Making waves Making waves Making waves

Like the ‘Boys in the Boat,’ UW women’s rowing has its own inspiring story.

By Hannelore Sudermann | September 2023

What couldn’t women do? At the turn of the last century, that was the big question. Shaking off Victorian strictures, young women were challenging gender roles, demanding the right to vote, climbing mountains and attending college.

Why shouldn’t they, then, partake of one of the most popular sports at the University of Washington?

Despite resistance from campus leaders, they did. The sweet-scented pages of an old Tyee yearbook reveal that in 1903—one year after the men’s crew was formed—a women’s rowing team was out on Lake Washington in four-oared barges. The entry names 10 students “in training” and describes them as rising early to be at the dock by 6 a.m. and using “the same boat as the boys and under the same conditions.” To do this, the women hiked down muddy, wooded trails in their woolen exercise uniforms to learn and master a sport that was just catching hold on the West Coast. The story of women’s rowing at the UW—rife with hardship, gumption and elite athleticism—is every bit the classic Northwest tale as the men’s.

Former men’s coxswain, Eric Cohen, ’82, has spent the past two decades chronicling the history of rowing at the UW. He was at first challenged by the paucity of details about the early years of women’s crew at the UW. In addition to relying on the research of only a few other historians, he dug into old yearbooks and newspapers to find details of the early efforts.

“I think we need to mention Hiram Conibear (the head rowing coach from 1907 to 1917),” he says. “He was fairly eccentric—so curious and adept.” “Connie,” as he was known, had the personality of a company founder, an energy and charisma that easily won people over. He cut a dashing figure on the dock with his crop of thick hair and dapper tweed jackets. While making rowing an official sport of the University, Conibear didn’t hesitate to include women—welcoming them to train just as rigorously as the men and pushing them to be varsity athletes. “No question, he wanted women to row at Washington,” Cohen says. “And the women themselves wanted it too.”

Conibear resisted the voices from “upper campus” where the faculty and administrators held sway. They said women didn’t have the physical fortitude to row, and that it was unladylike.

Conibear resisted the voices from “upper campus” where the faculty and administrators held sway. They said women didn’t have the physical fortitude to row, and that it was unladylike. Undaunted, he armed the women with oars and sent them out in sun, rain or wind to train. As demand among the students grew, Conibear invited the more experienced rowers, like Gretchen O’Donnell from the class of 1912, to help coach.

As it plays out in the pages of The Daily and the Pacific Wave, the student newspaper and magazine, respectively, Conibear fought for years against a pernicious countercurrent from the administration to disband the women’s crew—or at least limit participation to upperclasswomen. At one point, a campus committee found “rowing is a strenuous sport and unless the persons indulging therein are in good physical condition, it is capable of doing harm.” Conibear and the students pushed back, protested and petitioned. And in some cases, they simply ignored the restrictions. In 1909, more women turned out to row than did men.

Then came Lucy Pocock. The English immigrant from a family of boat builders was 24 and over 6 feet tall. She had helped finance her family’s relocation from Kingston upon Thames to the West Coast by winning races along the river. Her granddaughter Heidi Danilchik found details of Pocock’s story going through memorabilia after her mother died. “I found all these boxes of tarnished silver, all these awards from meets,” she says. “I realized she really did something amazing.” She found news stories about her grandmother competing—in full corset—and winning in the first women’s sculling championship to be held on the Thames. Pocock was a skilled oarswoman, and Conibear urged her to coach the women’s team. “Lucy was already working for the UW and cooking for the men’s crew,” says Danilchik. Pocock’s younger brother George had recently been recruited by Conibear to build racing shells for the men’s crew. George Pocock had a genius for crafting nimble, lightweight racing shells. In his later years, he often reminisced about Lucy. “He talked about her stroke and how beautiful she was rowing,” Danilchik says. “She was so tall, he didn’t have to modify the boats much from the ones he made for men.”

