Women’s History

Washington Women’s Rowing History, Then and Now

by Jan Harville ’74, Pac 12 Coach of the Century

1969
This was the first year of UW women’s crew in the modern era. Women were rowing in the early 1900s, but this ended in 1917 due to WWI, lack of administration support, and social pressure (basically too much sweat and competition for women at the time). I started rowing as a freshman in 1970, so I wasn’t quite a pioneer in the 1st year like others were. I just know that I felt really lucky to just have the opportunity—there were no sports for girls in high school at the time, just after school activities, and that’s here in Seattle at Roosevelt High School.

We were a club sport run by the IMA. We used the old Canoe House, rowed in old wherry 4s, had cut-down wood oars, and a porta-potty outside. I remember wearing cut-off jeans and changing clothes in the back of the boathouse. But we loved it! It was different, fun, hard, and rewarding. We met George Pocock, Dolly Callow, learned some of the UW rowing history, and felt we were a part of it. And throughout all this there was an undercurrent of an ongoing push for more and better equipment and more support as it was impossible to ignore the gap between what we had and what the men had.

1972
Title IX of the Education Amendments was passed by Congress and signed into law by Richard Nixon. Title IX prohibits sex discrimination in any educational program or activity receiving any type of federal financial aid. This law is the foundation of almost every advance women have made in sports, especially college sports.

Times were changing, civil rights were being fought for, women were burning bras, war was being protested—people were expressing the need for change and equality. Title IX was passed, really, to provide equal opportunities for women in things like law and medical school admissions. Collegiate sports were a happy unintended consequence. The old boys clubs in universities and congress went bonkers when they realized Title IX was going to apply to college sports. They were going to have to share and they didn’t like it. There were numerous attempts to change the law as well as years of non-enforcement under Reagan, but Title IX has endured. But it’s really important to stay vigilant—now as much as ever.

So how this affected Washington:
Women’s Crew became a varsity sport in 1975. Some improvements were made in budgeting, travel, and equipment as well as hiring a full-time coach and rowing out of Conibear, but this was really just the start of things. Between 1975 and 1980, there were a lot of battles for resources and acceptance going on that were felt by our athletes

1980: Washington took a bold step.
Pushed by Title IX deadlines for compliance as well as by our athletes, the athletic department
created a model that helped us be successful almost right away. Bob Ernst was promoted from the men’s freshman coach to the women’s head coach and a new assistant position was created (me!) The men’s and women’s budgets were combined and then Bob and Dick Erickson (our men’s coach) were told to run the program together and make it work. So, in one step, the men’s and women’s programs became equal in most ways. This put us ahead of most rowing programs in the country because it eliminated most of the men vs women fights for resources. With Bob’s leadership and expertise, this put us in a position to become competitive nationally and dominate for quite a while.

About this time, there were also a lot of new innovations in equipment. All the boats had been wood up till now and had just begun to be built specifically for women—now there were fiberglass and composite shells. The first Concept 2 carbon fiber oars were introduced, the first coxboxes appeared, and the 1st Concept 2 ergs came out.

The racing distance for women switched from 1K to 2K in 1985. I was happy for the change because even though I liked racing 1K, I really didn’t like that we were thought to be too weak or soft to race 2K. Sure, there are some small differences in racing different lengths, but they’re both going to be extremely painful if you’re planning on winning.

1997
The NCAA voted to sponsor women’s rowing and the 1st NCAA championship was held on Lake Natoma in Sacramento. This is directly related to Title IX since most schools were still out of compliance with the law and needed to add more women’s sports and scholarships—and this was 25 years since Title IX was passed!

This caused 3 big things:
-1st, a fully funded and well-run championship with the credibility of the NCAA name.
-2nd, scholarships were added, though many schools did this slowly for budget reasons or how out of compliance they were with Title IX.
-3rd, more schools started sponsoring rowing. Big public football schools like Michigan and Ohio State became competitive pretty fast with large budgets for scholarships, equipment, coaching, and travel.

This also opened up opportunities for us to race and win internationally in historic races in places like Henley and, more recently, New Zealand.

So let’s fast forward to today:
There is more and better technology. Look around, there are boats, oars, and ergs all over the place and all the best available. The recruiting & training are better funded and more sophisticated.

And probably the biggest thing, there are more competitive women’s programs, a huge increase in numbers of women rowing and programs offering rowing since 1997. I think it’s gone from ~85 to ~150, so practically doubled. This is nothing but good news—more women are getting opportunities in our great sport all that it offers.

So—this brings us back to what hasn’t changed:
• It’s you, our current athletes.
• Yes, the faces and names may have changed, but you are the magic ingredient in all this.
• You are the ones that make the boats go fast and win.
• As I’ve heard many times, “it’s the horses, not the chariot”.
• It’s your determination, toughness, grit, perseverance that is the heart of all this.
• We want you to be demanding of yourself and your teammates.
• -Race with a reckless abandon and the confidence of your preparation.
• Enjoy your journey and your teammates—as most of us here know, your rowing friends will be your most steadfast
• And know that we all support you—we are all stronger together.
• So, to all our athletes, go fast and have a great year!

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