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Student-Athlete Feature: Katy Gillingham – From Rowing Crew to Fire Crew

By Kimberlie Haner

Fresh off of a national championship with the UW women’s crew, Katy Gillingham didn’t take the summer off. Rather, she worked harder than she has any summer to fight the fires burning in the Pacific Northwest.

In 2017, Gillingham, a junior from Seattle, and the Husky rowing team dominated the competition. She rowed in the five seat in the first varsity eight, winning the Pac-12 and NCAA Championships. Afterwards, instead of sticking around Seattle to train for next season, she pursued another dream of hers: firefighting.

“It has been my life goal since I was three years old to be a firefighter,” Gillingham said. “At that point it seemed like something fun and epic, almost like being a superhero. I want to be the first person on the scene when somebody is having the worst day of their life. I want to be someone that people can count on to save them, their families and their life.”

There is a history of firefighting in the Gillingham family. Her great-uncle was a wild land firefighter, and his son fought the fires in southern Oregon last summer. Additionally, her cousin and her aunt’s sister were firefighters for a couple of summers.

Following her sophomore year at Washington, Gillingham applied to be a wild land firefighter. She got a call for an interview, which she drove five hours to attend. She ended up getting hired onto a hand crew.

This was uncharted territory for Gillingham. She has worked hard to become part of the best rowing team in the nation, which lends a lot of credibility for those who know the intensity that sport requires. But as for firefighting?

“The closest thing I had to experience in this kind of work is helping my parents around the yard,” Gillingham said. “And helping my grandparents clean up fallen trees and branches after windstorms.”

The first of the many fires in the Pacific Northwest last summer began at the end of June. Gillingham spent most of her time near Loomis and around Colville. She helped fight a fire near the Mount Rainier National Forest, one in Cle Elum and one north of Bend.

Most days started at 5 a.m. and ended at 10 p.m. The crew averaged about six hours of sleep each night, often sleeping in a field, a school’s football field or a wheat field.

Gillingham and her crew worked on the “initial attack.” Part of this process involves cutting trees and underbrush to construct the fire line to give the fire less fuel, lessening the chances of a fire spreading past that point.

With about a month left until she had to return to Seattle, she sprained her ankle and had to sit out for four days. Despite the injury never fully healing, she continued to work. She was part of a team. Like she learned from rowing, she knew she couldn’t let the crew down.

“It never got much better, but that’s the name of the game,” Gillingham said. “The crew needs you and a little bit of pain wasn’t going to stop me from making sure I had those guys’ backs.”

Throughout the summer, Gillingham worked hard. Not only was she the third youngest, but she was one of three women in the crew and was occasionally underestimated.

“There were a lot of small things that people would do or say that implied that they were more capable of doing something than I was,” Gillingham said. “Strength was never an issue for me. I could get the job done.”