In fall of 1913, with a prize-winning rower as coach and a reintroduction of women’s crew to campus, students turned out en masse to join. Thanks to Conibear’s media outreach, the newspapers took notice. A headline in the Seattle Star exclaimed “Women’s Champion Teaching University Girls to Row.”

Unfortunately, the administration pushed back again, allowing the women to row, but forbidding them from racing. Frustrated, Pocock resigned, though the community support for women’s rowing continued in her wake. “It was such a strange time,” says Cohen. “Women were being given the opportunities to pursue college educations, but they couldn’t vote and were prevented from participating in certain sports.” While the men’s team was racing, the women wanted to compete. “We know from later interviews that once they got out of the eyesight of campus, they’d race each other,” says Cohen.

Maybe they could have persevered, but in 1917, their greatest campus ally, Conibear, died suddenly—breaking his neck while picking fruit from a tree in his yard. And the United States had joined in World War I. Soon the south end of campus was turned into a military camp. All rowing was halted.

While the men’s program was revived as quickly as possible, the women’s was dismantled. From there, women’s rowing during the span of time between 1920 and the 1960s, was pretty much nonexistent, Cohen says. Just a few pictures and yearbook mentions suggest women ever went out in the boats, he says. For decades, “it all but disappeared,” he says.

The UW 1972 Open 8+ team at the National Women’s Rowing Association championship at Green Lake. Left to right: Susan Wayne, Pat Carter, Debby Tonge, Claudia Wells, Jan Holman (Harville), Linda Cless, Susan Bowen, Shelley Benoit, and Jean Turney (coxswain). Harville was the UW women’s head coach from 1988 to 2003.

Then came the ’60s, a decade defined by change. It was a boom time for women demanding stronger roles across American culture. Like their predecessors a half-century earlier, women were challenging their exclusion from boardrooms, classrooms and—in the case of the UW—boats.

In the fall of 1968, a transfer student named Joan Bird wondered why there wasn’t a women’s crew. When she learned that she simply needed to find enough women interested in forming a club and that the Intramural Activities Center (IMA) would provide some resources, Bird got to work. Thirty women signed up, a coach was hired, and the students started borrowing training boats from the men’s freshman crew. They drove to Oregon in spring of 1969 for their first race—the Corvallis Invitational at Oregon State University.

In the summer of 1970, while registering for classes for her freshman first quarter and exploring campus, Jan Harville spotted a flyer that put her on the path to greatness. “I had walked into the HUB and there was this sign that said, ‘Join Women’s Crew. No experience necessary,’” she says.

Harville remembered watching a race in the Montlake Cut with her dad. She also enjoyed sports in high school but found few opportunities to do them competitively. “There really wasn’t much,” she says, listing PE, afterschool basketball, gymnastics and putt-putt golf. “I had lots of exposure to sports, but there was no competition for girls.”

She wasn’t alone in the crowd of new students looking for an outlet. “There was a pent-up athletic demand,” Harville says. So, she and dozens of other young women found their way down to the Montlake Cut, into a boat and onto the team.

It was a hardscrabble start. While the men had the Conibear Shellhouse, the women athletes were based out of a shack on the side of the old ASUW Shell House—the building the men’s crew had used from the 1920s until 1949. Their equipment was limited to a couple of wide tub fours (stable boats used for training), not the sleek racing shells used by the men’s team. Their oars were hand-me-downs from the men. And they weren’t allowed in the men’s crewhouse.

It really is a magical feeling. You pull as hard as you can, and you just fly.

Jan Harville

“It was an organized team in the sense that we had a coach,” Harville says. But that was about where the support ended. “We raised the money for our shirts and travel. I remember going with two other rowers to JCPenney to find matching shirts. We had the bake sales, and after the first year, we got some money from the IMA.”

It would be hard to set the scene of change without Kit Green, says today’s women’s rowing coach Yasmin Farooq. Green came to the UW in 1960 as a PE instructor, but she was soon heading the Intramural Activities program, at the time, the only outlet for women athletes. The UW’s athletic department only funded men’s sports, so women didn’t have scholarships, lockers, coaches, trainers, uniforms or transportation.

