Reliving a Piece of Notre Dame History

 

The Charles River sunshine glistens off the golden blades of the Notre Dame alumna.

First ND Women’s Crew Reunites After 40 Years to Row in HOCR

By Anne M. Steele | Published on October 19, 2013

The eight women bring their oars from the uncharacteristically warm mid-October afternoon sun into the boathouse where the breeze from the water swirls the twang of wood and sweat with smell of old brick. Their coxswain chats with the coach and keeps a steady eye on the shell.

These nine women, pioneers of the first women’s crew team at Notre Dame, have just completed their fourth and final practice together two days before rowing in the master’s 50-plus race at the Head of the Charles Regatta.

The mood is both frazzled and focused, but everyone is grinning, cracking jokes.

Stepping from a shiny, state-of-the art sweep boat into the Radcliffe boathouse perched on the lip of the muddy but revered river, the scenario is a far cry from what marked their early days at Notre Dame more than 30 years ago — waking up at 4 a.m. to push start their 1950s bus to get it to the boathouse.

“We’d have the whole team behind the bus, running down the street, just trying to get to the river to row out of our tin can of a boathouse with old equipment,” Shotsi Cain Lajoie, a member of the original boat, recalled. “And then we ended up winning at the end of the season when we had all strikes against us.

“It’s just so fun to reflect back on all of the things that we did to try to get this sport going for us and for others.”

Though rowing on the Charles River is hardly reminiscent of the those early days at Notre Dame, it is wholly indicative of the challenges the 14 women who have reunited for this endeavor overcame as women both new to the school and new to the sport.

Notre Dame went co-ed in 1972 and a year later Clete Graham, then the men’s club team coxswain, started coaching a women’s team as a student.

Graham, who had previously rowed at an all-boys school, joked that it was a great way to meet girls.

“He didn’t know what he was doing so he just copied the men’s workout,” quipped Lajoie.

But at the end of that first season, at the Midwest Sprints, the team won the first women’s trophy for Notre Dame.

Graham remembers giving the “Knute Rockne” speech — named for the legendary Notre Dame football coach — before the start of that race.

“I’m not really a Knute Rockne type of guy and we’re sitting in a circle and I’m the same age as these women — these girls at the time — and I’m a boy and they’re girls. But we collectively had a lot of confidence. So we talked about the logistics of the race plan and I remember telling them to just go out and have fun and they came back with the win.”

Lajoie credits the team’s quick turnaround to the competitive atmosphere at the school.

“I think a lot of it was the competition because the men were a little reluctant to accept us as real athletes and we worked out alongside of them and I think that’s probably why we got so strong,” she said.

Lajoie remembers the prejudice against women among some at the school.

“There was the hurdle of integration, competition in class, and competition all along,” she said. “And even though we didn’t compete against the men, our presence there — we were utilizing the boathouse and the boats — meant we were now in their space and some of them welcomed us and some of them didn’t at the beginning because it was new.”

Graham can vividly remember a meeting where he had to promise the women’s program would never interfere with the men’s program. But his efforts were not in vain.

“They were quickly more successful than the men,” he said. “By the spring they were beating all their competition. So the men turned around and started saying ‘Why don’t you guys take the better boat today.’ It was a very interesting dynamic,” he said.

Working with women brand new to athletics, Graham said the challenge was that they had no frame of reference.

“They didn’t know how hard they had to work or should work. But they had no problems embracing a tough work ethic. And honestly I think that’s why they were as successful as they were in that time and era in the development of women’s rowing — they just worked harder than everybody else.”

Jody Gormley, who was one of the first captains, pointed out that since Title IX had just passed, many of the women hadn’t even done any sort of organized sport in high school.

“It was a very different thing just to get women to be athletes,” she said. “They didn’t know how to be athletes and it’s a learning process and it’s just changed tremendously since then.”

But the girls quickly made their marks. Graham recalled a time when the Notre Dame weightlifting room was a “bastion of maleness.” One day while lifting there, the team noticed a scoreboard for the various weight classifications for whomever deadlifted and squatted the most. There were a couple weight categories — like 115 pounds — where nobody had filled anything in.

“So the two coxswains just lifted as much as they could recorded their name and we all thought that was the coolest thing,” he said.

The idea for the reunion row was conceived a year ago at the 40th anniversary of Title IX celebration at Notre Dame.

“We ended up in an alumni boat and we raced a few other alumni and we beat ’em and we were the oldest boat so we thought we were pretty hot,” Lajoie said, laughing.

The Notre Dame coach offered to bring a boat for the ladies to the Head of the Charles and thus the “Olden Domers” were born.

Lajoie hosted the team’s first practice, which they called “East Camp,” in June at her home in Vero Beach, Fla.

An "Olden Domers" row at "East Camp," at Vero Beach, Fla. in June

They travelled to Seattle the following month for “West Camp” and then back to South Bend in September.

Gormley said a significant part of the reunion is passing on their story to the current men’s and women’s Notre Dame teams who are also competing at the HOCR.

“Because the history’s sort of been lost because it’s really just been an oral history,” she said. “I think for any sport team, it’s helpful to know your history and it helps you perform better when you realize that you’re carrying on a legacy of quality.”

The pack of women, whose median age is 57, is rich with history. Of the 14 women reuniting, four are from the original boat, three were the first captains, and the coxswain coxed one of the team’s first boats at the HOCR.

“We’re very nostalgic — we had the same coach there out in the launch — it was just very surreal to have him and his voice and us rowing in the boat together,” Lajoie said. “We clicked right away.”

She found returning to the mindset fulfilling.

“There’s parts of us that we haven’t used in a long time and I think everybody is just relishing all of it,” she said. “Because those were some very fun, tough times we had in college trying to be athletes with no funding and trying to get university support so we kind of had an extra weight on our shoulders.”

One of the narratives for the team starting out back in the day was overcoming adversity. But Graham doesn’t see it that way.

“It’s about the companionship and the sense of them being a team and us being a team,” he said, pointing out the months of work they put into preparation. “One of the things I’d like to do before the race is hear them tell their story among themselves in a group environment — you know, how transformational has this been for you?”

Editor’s Note: The Notre Dame “Olden Domers” finished 28th in the Women’s Senior Master Eights on Saturday, with a time of 21:01.

 

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