Ginny Gilder 1976
The Head Of The Charles is the largest 2-day regatta in the world.  It is held each year on the winding Charles River that separates Boston from Cambridge.  It was at this regatta in October 1974 that Ginny Gilder, a Dana Hall junior, stood on the banks of the river along with thousands of spectators, and watched the rowing shells glide by.  She was mesmerized by the synchronous motion of the rowers smoothly sliding back and forth as their oars cleanly cut through the water. She wondered, “How do they make that so beautiful?  I wish I could do that” (Gilder x).  It would be impossible for her to imagine that 10 years later she would be on the 1984 Olympic podium receiving the silver medal in the women’s quadruples sculls with coxswain, and that rowing would set her on a journey of self-discovery.

Ginny arrived at Dana Hall at the beginning of her sophomore year and was a boarder.  She played on the softball and volleyball teams and worked in tech for  the school’s drama productions.  Publication of the school newspaper, the Hallmanac, had stopped in 1970 due to student apathy.  Ginny and her classmate Lisa Barca x1976 felt strongly that Dana students should have a voice, and they started a subscription newspaper The Hall Mirror. This newspaper had five issues dating from Oct. 18, 1974 to May 2, 1975.  Articles were contributed by Upper School students, faculty, staff, and guests, and the subscription cost was $5/ year.

Due to family difficulties Ginny often felt anxious, and her high school years were not always happy. The “peaceful, controlled, synchronized” (Gilder xi) world she saw on the Charles River resonated with her, and she wanted to live in that world.  She applied to college early and was accepted at Yale University, leaving Dana after her junior year.  Ginny received her Dana Hall diploma after she finished her freshman year at college and completed her high school English requirement. 

A few days after she arrived at Yale, Ginny noticed a tall man handing out flyers and asking certain women if they wanted to learn how to row, women who were tall but not heavy-set.  Ginny was interested but at 5’ 7” she was small for a rower, and the varsity women’s crew coach, who believed that mass moved boats, was not convinced that she was the right fit. But Ginny showed up for practice, and started in the rowing tank located in the dank basement of the Payne Whitney Gym.  Several weeks later she rowed outdoors for the first time.

Ginny was surprised to learn that two of her teammates, Anne Warner and Chris Ernst, were trying out for the 1979 Montreal Olympics, the first Olympics to include women’s rowing.  She thought if they could try out for the Olympics, so could she.  Ginny now had a goal she was determined to reach even before she had figured out how to put her oar in the water in sync with her boatmates, and even if her coach doubted her ability.

That fall Ginny rowed starboard in a Yale women’s eight with a crew of experienced and novice rowers at the Tenth Anniversary of the Head Of The Charles Regatta.  It had been just a year since Ginny stood on the banks of the Charles as a spectator encountering rowing for the first time. After her race Ginny had never felt happier, even though her boat’s time was in the middle of the pack.  She had pushed herself to her utmost. Everything hurt and her hands had new blisters, but she could feel that rowing was going to be an important part of her future.

Winter training was six days a week. Ginny learned to lift weights to build muscle: cleans, squats, dead lifts, bench presses, clean and jerks. Circuits, stairs, rowing, and running were important high intensity workouts.  They expanded a rower’s cardiovascular system so there would be sufficient oxygen to meet the muscles’ need in grueling races.  Although the workouts were tortuous, Ginny enjoyed being part of a team that was united in its drive to excel. Ginny’s goal was to make the varsity team, and the team’s goal was to win the Eastern Sprints, an annual rowing championship for the Eastern Association of Women’s Rowing Colleges. The workouts were hard, but it was even harder sharing the gym with the men’s crew team, which felt the equipment was for its sole use and “not for girls” (Gilder 44). Chris Ernst stood up to the men’s captain and said, “I see, boys. So you must pay more tuition than we do, right?” (Gilder 44). This verbal sparring between the men’s and women’s crew teams continued all winter.

As early as 1967, as a fourth grader, Ginny had set her sights on going to Yale.  Her father, her grandfather, and her best friend’s father had all gone to Yale.  Ginny and her friend even formed a pact to go to Yale and be roommates.  (No one had mentioned to them that Yale did not accept women as undergraduates at that time. It did not until 1969.) When Ginny started Yale in 1975 the student body was two-thirds male, and rowing in general was a male dominant sport.  (Wellesley College was the first school to organize a competitive women’s rowing team, in the late 1880’s.) Women’s rowing at Yale had started as a club sport, and gained varsity status in 1974.

Even with their varsity status, the women rowers were not accepted as equal occupants of the Robert Cooke Boathouse.  They shared dock space and some rowing shells, but they could not share locker rooms, toilets and showers.  The women were relegated to one tiny bathroom.  Cold and wet, the women had to wait for the men to shower, then ride the bus 25 minutes back to campus, and hurry to reach the dining hall before it closed for dinner.  Many of the women rowers became sick. The women were well aware of federal legislation known as Title IX, a 1972 civil rights law that bars sex discrimination in educational programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance. Chris Ernst decided to act. She proposed going into the office of Joni Barnett, the Director of Women’s Intercollegiate Sports, and stripping down in protest.  The team wrote “Title IX” on their backs, marched into Joni’s office along with a reporter for the Yale Daily News who was also a stringer for The New York Times, and tore off their sweat suits.  Chris read a list of the team’s grievances, including the lack of concern and competence on the part of the athletic department. The publicity and reaction of Yale’s alumni caused Yale to expand the boathouse the next year to accommodate the women. This dramatic protest focused the team’s sense of unity and reliance upon each other — important strengths if you want to win races.

