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Sparks native, Hereford graduate Michalina Fili won’t let coronavirus get in the way of Olympic rowing dreams

Michalina Fili, a Sparks rower, is bidding for a spot on the Olympic team.
Michalina Fili, a Sparks rower, is bidding for a spot on the Olympic team.

Michalina Fili’s agony over finishing second in the women’s double sculls at USRowing’s National Selection Regatta in February was swiftly replaced when she realized that she and teammate Taylor Goetzinger earned invitations to the quadruple sculls selection camp — a step toward competing in the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

Surprisingly, that joy did not sink in until the 27-year-old Sparks native and Hereford graduate arrived from California to her residence in Princeton, New Jersey, site of USRowing’s official training center.

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“I got home, and I was like, ‘I can do this. This can happen, and this is going to happen because this is all I ever wanted,’” she said last week. “That gets me out of bed every day, having that opportunity to stand on the podium and get golds and represent my country as an athlete. That’s why we’re doing this. It gives me goosebumps just thinking about it. So I was very grateful to have that opportunity.”

Fili’s path, however, was derailed by the coronavirus pandemic, which forced U.S. officials to announce March 13 that all Olympic trials were suspended until further notice. Eleven days later, the International Olympic Committee and the Japanese government agreed to postpone the Olympic Games until 2021 — the first time the summer games have been delayed instead of canceled.

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As disappointing as that news was, Fili said she agreed with the decision to push back the games.

“At first, I was really frustrated,” she said. “But then you take a step back and think about what’s happening in the world. … I realized that it was out of my control and all I could focus on was that I had one more year to get faster and stronger and better and to be ready for the Tokyo Games. For any world-class athlete, I think resilience is an incredibly important attribute.”

Fili’s journey to this stage could have been derailed from the beginning. The youngest of a set of triplets, she, eldest sibling, Liana, and brother, Joseph, were born Oct. 27, 1992, to Sal and Denise Fili. Born after only 28½ weeks and weighing less than 3 pounds each, the triplets spent 76 days in the neonatal intensive care unit at Greater Baltimore Medical Center.

Michalina Fili was born with a non-fully formed aorta leading to her heart that was initially thought to require surgery, according to her father. But time and some medication assisted the aorta in closing on its own.

“To say we were worried they wouldn’t make it is a great understatement, particularly in Mickey’s case,” Sal Fili said via email, using her nickname. “It was a living hell until we got the call from the head of NICU in the middle of one night a month or so into it that her valve had closed for good and she was out of the woods. All three are miracle babies, and we owe a gigantic debt of gratitude to the staff at the NICU.”

A three-sport athlete in soccer, basketball and softball at Hereford, Michalina Fili was recruited by and agreed to play soccer at Washington College. One week into her first week of soccer’s preseason, she was approached by assistant rowing coach Caren Saunders to try rowing in the spring.

“I just took one look at her, and she just looked like a rower to me,” said Sanders, who continues to work for the college and is a social studies teacher at Kent County High School. “I saw her quadriceps muscles. Her legs were really fit. A lot of people think that rowing is an upper-body sport with the arms and shoulders. Rowing is a lower-body sport.”

Mike Davenport, Washington College’s former head coach and current volunteer assistant coach, recalled that Fili was raw, but persisted in learning until she set school records in the 2,000-, 5,000- and 6,000-meter regatta on the indoor rowing machine called an ergometer.

“It is also a psychology test in many ways,” he said via email. “Mickey would get on the machine for each test and improve. Month after month, there was always improvement. It’s what you hope to see as a coach, but often don’t — they are humans, after all. But Mickey always improved. In 4 years of testing and probably over 30 tests, I don’t recall her never improving her score. Quite a feat.”

After playing soccer as a freshman and sophomore, Fili decided to stop playing soccer and commit fully to rowing. In her final three years, the program won three straight Mid-Atlantic Rowing Conference championships and advanced to three NCAA Division III championship regatta races. Fili, who graduated with a bachelor’s in biology in pre-dental studies, was named a first-team All-American three times.

“Naturally, you’re drawn to something you’re good at,” she said. “That success was very new to me, kind of going above and beyond, and honestly I always dreamed of going to the Olympics. I didn’t really realize how I was going to get there until I found rowing, and then I was like, ‘I can do this, I can go all the way with this.’”

A typical day for Fili involves waking up at 5:30 a.m., eating breakfast, practicing in a single at 7 a.m. for about 90 minutes, eating a second breakfast, taking a nap, working on an indoor rowing machine for about 90 minutes, eating lunch, lifting weights for about two hours, stretching and doing yoga, and going to sleep by 8 p.m.

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Fili said she credits Saunders and Davenport with launching her rowing career.

“I have been back to Washington College for alumni weekend,” she said. “I went back there when we had gotten a new boathouse [in Sept. 2018], and I had talked to her and my head coach Mike Davenport and expressed my gratitude for introducing me to this crazy and wonderful sport. It has made me who I am today. It’s such a discipline, and it’s the ultimate team sport, and I’m really grateful to be a part of this community.”

Saunders returned the favor, insisting that Fili had untapped potential.

“I think she was always meant to be a rower,” she said. “She just never had the opportunity to row before. … Mickey is a boat mover. Any boat she sits in is going to go. It’s going to fly.”

Sal Fili called the Olympics’ delay disappointing, but said it will drive his daughter even more.

“Mickey doesn’t let setbacks bring her down,” he said. “She didn’t make the basketball or soccer teams in 10th grade, and she was very disappointed. The next year, she came back with a vengeance, made both teams, acquired the nickname ‘Mickey the Beast’ on the basketball team, and her soccer coach once chided her teammates during halftime in a tough game, ‘How come Mickey is the only one still fighting?!’ She never gives up.”

Michalina Fili said that June 3 will be especially poignant because that was the day the members of the U.S. team would have been announced.

“Once we hit that day, then I’ll be like, ‘Wow, one more year,’” she said. “But I think June and July are going to be a very emotional time for all of us. I think we’re really going to have to confide in each other and realize that this is still happening and that we’re still working towards that goal.”

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