By Yaz Farooq
Empowerment (noun): the process of becoming stronger and more confident, especially in controlling one’s life and claiming one’s rights.
For women, it’s been a year of fundamental change. The Hollywood casting couch scandals launched a movement where whistleblowers were commended for coming forth and demanding justice. Voices that had been silenced were heard. Conversations on equality, fairness and dignity were re-born.
In this same year, Olympic equality officially and finally arrived for Rowing. For many years, men’s events were billed as the “premiere” events at the World Championships and Olympics, with a far greater number of male athletes than female. Recently, the World Rowing Federation (FISA) began alternating the men’s and women’s eights as the final event at the World Championships and Olympics. The women’s and men’s singles are now run back to back in the same manner with equal promotion. Just a few months ago, FISA and the International Olympic Committee announced changes to the Olympic rowing program for Tokyo 2020, including the reinstatement of the women’s four. For the first time in history, Olympic rowing will have equal representation by both sexes.
Women’s rowing was added to the Olympic program in 1976. It took 40+ years for women to be able to fully control our destinies and claim our rights in this sport. Washington women rowers played a leading role in the trailblazing efforts in the late 60’s and early 70’s, fighting for their rights as women and as athletes. Like so many women at the time who wanted the opportunity to participate in an all-male sport, they were ridiculed and taunted for their desire to train and compete for their university. But their love for rowing and their ability to stick together forged a team that persevered and laid the foundation for the team we have today.
I met Washington’s “Women of the 70’s” last year when they decided to have their yearly team get-together at our annual Alumnae Brunch. They generously shared their stories with our current team. We learned about the humble beginnings of our program. They gave us perspective.
This year at the Brunch, the Women of the 70’s returned. Linda (Cox) Fornaciari took the stage and announced that their era will be donating a new racing shell to the team. As I sat in this room of empowered women, I was struck by the symbolism of this incredible gift, and felt the solidarity that spanned all six decades of this team.
Thanks to them, and more groundwork laid over the next three decades, our women today enter the boathouse as equals. Like their male counterparts, each of them knows that being a Division I student-athlete is hard work. They expect to be challenged physically and mentally. They know that they are forging bonds with their teammates “beyond the boat,” and that this journey together will prepare them for the many life challenges ahead. And—they don’t have to worry about anyone questioning their desire to represent their university as a student-athlete based on their gender.
The beauty of rowing is that all athletes share a greater common bond and experience than in any other sport. The journey from start to finish line is the same for all: power and synchronicity to get off the line, fitness and perseverance in the middle thousand, human will in the sprint, and grit and toughness for the full 2k.
Today we are blessed with a high energy atmosphere at the Conibear where we are all making one another better. The bond within boats–and across boats–at the boathouse is shared by all regardless of gender. Last month our teams raced together in mixed lineups for the “Mixed City” Ham ‘n Egger. In a nod to the “Boys in the Boat” we had a massive team square dance in the Windermere Dining Hall on a Friday night after practice. We have a saying, “We are stronger together.” Everyone believes it.
As we head into the spring season, we are inspired by all of the women who came before us. Each decade has its own story and chapter in Husky history. This year our women’s team is led by a group of empowered seniors who are proud to carry on the legacy. Commodore Jess Thoennes, Sarah Clark, Phoebe Marks-Nicholes, Brooke Mooney, Chiara Ondoli, Julia Paulsen, Brooke Pierson, Karle Pittsinger, Anna Porteous, Meagan Smith, and Kenzie Waltar are a collective driving force that is powering this team steadily forward.
Please join us this spring for words of inspiration and empowerment when the Women of the 70’s christen our new racing shell on May 4—details to come! Thanks to all of you for your continued support and influence on our team today.