Women’s History

1987 Women: “On a Mission” to the National Championship

March 1, 2017:
On the 30th anniversary of the 1987 women’s historic sweep of the Women’s Collegiate Rowing National Championships on Lake Natoma, we are reprising this Husky Crew Newsletter article written by Washington Rowing historian Eric Cohen, ’82, in 2005. Congratulations to all of the members of this team. Washington Rowing celebrates your success, inspiration, and your continued commitment to the Washington Rowing program. No team has swept the Women’s National Championships since the Huskies did it in 1987.

Since 1981, the women’s rowing team at Washington has won 23 national championship events. And although 1997 produced our first NCAA team champions (the first year the NCAA sanctioned the sport), you have to go back ten years earlier to find what arguably was the deepest year in the history of the women’s sport at Washington.

The 1987 squad was coming off a rare and disappointing loss at the National Championships in 1986. Washington had swept the varsity event for five straight years – a streak that still stands as the longest in the history of women’s rowing. Every program in the nation had been gunning for Washington for years, and when Wisconsin prevailed in the final that June day in ’86, the question on everyone’s mind was – “is the dynasty dead?”

Not quite. To say the team re-committed itself early that year is an understatement. “We were on a mission,” said Kris Sanford, 1987 varsity stroke. “The year before we were a very young team. We had T-shirts that said ‘Remember We’re Young.’ Coach Ernst said he never wanted to see those again.”

The ’87 varsity was tested in their first race at San Diego, but powered through the defending champion Badgers to win by a half-length, boosting team confidence. Two weeks later, after sweeping the Redwood Shores event over Harvard and Princeton, the team was poised for greatness. “We were so incredibly up for that race,” said Sanford, “it felt like the weight of the world was lifted off our shoulders. That was a pivotal point in our season.”

Meanwhile, not so subtly, the JV 8 was cruising. By the middle of May, the crew had won every race entered by open water, and became Pac-10 champs by stroking to an eighteen-second victory over the closest competition. “We did pretty well against the varsity in training, and felt we were talented”, said Stephanie Doyle, coxswain of the JV8, recently. “From the first day of October, everyone on the team knew we were not there to have fun. We were there to avenge. The one goal we had together was to be first across the line at Nationals.”

On the last day of May, that goal would become reality. The Varsity four began with a one-length victory over runner-up Princeton. The JV’s followed with a gut wrenching four-seat win over Yale. “We were untested in the sprint,” said Doyle “and we ended up rowing neck and neck down the course. I remember ending that race and feeling like I hadn’t taken a breath the whole way.”

That left the varsity. In their heat the day before, they were forced to row through Harvard in the sprint, after being down by a length early. In the final it was déjà vu, only this time both Yale and Harvard charged ahead. But in the end, the fit and intensely determined Huskies powered through the east coast schools to win by a half-length. “I think that is what distinguished that team,” said Sanford. “There was never any fear whether or not we could come back in a race. We just knew we would. They had that quality.”

Bob Ernst, who coached the 1987 women’s varsity team, reflected on that season. “1987 was the perfect storm. The team was committed to getting better. Lake Natoma felt like our home course. We had a lot of good athletes. And they really wanted to win.”

Wanted to win – and on a mission – from the very first day of October.

Photo caption:
The 1987 women’s varsity, bow to stern: Lind Lusk, Katarina Wikstrom, Fritzi Grevstad, Sara Watson, Heidi Hook, Lisa Beluche, Alice Henderson, Kris Sanford, and Trish Lydon (cox). Washington’s 1987 rowing team is the only squad to sweep the varsity events in the history of the women’s collegiate National Championships.