40 years as a varsity sport
By Maura King Scully
Debbie Packer ’76 had chased after a few tennis balls in high school, but an athlete she was not. Nor was Cuyler Overholt ’76 or Catherine Clark ’76, but when Overholt and Clark saw signs posted around campus for a new women’s rowing club in the fall of 1972, they decided to find out what Trinity was offering in a sport that was dominated by men on a campus that had only recently begun to admit women. “They had us try out rowing in the indoor tanks on campus, and it piqued our interest,” recalls Overholt, who later “dragged” Packer into it as well.Soon, there were nine women signed up for rowing — all first-years. “At the time, it was novel for a group of women to come trooping down to the river,” recalls Packer, now a director with PricewaterhouseCoopers in New York City.
“The women’s rights movement was in its infancy,” explains Overholt, a novelist. “We hadn’t been brought up with the idea that we could do whatever we set our minds to. Crew taught us that lesson. When your body tells you that you don’t have another stroke in you, and you manage to pull it off, that really stays with you.”
Pulling it off was no small feat in those early days. “We would race in our mismatched sweats and in heavy old wooden boats which nobody else wanted to use. They were clunkers,” recalls Overholt. “We had to learn quickly to dig deep and stop complaining.”
Today, as the College celebrates the 40th anniversary of women’s rowing as a varsity sport, it’s hard to imagine the great gender divide in sports at the time. Title IX, the comprehensive federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded education program or activity, had only recently been passed in 1972. “Rowing was very traditional. Very male. Very structured. Athletics for women were not on the radar screen,” says Ric Ricci ’73, a three-year varsity oarsman at Trinity who went on to spend his career as a collegiate rowing coach.
Gary Caldwell, the women’s team’s first coach, recalls that the idea to start a women’s program was generated by women on campus with the support of the then-head coach, Norm Graf. In turn, Caldwell recruited Ricci to come back to campus and coach the women during their second season. “I thought, ‘Women rowing, really?’ ” recalls Ricci. But he was quickly hooked and even agreed to coach the women on a volunteer basis.
In the early years, the women rowed only in the fall, a “bugaboo” according to Caldwell since competitive rowing was a spring sport. In addition, the women had to be up and out on the river by 6:00 a.m. “At the start, we were rowing around the same time as the men, but one day we were standing out on the dock waiting for the men to come in and the coxswain ran the boat right into the dock,” recalls Overholt. “Coach decided we were a distraction so we had to get up at 5:30, but eventually the men got used to us and started taking us seriously.”
Since that time, women’s rowing has evolved into one of Trinity’s signature sports. Christine Smith Collins ’91 was a high school track runner with no background in rowing. But when she arrived at Trinity, she was attracted to the idea of doing something completely different. “In rowing, you can be a superstar, but you’re only as good as the people around you. You really have to have a great team to be successful,” says Collins, who went on to win eight national championships, four world titles, six world championships, and an Olympic bronze medal in rowing. She is now associate general counsel for Boston University.
“There was a race I’ll never forget,” says Collins. “It was cold and rainy and my back was hurting. And Norm [Graf] had caught me eating a candy bar before the race. It was a miserable day, but we started to slowly move out. The boat was going really well. And it’s in a moment like that that you forget about the coach berating you for eating a candy bar. You forget it’s miserable. We won the race. I remember thinking this is why I do this: it’s so hard, but when you triumph through all of the challenges, it makes the finish so much sweeter.”
Of equal importance were the friends Collins made. “At Trinity, rowing gave me the ability to find a group of friends and an environment that felt comfortable,” she continues. “It surrounded me with hardworking, like-minded people who were really focused but also fun and liked a good time. We were a support network for each other. When you spend so much time together and work so hard side by side, a bond develops.”
Packer echoes that sentiment. “[In rowing], you basically live together through trying times, you exert yourself, and people see you at your best and worst and still like you,” she says. “You have to rely on each other to have the boat run smoothly.”
“Winning championships and big races are exciting moments in rowing, but it’s the small day-to-day things that make the experience so memorable,” says Renée Jones, interim head women’s rowing coach. “Don’t get me wrong. Winning an NCAA championship title, the Women’s Henley Regatta, or medaling at the Head of the Charles are big moments that bring out a feeling of success, team accomplishment, and happiness, but I’m not sure if these would be the first things talked about when standing in a room with alumnae rowers. Sharing the small moments and reconnecting with friends are what come to mind when I think about women’s rowing at Trinity.”
LOOKING BACK, ROWING FORWARD
As Trinity celebrates the 40th anniversary of women’s rowing as a varsity sport, we invite alumni and friends to contribute to the Women’s Rowing Endowment. This new fund — among the largest for women’s athletics — will be used to purchase new shells for the team every three to four years. The goal is to raise $250,000 through the end of 2016. In recent years, the women’s rowing team has triumphed at a number of races. Among its wins: In 2015, the varsity eight won its fourth national title and second in a row in the NCAA Division III Championship Regatta, while the team finished second overall in the team standings. Entering the dual-race season in the spring of 2015 as the No. 1 team in the country, the Bantams posted an 11-0-1 mark following a 23-second victory over Wesleyan to win the Trudy Harding Emerson Trophy for the fourth year in a row.
“We hope to christen the first shell from the endowment at the Head of the Riverfront Regatta in October 2016,” said Kevin MacDermott, head coach of men’s rowing and interim director of rowing.
For more information about the Women’s Rowing Endowment, please contact Jennifer Wrobel ’07, assistant director of leadership giving, at (860) 297-4235 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
20 women try out for first-ever Women’s Rowing Club at Trinity, racing against Wellesley College, Smith College, Vassar College, the University of Massachusetts, Marist College, and Wesleyan UniversitySpring 1973