Long Time HOCR Record-Holder Tells Story of Her Life in Rowing

By Emily McCarthy – Posted on October 16, 2015

Ginny Gilder returned to the water in 2007 after a hiatus from the sport of rowing, and in late 2008 considered making another run at a spot on the U.S. Olympic Team.

The 1984 Olympic silver medalist, former Yale rower, and longtime Head Of The Charles record-holder in the women’s championship singles had just turned 50, but thought returning to the Olympics was not an outlandish goal. She hired a sports psychologist with the intention of working through a fear of getting off the starting line that she grappled with as a sculler. But in working with the sports psychologist, Gilder realized she no longer had the passion to row at the same level she had been used to competing at earlier in her life.

“One of the lessons from that experience was the reminder again of how necessary it is to really be passionate about whatever it is you’re shooting for,” she said. “If you don’t care enough you’re just not going to be able to weather all the storms that you run into when you’re doing something in life that’s meaningful.”

Although the prospect of returning to the Olympics faded, the desire to begin an entirely new endeavor emerged.

In taking up rowing again, Gilder was reminded not only of her original love of the sport, but of an early impulse to write. She decided to tackle her own story, putting it on paper so that others could read about and relate to the hardships she faced throughout her life.

She wanted to write a memoir that was much more than a story of how she became a successful rower.

“We as human beings are really good at sharing our successes, but we tend to hide our secrets or our sense of inadequacy or vulnerability,” Gilder said. “And in my experience in life, I tend to feel more connected to people more quickly when I find out kind of their frailties, because I can relate to their frailties since I’m so aware of my own. I’m not so able to connect to people’s successes when I first am meeting them.

“So I decided that if I could put something together that was readable, that would let people see kind of my trail of messiness, that maybe that would give them some insight into their own messiness and maybe some hope that if they’re struggling in their lives, or if they’re alone, that they can pursue their own dreams and it will come out differently than they might think it will.”

After a lengthy process of writing, rewriting, editing, and publishing, Gilder’s memoir, “Course Correction: A Story of Rowing and Resilience in the Wake of Title IX,” was published this past April.

Gilder, now 57, is currently a co-owner of the WNBA’s Seattle Storm. She lives in Seattle and is happily married to her wife, Lynn. She is the mother of three children and the stepmother of two more. In “Course Correction,” Gilder shows that the path she took to get to where she is today was anything but easy.

The book delves deep into the rough parts of Gilder’s past, weaving her esteemed— and fairly public— rowing career throughout her deeply personal story. In her writing, Gilder shows that her greatest athletic accomplishments pale in comparison to some of the personal struggles she overcame.

“People from lots of different communities, a little beyond the rowing community, have read it, and it seems like the reception has been pretty positive,” Gilder said. “It sounds like it’s going to be about making the Olympics, so I think some people are a little, not disappointed, but maybe a little overwhelmed by the hard parts.

“For people who think it’s a total sports memoir— not exactly what they were thinking. Hopefully by the time they finish the book they see how it all fits together and that life isn’t really just about sports.”

Gilder writes about how she first encountered rowing, watching the Head Of The Charles from the bank of the river as a high school student at Dana Hall.

She describes her time at Yale and the famous naked protest, where members of the women’s team stripped in the office of the director of women’s athletics to fight for the equal treatment Title IX was supposed to have given them four years beforehand.

“As I started to talk to people and started to reflect on the process of growing up,” Gilder said, “I realized how much the strip-in at Yale really influenced my life outlook and taught me about the responsibility of stepping up when I see things that are unjust, and gave me kind of the courage to think of myself as a little bit of a rebel.”

She writes about growing up in a household fraught with various issues. She writes about losing her first child. She writes about coming to terms with her sexual identity.

For Gilder, the most rewarding part of publishing the book has been the opportunities she has had to speak with people who find that the story really resonates with what they are going through.

“I spent some time with Newton Country Day, the school,” Gilder said. “I had lunch with the girls’ crew and then had a facilitated dialogue with one of the rowers and one of the teachers, you know, a school assembly. And getting to talk to some of the girls afterwards who came up and asked questions, and are really so hungry for guidance on life. Because people don’t talk that honestly about life, and while this is a book about rowing, it’s also a book about life.”

The book is honest and “doesn’t pull any punches,” as Gilder wanted it.

“Don’t get me wrong, I have a great life,” she said. “But I think for young people, sometimes they can look out there and see all these perfect people leading perfect lives, and feel like ‘I can’t, how am I going to get there?’ They know themselves and know they’re not perfect. And I really try to acknowledge that life is difficult. And that’s no reason to be daunted.”

Gilder also wanted it to be clear that although she may have rowed at the highest levels of the sport, she is just like everyone else.

“Aside from the fact that I’m Olympian, I also have yelled at my kids, have fights with my wife, have businesses that haven’t succeeded,” she said. “You know, there’s a lot of mess there.”

Gilder is not at this year’s Regatta, but the event that sparked her love of rowing will always be meaningful to her.

“When I rowed in the Head Of The Charles, we would do Saturday morning pieces, everyone would line up weeks before the Head, we would do double Heads all the time,” she said. “I trained here for five years, I knew the river so well, it was just part of my life. To see [the Head Of The Charles] grow up it itself and become this worldwide, world-known event is very satisfying. I just had a little piece of that.”

Gilder whose 1982 course record stood for 31 years, said her favorite Head Of The Charles memory was not one of her victories or her long-time record, but rather, it was rowing with her son in the parent-child double.

“Our crowing moment was one time we rowed we beat another Olympian and his son,” she said. “So we beat two guys, and we lost our skeg at the last turn which means we couldn’t hold a course. We almost ran into the officials launch marking the end and they were yelling at us, ‘Look out! Look out!’ and really mad at us. As soon as we finished I was like, ‘I’m sorry, we lost our skeg,’ and they were like, ‘You finished this race?’ It was a really fun race. It was really fun rowing with my son.”

One of the best parts of that race, aside from defeating the Olympian and his son (who also both happened to be Harvard rowers) was catching a little glimpse of herself in her son’s demeanor on the water.

“I want to say he was a sophomore or junior in college, so he raced with his college crew— he went to Wesleyan— and then we rowed,” she said. “And we went under the BU bridge, which is the first bridge, and we come out and he whoops, and I thought, ‘Oh my god, he’s just like me.’ And it was really a delight to row with him. And of course, big, strong guy, at that point he was in shape so all I had to do was steer and I know how to steer that course and he did, he made it really, really fun.”


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