But times were changing, and Green was positioned to turn limited funding for women athletes into significant support. To honor her, in April, the crew named its newest varsity eight racing shell the “Kit Green.”

As the women’s crew was reforming locally, Title IX was coming into effect across the nation. The federal law, passed in 1972, prohibited discrimination against students based on sex. With Green’s help, the UW began directing more resources to women’s teams. Still, while the men—supported by the UW athletic department—had their own shell house, with a kitchen, dining hall and new dormitory, the women were hiking to their practice site and changing clothes in a portable toilet.

Since they needed to train for racing in eights (eight-rower racing shells), the women would rise before dawn, meet at their shed and then walk their oars up the shoreline to arrive at the men’s dock at the Conibear Shellhouse by 5 a.m. “We had to be out onto the water by 5:30 because we had to clear the dock before men’s team started their practice at 6,” Harville says. Then they had to be back on land before the men returned.

Without their own trailer or shells, the team would simply drive to races with their oars strapped to the top of their cars and draw lots to see who got what local boat. “It wasn’t without some fights, and it wasn’t without some struggles,” Harville says of those early years. “When I started off, I didn’t quite get all that. I was excited to have the opportunity. But then, we thought, wait a minute, the guys had all these things, and we didn’t have anything.”

Even today, you can come in not knowing how to row and become an Olympic athlete. Our history is one of both excellence and opportunity.

Jan Harville

In spite of the early mornings and the hard work, as well as the jeering and teasing they endured from members of the men’s crew, Harville and many of her teammates were hooked on the sport.

“I think it happened pretty fast,” she says. “I was learning something new. I was on the water. And I loved being outside.” One day, after figuring out how to hold the oar, stroke and work together out in one of the tub fours, it happened—not just for Harville, but for the other women in the boat. “We had learned to row a little bit better and a little bit harder and all of a sudden, we could feel the boat run. All of our catches were together. You might call it the swing of the boat or the run of the boat. It really is a magical feeling. You pull as hard as you can, and you just fly,” she says. “To this day, we remember that moment.”

In 1971, the Huskies won four divisions in the National Women’s Rowing Association championships. They did it again in 1972, putting them solidly on the path to consistently dominating national rowing competitions.

In 1975, thanks to Title IX and people like Kit Green, women’s rowing became a varsity sport for the second time. Their first Varsity 8 win came in 1981 and was followed by four more consecutive years of championships. By this time, the men’s and women’s programs were working together as UW Rowing, sharing resources and paying their coaches and trainers equitably.

Harville graduated in 1974 and went to work as a microbiologist, but she and a few of her old teammates couldn’t break the habit of rowing. “Some of us just really enjoyed it.” she says. A few years later, she tried out for the national team, and joined the U.S. Olympic teams in 1976 and 1980. In fall of 1980, Bob Ernst, who had coached Olympic teams (which included several Huskies) from 1976 to 1988, was hired as the women’s head coach and tapped Harville to be the assistant coach. “The UW was in a phase of making things more equitable for women,” Harville says.

In 1987, Harville became the women’s head coach. Over 16 seasons, she directed the team to three NCAA championships. Joining the NCAA in 1997 meant the program could offer scholarships and recruit elite athletes.

While the book and upcoming motion picture, “The Boys in the Boat,” features the men’s crew of 1936, it is part of the bigger story of UW Rowing, Harville says. “I think the movie is going to be awesome. The book was so good. The book gave us a way to help our families and the University and other people we work with understand the sport and its history.”

While rowing on the East Coast and in Europe might be seen as something as elite, “I never felt that here,” Harville says. It’s much more about kids from working-class families finding something resonant in the sport.

“Even today, you can come in not knowing how to row and become an Olympic athlete,” she says. “Our history is one of both excellence and opportunity.”

Pictured at top: Women’s crew members from the early 1900s join coach Hiram Conibear in front of the boathouse on Lake Washington.