Rowing with fury

While his sister faced a heroin addiction, former Syracuse rower MIke Gennaro trained furiously for the London 2012 Olympics. Today, he's preparing for the 2016 Olympics in Rio.

Two end slices of a loaf of bread and one egg for breakfast. Syracuse University alum Mike Gennaro stared into an Oklahoman fridge that doesn’t belong to him, frowning. He can barely pay for the food.

Gennaro’s four-year road to row in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro isn’t a road. It’s just the way he walks on a shoestring $400-per-month stipend. His house is in his backpack. He trains in his old Syracuse shorts. It isn’t ideal. It isn’t even appealing. It's a sacrifice.

Photo: Courtesy of Mike Gennaro
Mike's sister Becca with her daughter Lilli.

But he takes it.

After all, it’s easier than quitting crack. He knows what that looks like. He saw his sister live through it.

On New Year’s Eve, 2010, Suzanne Gennaro found heroin in her daughter’s purse. The purse belonged to Becca Gennaro, the second oldest of seven siblings. But Becca wasn’t thinking about her family that day.  She didn’t care when her parents threatened to turn her into the police. She just wanted her heroin back.

She remembers Mike, a senior at Syracuse at the time, helping her pack for rehab. He remembers going upstairs to his sister’s room because he thought she was going to kill herself.

From that day on she was Mike’s dark passenger. Becca’s presence sat in every boat Mike rowed in. He credits her for his success. She made him furious.

The same day Becca went to rehab, Mike drove to Syracuse. He was named captain of the Syracuse men’s crew team a few weeks later. For the final five months of his college career he drank the blackness of his dark passenger and grabbed his training by the throat.

“I would furiously let it out with my rowing,” Mike said. “I would physically try to hurt myself. I was training like it was never going to be enough.”

While Mike trained, Becca learned to live. In May 2011, Mike graduated with a degree in psychology, and a clean sister. Becca turned to her brother during her recovery. His comfort was the only thing she wanted.

Moving on

Mike may have been Becca’s lifeline, but when her brother flew to Amsterdam in July 2011 to row for the U.S. in the Under 23, U23, World Championships the roles reversed.

In 2009 Mike won silver in the four-man boat at the U23 World Championships. In 2010 he won silver in the eight-man boat. The Gennaro family started calling Mike “the silver child” because he always finished second.

Not in 2011. That year he finally won gold in the eight-man boat at the U23 World Championships.

“When it was all over, I cried,” Mike said. “I couldn't thank my teammates enough. I couldn't buy them enough beers to celebrate.”

None of them knew about Becca. None of them knew her presence helped him win.

From darkness came gold. Amsterdam set Mike on the path to the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. The youngest member in a training squad dominated by past Olympians, Mike swore he would make it to London.

He got off to a good start, winning gold at the Pan American Championships in the two-man boat in October 2011. But something was missing. The closer Mike got to London, the further Becca got from heroin. He was losing the fury that propelled him in Amsterdam. Nearly a year later, on March 26, 2012, he was cut from the eight-man boat Olympic training squad.

Mike tripped. London was slipping away.

He lost his bed at the Olympic Training Center in Berkeley, Calif. He relocated to Princeton where he trained for a seat in the Olympic two-man boat. On June 15, 2012, Mike and his partner came second in the time trial in West Windsor, N.J.

Mike fell. London was gone.

It should have been the worst day of his 23-year-old life. But it wasn’t.

“It felt like I'd lost a significant number of years off my life,” Mike said. “But it didn’t hold a candle to almost losing my older sister.”

The London dream looked like it was over. Tim McLaren, the head coach of the Olympic rowing team in 2012, called him to tell him he was chosen as an alternate. This meant Mike would race if a teammate was injured.

“I was aiming high all year and I didn’t hit my target. But it was an honor,” he said.

He ate the free McDonalds in the athlete village. He wore the Ralph Lauren flat cap at the closing ceremony. He got the special bedspread. But Mike didn’t think being an alternate for the 2012 Olympic U.S. men’s eight-man boat counted. It tasted sour.

In his eyes Mike failed for the first time since his family nearly fell to pieces. He was silver again.

The next challenge

Colors can change. Mike’s passenger isn’t dark anymore. She’s not even grey. On April 10, 2012, Becca had Lillian Grace, Lilli. Becca’s ex-partner has full custody of her three-year old son, Aiden, but when “Uncle Mike’s” around, his body becomes Aidan’s jungle gym. Lilli isn’t so adventurous, Becca said, she’s scared of Mike’s beard.

Lilli hasn’t seen the scary beard in a while. Mike has been training in Oklahoma since January for the World Championships in South Korea in August. His life is punctuated by pull-ups, hours on the rowing machine and more in the boat.

In Oklahoma, Mike remembers hearing head coach Luke McGee yelling at the rowers. “He didn’t say one thing,” Mike said. “Just preaching ‘We’re not here to achieve your dream. We’re not trying to achieve your f---ing dream. We’re trying to achieve our dream.’”

Is he motivated for Rio? Yes.

Bitter about London? Maybe.

Furious at Becca? No.

He’s just hopeful. Becca is 26 months sober as of March 2013. She has a job and a family. She takes it one clean day at a time, and so Mike walks the road to 2016 one practice at a time.

“There is a rhyme or reason for it all,” Becca said. “If I was meant to experience all of the pain, and now joy that I have, just to help Mikey further succeed in what he does, I’ll take it.” 

Mike Gennaro

I have had the pleasure of meeting Mike and some of his family beung an alum and former oarsman at SU. Additionally, Mike was at SU when my son was one the team his first two years at SU. Comming from CA was an a djustment for son and Mike and some of the others made my son feel at home and were instrumental with son's success. Mike and his family opened up their home to my son for thanksgiving his last two years at SU. So it doesn't surprise mr to hear this about him

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