February 27, 1998

Twin VUSM students have their sights set on Sydney

Twin VUSM students have their sights set on Sydney

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Vanderbilt medical students Justin and Dana Piasecki train for the Olympics daily on Percy Priest Lake. (Photo by Donna Jones Bailey).

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Justin (left) and Dana Piasecki coast to the end of their workout. (Photo by Donna Jones Bailey).

Every Friday at noon, when many second-year medical students are getting out of class and heading to lunch or home for a nap, Justin and Dana Piasecki head for Percy Priest Lake.

Six days a week, good weather or bad, the identical Piasecki twins arrive at the Hamilton Creek Marina, stretch for a few minutes, then hop into slender kayaks and paddle quickly out onto the lake.

For the 23-year-old brothers, flat water sprint kayaking is more than just an exercise regimen or a hobby. For them it may be their one shot at an Olympic medal.

In May, when medical school classes end, the Piaseckis will begin a two-year leave from Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. They will become residents of an Olympic training center near San Diego where they will train for the next two years in hopes of qualifying for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia.

The twins, from Bristol, Vt., have always been athletic. When they were five, they began swimming competitively. But during their junior year in high school, a family friend spotted kayaking potential in the two brothers.

The friend, a former Olympic kayak competitor, saw a champion physical build and drive in the brothers.

"He saw us and said 'you guys would be really good at this,'" Dana said. "But we told him we were swimmers and were going to continue swimming."

Through high school and two years of college ‹ Harvard for Dana and Stanford for Justin ‹ the twins continued to swim competitively.

"But we got to the point where we didn't know if we were going to be able to take the next step in swimming," Dana said. "We always kind of had Olympic hopes and we thought that kayaking would be a great chance for us to do something together instead of competing against each other."

So the two set their sights on competing in two-person kayaking. There have been a couple of obstacles along the way, however.

Learning the proper technique, with one brother in California and the other in Massachusetts, would be impossible. So the twins were excited when, a little more than two years ago, they moved to Nashville to attend medical school. They would finally have the chance to train together.

Sort of.

With the Olympics now just a little more than two years away, they are still training individually in single-person kayaks.

"They are the lower-end boats,² Justin said. ³The (United States) coach said that racing those boats would be like racing mountain bikes in the Tour de France. They're great for training because they're heavier boats, made of fiberglass. But they're older models, the ones we purchased in college. The hull shape is lousy and they are flexible, not stiff. They're overweight. Everybody we compete against has state-of-the-art boats. We take our big clunkers, with holes and duct tape, to compete.²

The Piaseckis luck is about to change, however. Through the generosity of a fundraising effort by the VUSM faculty, a campaign is under way to raise enough money for the twins to have a state-of-the-art, two-person kayak. About half of the money has been raised.

³One of the funniest things about this is that we¹re training to be in the same boat, but to this day have not been able to train in the same boat,² Dana said. ³We have not been able to do what all of our competition has been able to do, to train and race together in the same boat, in a good boat. Now we¹re really looking forward to being able to do that.²

With some concentrated training, the twins have a good chance, their coach believes.

They participated in the U.S. Olympic Festival trials in 1994. They¹ve gone to the Canadian National Championships.

In the 1996 Olympic trials, they placed 10th overall, not a good enough placement to qualify to go to the Atlanta games. They would have had to have placed either first or second in order to qualify.

In 1997, in the U.S. Nationals competition, they placed fourth in the 500 meter and fifth in the 1,000 meter. ³The 1,000 is our best race, but because we don¹t own our own (two-person) boat and have to borrow second-rate boats from other clubs, I believe we could have been second or third with a good boat,² Justin said.

Last year, with some encouraging words from the U.S. coach, Dana began to think the twins should pursue their dream a little more intensely.

³It was going very well here at school, and the coach was excited that we were still paddling here and began sending us some workouts,² Justin said.

The twins are dedicated to their training. Nothing but a wind chill less than 15 degrees can keep them from Percy Priest Lake. Their grades have not suffered from the time spent at Percy Priest, and neither has Justin¹s marriage.

