weeks in the hospital. Major details aside, I ended up in Boston, and Brigham and Women’s Hospital where they cut two of my ribs out of the right side of my chest. Yes, you read that right, the cut two whole ribs out. Having rowed at Riverside, Boston turned out to be a God-send. My friends, especially Lt. Wolf, came and visited me, encouraged me, and helped me thru tough times. At my one month follow-up, my surgeon asked how I was. I said I was good, but when can I get back to rowing. He was confused, and asked, “What do you mean?” I repeated, “When can I get back to rowing?” He paused for a moment before telling me that people that have such a surgery can, and usually do, go on permanent disability. I wouldn’t ever have to work again. When I told him that I’m gonna keep rowing, and not only that, I’m gonna get back to the national team, he sorta chuckled. “Well, that will never happen, but if you do, you owe me and my daughters autographed pictures.” 49 days after my surgery, I took my first strokes in a boat, albeit 40 total strokes. Doctors, coaches, and common sense said I was done with rowing. Well, those of you that know me know that I’m a stubborn SOB. I rode the bike. I lifted weights. I ran. I did anything I could. And after 9 of the most physically and mentally taxing months of my life, we won trials in the lightweight 8. There are details that I have left out, trials and tribulations that few know about. But we took the trials-winning boat and won World Championships. 384 days after getting two ribs removed and repairing a collapsed lung, I had done it. I had been to the top. I fell to the bottom. And I made it back to the top. I got to hug all of my family members in Linz-Ottensheim, Austria with a slightly swollen arm, with a gold medal in the middle.
2). What is a typical day like for you when you are in training?
Once I made rowing my life, life-style, and job, it became a balance. You have to train like a son of a gun, but you also have to know when to rest. A normal day for me starts at 630. Practice starts at 730, but I am definitely not a morning person. So I go to the local coffee shop at 645 and get a coffee and a newspaper. I arrive at the boathouse a bit before 7, finish my coffee and read the newspaper as I change and begin to warm up. From 730-930 we train, shower, and head home. I get breakfast, and either head to work around 10, or watch tv. I am fortunate to have a boss that understands the rowing lifestyle, and also doesn’t need me to work everyday. If I’m working, I work until afternoon practice, usually around 5. If not, I rest, nap, and play Halo. I know, I’m a dork. Afternoon practice usually runs from 5 til about 730, and then I typically go to the grocery store to buy dinner. As a lightweight, I try not to keep much food around the house. I eat dinner in front of the tv, take care of bills or watch a movie, and then head to bed. Life is really boring when training full-time, full-steam.
3). I am sure the 2008 Worlds was a great race, but walk us thru another great race you have had?
The best race that I ever took part in was the 1998 Men’s Varsity 8 final at the Stotesbury Cup. At the time, our crew team had 8 total varsity guys on the team. TOTAL. We had been friends, and had rowed together for the past three years in varying events, but our coach finally decided to see what we could do. We were undersized and scrappy as hell. I had just had my growth spurt and was the bowman weighing in at 133lbs at right around 6′ 1″. I was a beanpole. We had the most eclectic group of misfits, but we were the ideal “team”. We fought our way into the final at Stotes, and coming into the last 500 there were 3 boats across for the bronze. I remember racing in Lane one on the Schuylkill, right next to the wall and the grandstands. Coming into the final sprint, it was an absolute torrent. I thought I was gonna go deaf from the roar. We hit the line, and our coxswain didn’t know. “We might have gotten a medal, we might have gotten 5th.” And then the announcer came on. “In third place, earning a Bronze medal: Mathews High School.” It was a bronze, but it might as well have been a worlds medal. Every cheesy sports movie, we eclipsed it. This was as epic as Hoosiers. Yes, it’s a bronze medal at a HS regatta. But it was the best race of my life.
4). I have a bone to pick with you , You rowed at Mobjack, then Dartmouth and then Riverside Boat Club (before heading off to the training center in NJ) , now I see you entered in races as NYAC, what are you doing to me I almost fell out of my chair when I saw that.
I’m glad that you brought this up. Yes, for the majority of my rowing career, NYAC was the antithesis of my being. It represented everything I hated in rowing. It was the massive conglomerate of a rowing program. It bought its talent. But it is what it is. Maybe I have changed, but here is my reasoning: I started rowing for Mathews HS as a 7th grader. My sister rowed for the team, so over the summer, I sat in as a coxswain. I officially joined the team as an 8th grader, and rowed there for 5 years. During the summers we weren’t allowed to compete as Mathews HS, so in 1997, we created Mobjack Rowing Club, an homage to the bay on which we row. These were my roots, and the ones that I hold dearest. After that, I have rowed for many more teams and clubs that you mention. In 1999, I raced with Philadelphia’s Bachelor’s Barge Club at English Henley in the Fawley Challenge Cup. I then attended Dartmouth, but during the summers, I joined the North Country Rowing Club, an off-shoot, but a separate entity, none-the-less. I’ve raced as Riverside, Gentle Giant, Malta, and Nyac. Put simply, I go where there is rowing. I raced Trials in 2004 with Brian McLaughlin in the men’s light 2- as NYAC, and several other Speed Orders and NSR’s as NYAC. I try to pay respect to those that have supported me in my rowing endeavors. Whether it be my HS coaches, Dick Grossman at Dartmouth, Larry O’Toole at Gentle Giant, or Vinny Ventura at NYAC, I have only had my successes because of the people that have helped me in my journey. I still wear my Riverside stripes with pride, and as a self-run club, I respect and represent everyone that also dons the stripes. My uni should never disrespect anyone, merely praise and thank all of my rowing friends. It’s tough these days, though, cause I have a lot of unis. But wearing another uni doesn’t mean I forget, or disrespect any team for which i’ve bled. And as your initial question mentioned, you and I have worn the Riverside stripes, and the Stripes and Stars…. We’ll always be teammates