FIERCENESS, PERSISTENCE, WISDOM

Keynote address at 2018 Women’s Alumnae Brunch

By Peg Achterman, ’82
February 3, 2018
Conibear Shellhouse

Good morning – and thanks to the committee for letting me tell a few stories.

Before I came to the U – I did every sport in every season – swimming, basketball, track – even a little field hockey and softball. I was a walk-on for UW track and field in my freshman year – throwing shot and disc over there on a where there are some new stadium seats now. But I was also spending a LOT of time in the old weight room in the basement of Tubby Graves – UGH – the smell in there!

When I was outside though – I’d stare out at the water and watch the shells go by – and often think – that looks way more fun. Little did I know!

So sophomore year I switched – that time in the weight room helped and I did OK and was hooked. There were so many women in the shellhouse I looked up to – good friendships formed.

This is a much younger me – and Dani Hansen’s mom – Sharon!


The summer after my novice year – I went back to being a camp counselor and when I returned the women’s program was different – that guy Bob Ernst who’d coached my boyfriend – he was taking over. Hmmmm – well, now I’d be on the varsity team and I’d find out about this Ernst guy.


Wow it got really hard – but we also got really good. I was so fortunate to be part of great teams Bob ….and Jan ….brought us to new places….


Like a couple of national championships – thanks for bringing those trophies back to Conibear by the way – and try outs for national team…and really just a great start for a UW journalism major.


That solid base gave me a launch into the world professionally, but it also proved a different foundation from that of my non-rowing friends.

That foundation has carried me through my life….

Let me tell you how these three things align with the types of people in my life.

First – fierceness – not angry or scary, but ruggedness….that thing we feel at the start of a race – that made my legs shake a little as we waited for the starter – but one we know as facing a big challenge with grit –

I think you guys now say……embracing the suck!

I mean who does this WILLINGLY – go so hard down a course that by the end I thought I was going to cough up my lungs, I couldn’t hear because of the sound of my heart pounding….you know how that is. Who practices for this many hours in the pouring rain for a race that lasts a few minutes?

There is fierceness in this – this decision to go forward in the face of a known challenge.

Ask Eleanor McElvaine – she personified this for me when she was a freshman and I was a senior. When the docks were frozen we had to play soccer – in the snow! She tells a story about me (not sure I believe it) – that there she was innocently running down the field and I kind of stepped in to stop her. The words she used I think were “I ran into a brick wall – YOU” But she got up – that mere freshman – with fierceness and kept playing.

We all know teammates who have endured – on the water and off. You catch a crab – you recover, you fail an exam – you come back on the next.

Look to those who are younger – by a lot or a little for that determination – that fierce drive. It is why I love teaching – your head-strong dreams and passions inspire me. Keep young women in your lives.

Next – persistence – that “hang in-ness” the never-quit attitude that we develop as rowers.

Yeah coach – we’ll go row around Mercer Island, yeah – we’ll do two-minute pieces all the way home from Kirkland — Another 10 strokes at a sprint when I don’t think there is anything left? Give it to me!

NEVER THE LESS – SHE PERSISTED was popularized last year – that’s not news to Husky rowers.

This fall – as you might be able to tell by the cool hairstyle – I had to go through chemo and radiation. The thing about chemo – you can feel OK and then they make you sick – in fact a few days before treatment – a pre-op nurse called and asked me a bunch of questions – some of which were around medications – I confirmed what I took and she said “do you take ANYTHING” – I said yes – I just told you and she said — nothing like Lipitor or blood pressure meds? I said – nope – I’m really pretty healthy – actually that’s the thing….

Two days before I started treatment I rode in a 35 mile-fund raising bike ride called Cycle the Wave – it’s all women and it raises money to help get women get out of violence. I was feeling pretty good and then they made me feel like crap.


This was me in the first week – I really did feel awful – but I thought back to Conibear – pulled on my favorite sweatshirt and posted this on Instagram.

At one point a port became infected and they had to take that out and put in what’s called a Pic-line. It was kind of a last-minute deal and the physician said, “I don’t usually sedate people for this. Is that OK? I’ll deaden it of course, but is that OK?” I shrugged and said SURE. The whole time he was working along on my right side – pulling things out, putting things in – he kept saying “are you OK?” — I kept saying YES…I’m fine. About the 5th time of “are you OK?” I finally said Look, I was a rower at UW…..you can cause me a lot of pain for about 5-6 minutes – unrelenting, pretty horrible pain – and I’ll be fine. He laughed and said – sheesh – wish everyone on this table was like that.

All I could think was no – it’s pretty rare really – but I know this group of women … and I thought of Sherril O’Steen who also endured chemo…Kristi Norelius too – just out of my boats. Kris Sanford – who came a few years after I graduated and went through this while in school…and many others who have also persisted…through injury, illness and so much more.


The best part was –I was surrounded by encouragers – cheerleaders – and they helped me persist, to persevere – to just keep going…and I couldn’t have done it without them. We can handle pain, discouragement, let downs and hard things because we’ve had coaches and friends who encourage us.

Finally – wisdom – as a freshman you might get it from a senior, as a senior you might look around and at these older women in the room, but wisdom comes from living those things you know so well as a Husky rower….

Some outside of this room might think – well, duh – of course all of those erg pieces, early practices and intense races – that builds character and such….

But we know how special this is….

That you cannot do this without a team, without the swing, without rhythm, without being ONE.

This isn’t basketball or softball – you move together. Behind all of the physical challenge is that fact that we are not alone in our pursuits. You get wise early due to this team you’re on.

This is my last day of chemo – and a dear fierce young friend of mine who was one of the many who came alongside.

Many in this room will tell you – what they learned on that water, in the weight room, on the ergs – those lessons have carried them into life held up by the long…long traditions of Husky Women Rowers!

That’s our secret in rowing – and particularly in WASHINGTON ROWING – that fierceness, persistence and wisdom come from our sisters – our TEAM.

Thank you.