Jill, Justin¹s wife, doesn¹t mind the attention the brothers pay to their sport, Justin said. She travels during the week as a management consultant when most of their workouts take place.

³She¹s been fabulous with all this. We care so much for each other and she knows this is something that makes me happy. That¹s why she¹s so supportive. I wouldn¹t be where I am today without her,² Justin said.

The Piasecki twins are rated among the best kayak teams in the United States this year.

At the world team trials last May, the Olympic committee set up time standards based on the winning times during the past two Olympics and the world championships. If the kayakers were within four percent of that time, the team would pay for the individuals to live and train at the training center in California. The Piaseckis were three seconds under that time.

³At that point the coach said Œwe want you to take time off from school and come out here now and start training full time. I think you guys would have a good shot at the gold medal if you started training full time,¹² he said.

It was a difficult decision to make.

³We¹ve been training in a lousy boat. We¹ve had no coaching. We¹ve had all of these other distractions. Boy, if we could just focus and get a boat that¹s actually competitive, we could actually supersede these other guys, make the team and be competitive.²

³We could have our food paid for. The guys living at the training center were coming right off the water, eating for 2 hours, then sleeping for three. We were staying up late, studying and eating out of cans to save money,² Dana said.

With only one year of medical school behind them, they talked with Dr. Deborah C. German, associate dean for Students, to try to decide whether it would be better to leave after their first or second year of medical school.

³In the end we tried to weigh everything together and decided it was wisest to finish the first two years and try to get the boards out of the way. It was a tough decision because we¹ll be taking more of a risk in terms of how well we can do athletically. We¹re spending another year trying to fit school and training together. In the big picture, though, we felt that for our lives and careers, it was the smartest thing to do.²

The Piaseckis have nothing but praise for the faculty who have stood behind them.

³We¹ve been our own team from the start,² Dana said. ³We haven¹t had an organization to really represent until now. Vanderbilt¹s faculty has been so supportive. Take, for example, our exams ‹ in order to race last spring, we had to take our finals when we got back. I think they would have been well within their rights to say ŒLook, this is medical school. You¹re taking the exams when everyone else does and this other stuff is just paddling around in boats,² Dana said.

³But they didn¹t. Instead they said, Œwe¹ll work it out. We¹ll find a way to make it work.²

The twins said that German has been especially supportive.

³Her philosophy has been. ŒYou need to learn medicine to be a doctor – that¹s the most important thing,¹ ² Dana said. ŒBut if you can also develop other parts of your life, you¹ll be a much better doctor. You¹ll be a happier doctor.¹²

German said the medical school is happy to help the Piaseckis achieve their Olympic goal.

³I believe when a student is allowed to combine his or her passion for achieving excellence in a discipline with their career goals in medicine, the result is success for both disciplines,² she said. ³Success breeds success. The passion to strive for excellence in one discipline spills over into another. I have seen this happen many times in our students and believe it is also true for faculty. I choose to see the possibilities rather than the obstacles.²

Justin said the twins are grateful to German and to the entire faculty.

³We want to extend our thanks to the faculty for their unconditional support the past two years and their remarkable generosity the past few months. It has been said that the only thing one owes to opportunity is to take advantage of it,² he said. ³We want to thank the faculty for giving us the opportunity to make Vanderbilt proud.²

As anxious as the brothers are to leave Vanderbilt to train, they¹re equally as anxious to return.

³Both of us are so satisfied about the way the medical school has trained us the first two years,² Justin said. ³We really feel privileged to be in a position to come back to the school to continue our education and become the best physicians we can be. If we catch sight of (NBC commentator) Bob Costas we¹ll ask him to sit down and talk to us.

"It will be exciting to be in a position to hopefully gain some exposure and notoriety for Vanderbilt. We¹re so pleased with everything they¹ve done. It reminds us that it is the people that make this institution so special. We can¹t think of a better place to go to school.²