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From Transition to Triumph – The Story of the ’88 Women

By Eric Cohen
The alarm clock went off at 3:30 a.m. Eastern time (12:30 a.m. Seattle time). Monday morning, June 6, 1988. Time to race for a National Championship.

For the women of Washington, it was just another adjustment. They had spent most of the year getting up in the dark and practicing at dawn, why not race in it?

The 87/88 season was a year of adjustment for Washington as Bob Ernst – the coach behind the historical run of women’s National Championships – would turn his focus to the men’s squad. Jan Harville, the ‘80 and ’84 Olympian and women’s novice coach since 1981, was elevated into the women’s head coaching role. “It’s not just a job, it’s a lifestyle” she said to the Seattle P-I in 1988, “It’s what I want to do. I’m lucky.”

In her first year as head varsity coach, she joined a veteran team coming off of a historical National Championship sweep in 1987. Stephanie Doyle was the senior varsity coxswain in 1988, and working under the new coach was an easy transition: “Once we all got over the shock of it,” said Doyle, “it united us even more because we had someone joining us who we knew. We had pursued success together before. Jan and I met every day, as we were all trying to preserve and protect the tradition and culture that was built into that program.”

“I knew Jan was a great coach and had the experience… I wasn’t worried at all,” said Trudy (Ockenden) Taylor, bow seat of the V8. “You knew where you stood. There was no drama.”
Harville echoed that sentiment right back to the athletes. “I had coached the freshmen for seven years and felt like I was walking into a situation with great athletes,” she said. “Bob (Ernst) was a great mentor and talked me through a number of challenges along the way. We were all working within the system that he created.”

“There was pressure on everyone. They (the V8) were favored everywhere they went, so it was different from 1987. They had a target on their back and they knew it, but the personality of this team was one of strength and confidence. The experience and trust they had within that team helped them maintain their focus.”

The mid to late 80’s saw many of the east coast universities re-building their women’s programs. Wisconsin, in 1986, had knocked Washington off of the top spot on the podium for the first time since 1981. The team was forced to re-group, and the result was an expectation of performance that was visible each day. “When it is that clear, when it is something people share, everyone is on board…” said Doyle, “those women were not going to let one stroke go by that they did not pull their hardest and row their best. It was a standard of excellence I had never seen before.”

The varsity eight would proceed through the spring season undefeated, but the competition was fierce. At the Redwood Shores match-racing regatta in April, the team would face down Radcliffe (Harvard), Yale and Brown in three separate races, and in each case were tested the full 2k. Taylor remembered the trust and confidence she had in her team: “We were behind to Brown by a length at the 1500 meter mark. None of us cared where we were because we knew we would win. My biggest take away from that year was the confidence our team had – we were so amped up in the last 500 we could beat anyone.”

By the time Nationals rolled around the team had perfected both their race strategy and their physical conditioning, and knew they were on the cusp of meeting the expectation they had set at the beginning of the year. But the stormy weather at Hammond Lake, in the upper reaches of Pennsylvania, had a different agenda that June weekend. On a windy Sunday, when the Varsity finals were set to go, there had been enough swampings and near sinkings in the earlier races that regatta officials cancelled the marquee V8 event. It was agreed that the race would be postponed to Monday, but due to flight schedules and concerns for more bad weather it was going to need to be early. And early it was.

“We got up at 3:30 a.m. It was dark when we were stretching,” said Taylor. “And it was dark when we went to launch.” Doyle remembers the same, but with a twist: “It was very peaceful. Contemplative and serene. And then suddenly Radcliffe showed up and started blaring music from their van. I just remember thinking ‘Bring it on.’”

Bring it on is what Washington delivered. Out of the blocks in a flash, the Huskies held the lead through the first 1500. “We were in Jane’s Friendship (the 1984 US Olympic Empacher named for the late Jane McDougal ‘82 and donated by longtime UW Rowing Steward Hunter Simpson). We were ahead and I remember feeling in control, and in the last 500 we poured it on. Yaz (Farooq) was in that race… I remember her voice so distinctly,” said Taylor.

Yaz remembers that day too. As the senior coxswain for the Wisconsin Varsity 8, she was at the starting line that morning as well. “We knew Washington was the team to beat,” she said. “They were fit, strong and looked confident.” Even so, as the only team to beat Washington at the National Championships since 1981, Wisconsin figured they had a shot. “We held with them through the first 1500 meters… but coming into the last 500 the UW just started walking. Nothing appeared to distract them. They had been trained all season for that moment and nothing was going to stop them.”

“We finished and there were no fans,” Doyle said. “No one was there. Our parents had all left on Sunday. We got off the water and hugged each other. Jan had a smile from ear to ear.”
“I give full credit to that crew,” said Harville. “It felt like racing in the middle of the night. It was pitch dark when we got to the course… it was not right. But you train for the unexpected… to be ready for anything. And we got it. And they just went out there and took care of business in the biggest race of the year. We won the team championship that year as well, so all around it was an exceptional group of women.”

Thirty years later those same women still highly value their experience at Washington. “It was one of the most profound experiences of my life,” says Taylor. “I had never been on a team before that was that dependent on your teammates. I learned so much about discipline, dedication and hard work.”

For Doyle, when asked what Washington Rowing has meant to her, she said, “Excellence, and what it means to truly want it. I continue to attempt to live by that idea on a daily basis. It instilled that as part of my being to this day.”

Excellence, dedication, confidence… all words that describe the women of 1988. Throw in the ability to adjust to a dawn start for the biggest race of the year… and you have the makings of a champion.

Note: The 1988 Women’s team is planning a 30-year reunion in 2018. Thinking about a reunion for the spring of 2018? If so, contact Eric Cohen at [email protected] and let us know your plans!