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Pioneering Journalist Crosses Big One Off Bucket List

By Samantha Barry
Posted on October 20, 2019
Pioneering Journalist Crosses Big One Off Bucket List

Forty-seven years ago, Melissa Ludtke, missed her opportunity to race in the Head of the Charles. It was 1972 and she was spending her senior year out in California rowing with Mills College. In the meantime, her old Wellesley College teammates were making history as part of the first group of female rowers to compete in the race. Half a century later she is finally getting her chance.

Ludtke rows Sunday in a Community Rowing Inc. (CRI) in the Directors Challenge mixed eight.

During a recent practice on an early Wednesday morning, Ludtke was positioned in the bow – not her typical spot, but where CRI Sculling Coordinator and coach, Anna Juraschek, thought she fit best – when Juraschek came over to address the boat.

“She sort of comes up and she says, ‘I’m gonna call your boat the ‘Why Not Boat,’’” Ludtke said. “And we kind of all looked up, must have looked a little puzzled, and she said, ‘Because I’m going to just assume that for many of you, this might be your only Head of the Charles race. So why not go as hard as you possibly can so you leave nothing behind on the river.’”

Ludtke was immediately taken aback. ‘The coach just acknowledged my presence in this race,’ she thought. This idea of ‘why not?’ became everything to her and perfectly described how she felt about her first Head of the Charles. After all these years she was finally getting the chance to accomplish a bucket list item and she couldn’t feel more grateful. So why not give it her all, why not go big, and why not do everything she can to honor this dream.

Ludtke starting rowing in college while she was attending Wellesley, but it took her a while to warm up to the idea of it. During her first year, she didn’t even think about it. Her grandmother was a Wellesley rower, but it was never something that appealed to her and her family ties to it gave her no such inspiration to pursue the sport. It was never even remotely on her radar.

Instead, she spent her freshman year hanging out with a group of senior girls participating in protests, marches and various other activist movements.

“It was 1969—70 and it was a really tempestuous year in our society,” Ludtke said. “I had just returned to the U.S. after spending my senior year of high school in Rome, Italy, so I was kind of just getting used to being back in this new and different America.”

When she wasn’t out trying to change the world, she was in her dorm which looked out onto Lake Waban. This happened to be the lake where the rowing team would practice, at what Ludtke used to consider an ungodly early hour. She spent most of the year resenting the rowing team, for the early morning coxswain screams that continuously disturbed her attempts to sleep in.

It wasn’t until her sophomore year when her senior friends had graduated and she was left with a new rowing crazed roommate, Bev Freeman, that she even entertained the idea of getting involved in the sport. Little did she know that asking to attend a practice with her one day would completely transform her college experience.

“I was totally, completely sold on it,” Ludtke said. “I loved it, I couldn’t wait to get up and row. From that moment on, I was just absolutely committed to doing what we needed to do to turn ourselves into an intercollegiate racing team, which we did.”

Ludtke was among the first round of college women to start actually competing in races in the early 1970s. They may have only competed in four or five races that year, but this group was fostering the beginnings of a transformation for the sport. They were on the cusp of giving female athletes more respect and opportunity within the rowing community and were part of something much bigger than they could have known at the time.

Ludtke would continue to pave the way for women in the world of sports—in a big way—but it wouldn’t be in rowing. After she graduated from college, she moved to New York and fully left her rowing days behind. Focusing on her career and eventually starting a family, she never really found herself missing the sport and was perfectly content to take a 44-year break from it.

She made her way into sports journalism. She covered the 1984 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles, worked for ABC Sports, and Sports Illustrated, and for Harvard University’s Nieman Foundation. But she will forever be known for her now famous federal lawsuit, Melissa Ludtke and Time, Inc., Plaintiffs, v. Bowie Kuhn, Commissioner of Baseball et al. (1978), which changed the landscape for female sports reporters.

In 1977 while covering the Yankees and the World Series for Sports Illustrated, Ludtke was running into trouble gaining access to the same spaces as her male counterparts. While only being paid as a fact-checker at the time, she did have an all-access pass to baseball stadiums across the country, but kept getting banned from going into the locker rooms before games and after games. The problem arose specifically with the Yankees and after numerous negotiations and discussions kept coming up short, Ludtke decided that the only way to solve this problem was to sue.

“I always say it was never about nudity, it was about exclusion,” Ludtke said. “Most people didn’t get that.”

It was later learned that the Yankee players were fine with Ludtke and her female reporting counterparts coming into the locker rooms, but it was the commissioner that continually denied their requests. In the end, Ludtke won the case – literally and figuratively opening the doors for more access for female sports reporters across the board.

“It’s extraordinary,” she said. “You can’t relate the incoming swarm of women into the business, but I think you can certainly look at the decision and the timing as when you begin to see the enormous growth in numbers of women coming in… those generations that have come since have had that ability to have the equal access so they can fully do the jobs. Before that, you were hard-pressed to be able to assign a woman to cover baseball or football because they couldn’t do the actual reporting that was necessary to do the whole story.”

Ludtke is currently working on a book recounting the incident and telling the story from her point of view. She lives in the Boston area now, and four years ago found herself back on the water in a rowing shell. Coffee with an old college was the start. He friend had signed up for rowing classes at CRI, and after not thinking about rowing for more than 40 years, she suddenly wanted to be get back into the boat. Ludtke started her comeback on the erg (a tool that did not exist back when she had last rowed back in the 1970s). By the next spring, she was back in a boat and hasn’t stopped rowing since.

“I’m obsessed with it, completely obsessed by it,” Ludtke said. “I post sunrises, videos, pictures as well, essays about it, so people who know me through Facebook know that I just love rowing.”

Now that she’s back at it, it doesn’t look like she is going to stop anytime soon. In her run-up to this weekend’s regatta, she is simply keeping that ‘Why not’ mentality in mind. She might well find herself back at the Head of the Charles; first regattas have an addictive way of leading to second regattas. Either way, she planned to leave it all on the water.

“So that’s what I intend to do, I intend to leave nothing on the river in my one and only,” Ludtke said. “I’m going to look at it as my one and only because it may well be, and that would be fine. I’d leave this life very satisfied if this was my one and only Head of the Charles rowing race.”

Editor’s Note: Melissa Ludtke’s CRI boat finished 34th in the Mixed Eight event, in a time of 19:27.

By Samantha Barry
Posted on October 20, 2019