Sports olympics

MIT alumni emerge from the firehose with Olympic dreams intact

The 2016 Olympic Games are in the books. Usain Bolt is still the fastest man on the track and Michael Phelps the fastest in the pool, although Ryan Lochte did all he could to come out of Phelps’s shadows.

Competing in the Olympics is every athlete’s dream, and yet at MIT, the Olympics is most often associated with physics, mathematics, or chemistry. While it is unsurprising that a number of students, both past and present have won accolades at one of the academic Olympiads, there have been MIT athletes who have dared to not let the firehose get in the way of their Olympic aspirations.

The Tech caught up with Michael A. Nackoul ’13 and Veronica Toro ’16 to hear about their journeys.

Nackoul had been weightlifting at the highest level since high school, having won the youth national championship twice. Representing MIT, he won the university national championship and then the junior national championship. By the time he was clinching a top 10 finish at world junior championships in Malaysia, he had a pretty good idea that he wanted to compete professionally and vie for an Olympic berth.

Toro’s quest for an Olympic berth was unique in more ways than one. She arrived at MIT having played softball and volleyball in high school. Realizing she would not be tall enough to play middle blocker in the MIT varsity team, she was advised to try out for lightweight rowing by a TA when she was doing the Interphase program the summer prior to freshman year.

When Toro went back home to Puerto Rico that winter she became aware of the Puerto Rico Rowing Federation from an advertisement in the newspaper. That was when she was told she had a pretty good chance to be an elite rower. But a lot of hard work was still to be done.

So what does it take to train at the highest level?

“When I was a full time athlete I would do fifteen workouts a week, three times (including warm-ups) a day on Mondays, Wednesdays, and  Fridays and then twice on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. It is a full time commitment,” added Nackoul.

“I would row with the MIT team (openweight since sophomore year) in the mornings and then by myself in the afternoons. At the Olympics you row scull — that is you row both sides, whereas at MIT I [only] rowed on the starboard side,”said Toro.

Nackoul often had to drive 30-45 minutes to a friend’s garage to train for Olympic lifting. He is grateful for the support and encouragement he received from MIT football coach Chad Martinovich.

“He was very supporting. He would let me use the varsity weight rooms whenever possible,” said Nackoul.

Toro learnt pretty early on to ask for help. "I think having done the Interphase program made it easy for me to ask for help," he added.

“The assistant coach would often record us while we rowed and I sought her feedback about how I was doing with respect to techniques.”

But perhaps the biggest lesson Toro learnt was from coach Holly Metcalf.

“When you think you are rowing the hardest and you are at the brink of your limits, know that you can push harder,” reminisced Toro.

It is not just the training. Recovery is as important.

“You need to be sleeping well and eating healthy at the same time,”noted Nackoul.

With the strenuous training and recovery how did they handle the p-sets?

“I discussed problems with my friends. I went to every office-hour and recitation,” remarked Toro.

“Organic chemistry was one of the hardest courses I had to take and there were all these complex syntheses that I could not wrap my head around. I still remember Professor Jamison telling me that ‘everyone always looks at synthesis going forward. Think of the products and a couple of ways you can get to it.’ I made flash cards and was able to make it through organic chemistry,” recollected Toro.

Nackoul misses the environment at MIT where a lot of talented people really believe that anything is possible. He is currently based in Seattle working on new technologies for athletes in training.

For Toro one of her memorable moments was being voted the most inspirational rower by her teammates on the varsity team.

“I cared a lot and worked very hard for the team and the team acknowledging that was really special!”

After graduating, Nackoul moved to Colorado Springs to train for the 2016 Olympic trials. Unfortunately a surgery on the right knee and one to repair the left rotator cuff meant he had to postpone his Olympic aspirations for another four years. Nackoul still competes recreationally as he mulls getting back into competitive lifting post-rehabilitation.

Since being introduced to rowing in her freshman year, Toro has taken giant strides. She just missed the bronze medal in the Central American games in 2014; in the 2016 Olympic trials for Latin American countries in March, Toro finished one position below the final qualifier. Toro finished the year with her first medal for the MIT varsity team in the Patriot League and is headed to Stanford Medical School.

“People think I am crazy as I want to train for Tokyo Olympics in 2020 while in medical school," she commented. "But if I could do it while at MIT, I think I can do that too.”