On the water, Dani Hansen is cool, calm and collected. Full of determination, each stroke brings her closer to another gold medal. Only 35 years prior, her mother was in the same position, braving the chilly, early mornings and grueling erg tests. Both Hansen women have been an essential part of UW rowing’s legacy.
Mother Sharon Hansen – known as Sharon Ellzey in college – arrived at the University of Washington in 1980, and sought out the athletic director, Kit Green. Sharon played basketball in high school, but missed the chance for tryouts at UW. After discovering that there was no field hockey or softball, she was encouraged to check out the women’s rowing team. As if it were fate, Sharon grew into a successful rower, later winning two national championship titles in ‘81 and ‘82.
Dani Hansen is currently a senior at UW, double majoring in psychology and communications. Due to a knee injury, Dani was able to redshirt her freshman year, being a part of the team without competing. This will allow Dani to spend a fifth year on the team next year.
Like many on the team, Dani had no prior rowing experience. In high school, Dani played volleyball well enough to be awarded a scholarship to play at Florida College.
“I had never even seen the sport, even though my mother had rowed whilst in college,” Dani says. “She’s such a humble lady and just never really talked about it much.”
Sharon took Dani on a road trip to see colleges, and decided to have coach Bob Ernst give her a tour of the sports facilities. Dani had her heart set on Florida College, but her mother joked that after two minutes with Ernst, he would change her mind, and, like clockwork, immediately after their conversation, Dani was sold.
Having an experienced rower as a mom has been a worthwhile advantage for Dani. She has someone to vent to, someone who will understand the stress of erg tests and pre-race jitters. Sharon likes being a voice of encouragement to her daughter.
“I know what it’s like to have the hands blistered, and the aching,” Sharon says.
The Hansen family is from California and because of this Sharon is not always able to make all of UW’s regattas, but Dani is always grateful for being able to race with her mom watching. Sharon makes her way up to Seattle multiple times a year for races and the VBC banquet, and always brings the coaches brownies “for putting up with me,” Dani joked.
For Sharon, her most memorable experience while on the team was winning the National Championship of 1981 in Oakland, Calif., and having her parents there to witness it. Now, roughly 30 years later, Dani’s favorite rowing memory is beating Cal on their home course in 2013, family cheering loudly at the finish line.
This year, Dani hopes to help her team win Pac-12’s, and then NCAA’s at the end of the season.
In the Hansen family, rowing has become more than a sport. For Sharon, it has helped her achieve goals and push herself in her career, as well in her personal life. According to Sharon, rowers can put up with just about anything. “You have good work ethic, you are not afraid,” Sharon says. “And if you are, you know how to go on anyway.”
Although both of the Hansen women are ports, rowing together is not completely off the table, and both mother and daughter would love to share boat-time. “We have never rowed together, but I hope one day we’ll be able to,” Dani added with a laugh. “We’d row in one very fast circle!”
O’Connell was looking for a school where she could get a good education and also row. She originally wanted to be a sports writer so she was cross-referencing good communications schools with good rowing programs. At the end it came down to Cal and the UW, but it was really that first Windermere Cup when she knew “that’s where I’m going to go to school!”
O’Connell grew up in San Francisco, the daughter of a police officer. Her first experience in a rowing shell came at the age of 12. The San Francisco Police Department had a rowing team, and occasionally on the weekends she would cox their practices. She had never coxed before but it was “pretty basic stuff,” she says. “I was making sure they didn’t run into the shore and getting them out on the lake.”
From that experience she knew she wanted to row in high school, and ultimately college. She joined the Pacific Rowing Club, a Bay Area conglomerate for high school kids who want to row. It was there that “I really caught the rowing bug in a great way,” O’Connell says.
As a freshman in high school O’Connell tried rowing, but lasted about a month before she was told she was too small. Her coaches knew she had done some steering and they asked her to be a coxswain. She was thrilled with the opportunity to lead in this way, and she’s never looked back.
These early experiences seemed to set O’Connell up for a lifetime of leadership.
From her successful run as a coxswain for Washington from 1993-1996 to being an assistant women’s crew coach at UW from 1997-2003 to her current post as the first woman athletic director for Seattle Pacific University for the last seven years and the first female to chair USRowing, O’Connell has an exceptional, one-of-a-kind track record.
She coxed the Huskies to three Pac-10 Conference championships and collected a bronze medal at the 1995 Collegiate National Championship Regatta. As a senior, O’Connell was the team captain (alongside Michael Callahan who was the men’s captain) and a Pac-10 All-Conference selection.
She’s put in a lot of hard work and looked for opportunities to educate herself along the way. But she really credits Jan Harville and Bob Ernst with getting her to where she is today.
“Where I am today is largely due to my experience with Bob and Jan and the work I did as an assistant coach,” she says. Jan gave her a lot of opportunity over who she was coaching – like working with the team at the Royal Henley Regatta in 2000 – the first time women were allowed to row the historic regatta.
Bob Ernst remembers O’Connell clearly when she came to UW as a freshman. “I really liked her right from the beginning,” he said. “She’s just on fire. She’s got a lot of energy and she doesn’t have boundaries and she’s good. She’s really good. She’s showing other gals that there aren’t any limits.”
O’Connell also acknowledges the role her family has played as well as what she learned as a student-athlete: “The resilience and the time management and the learning to deal with wins and losses and the commitment to a whole bunch of other people prepares you for a career in general and certainly in college athletics. What I’m doing right now isn’t that much different than being a team member and being a coxswain. Now I just have a different title. I’ve been telling people what to do for a very long time,” she says with a laugh.
“Now it’s just in a different seat. All of my coaches (at SPU) are team members and we have to make the boat go together.”