Yale University, c. 1977

In 1977 the Yale women’s varsity eight, with Ginny in the four seat, won the Eastern Sprints.  Ginny was now a member of the fastest women’s crew in a major regatta, but disappointingly did not make the National Team that spring to compete in the 1977 World Rowing Championships in Amsterdam.  The National Team competed at the highest level of competition and by making the team you either competed in the World Championships, or every four years in the Olympics.   By the time Ginny’s four-year rowing eligibility expired she had been rejected three times by the National Team coaches.  

Ginny was still determined to reach her goal of rowing in the Olympics, but world affairs got in her way. The 1980 Summer Olympic Games were to be held in Moscow, but in 1979 the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.  At his State of the Union address in January 1980, President Jimmy Carter stated that if the Soviet Union did not withdraw from Afghanistan by February 20th, the United States would not send an Olympic team to Moscow.  One hundred fifty Olympic contenders visited the White House to suggest alternative plans to allow the athletes to compete while adhering to the President’s goal of rebuking Soviet behavior.  With the dreams of hundreds of American athletes shattered, the U.S. along with sixty-six countries decided to boycott the games.  The National Teams decided to complete the Olympic selection process and Ginny made the Olympic Rowing Team rowing in the four with coxswain.  At a pre-Olympic race in Amsterdam Ginny’s boat came in third, meaning that she could have been in contention for an Olympic medal. But, with no Olympics for U.S. athletes, unfortunately that dream was not possible.

Ginny now needed to find a job and she decided to follow her boyfriend to Boston. Despite working a full-time job she could not resist the lure of the Charles River, and continued rowing.  She got time off from work to attend the Olympic Development Camp, dedicated to learning the finer points of rowing.  Ginny was teamed up with Ann Strayer in a double.  They were perfectly synced slicing their oars through the water.  They enjoyed each other’s company and quickly fell in love. After the camp Ann moved to Boston, Ginny broke up with her boyfriend, and she and Ann became roommates.  Hiding her relationship with Ann eventually became too stressful, as Ginny was unable to admit she was gay.  Ginny felt, “being gay was sinful, criminal, and in [her] father’s eyes, unthinkable” (Gilder 161). She started to hate herself and feel ashamed. She wanted to live a “normal” life.  After breaking up with Ann, Ginny buried her pain by focusing on rowing, and soon started dating her future husband.

1984 Olympic Medal Ceremony

By the end of 1984, Ginny was the top female sculler in the United States. But her dream of being an Olympian were almost derailed by constant asthma attacks, nagging injuries, and persistent tiredness. An undiagnosed broken rib caused her to end up fifth in the Olympic trials for the single skull.  However, Ginny was chosen to row stroke in the women’s quadruple skulls with coxswain in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. After a slow start her boat passed the West Germans with less than fifty meters to the finish line, and ended up with the silver medal.  Ginny had finally accomplished her nearly decade long goal of winning an Olympic medal.

Ginny married despite having strong doubts.  She put aside her worries that differences in career choices, lifestyle, and success would imperil the happily-ever-after marriage she desired. A late term stillbirth caused Ginny to re-evaluate her life track.  She gave up hopes of rowing in the Seoul Olympics and focused on working through her grief.  Ginny gave birth to one son and adopted two siblings who fulfilled her dreams of motherhood, but she could not mask the unhappiness in her marriage.  Through tennis she had met her soul mate Lynn, and had to choose between staying in her safe straight life, or taking a risk and acknowledging she was gay. She did not want to put her children through the trauma of divorce, as her parents had done to her, but finally realized that if she was unhappy, no one in the family would be happy. Ginny divorced her husband in 1999, and married Lynn in 2013 after same-sex marriage was legalized in the state of Washington.

In 2007, Ginny along with Lisa Brummel and Dawn Trudeau formed Force 10 Hoops, LLC and bought the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) team the Seattle Storm in 2008. The goal was to keep the team in Seattle and help build a professional team sports league that would showcase the athletes as role models and leaders.  As one of the two all-female ownership groups in the WNBA, Force 10 advanced the concept that women can be successful leaders in any business domain.  The Seattle Storm won their 4th WNBA championship on Oct. 7, 2020.

Ginny is principal of the Gilder family investment office, Gilder Office for Growth, and is president of one of her family’s philanthropic foundations, the Starfish Group. On October 21, 2000 Yale’s new boathouse was named the Gilder boathouse to honor Ginny’s family’s generous donation to the project, and their multi-generation connection with Yale. One stipulation of the Gilder gift was that a community rowing program be established at the boathouse, allowing local youths to learn rowing skills during the summer. 

She has won numerous awards including: the 2003 NCAA Silver Anniversary Award that honors the collegiate star who has gone on to a distinguished career; the 2015 Jack Kelly Award for superior achievements in rowing, service to amateur athletics, and success in their chose profession, thus serving as an inspiration to American rowers; and the 2015 George H. W. Bush Lifetime of Leadership Award from Yale University Athletic Department that honors alumni athletes who have made significant contributions to their profession.

In addition to her professional activities, Ginny stays active hiking, skiing and biking, and has participated in cycling events like the Ride Around Mount Rainier in One Day. She is also an executive producer for A Most Beautiful Thing, a documentary film chronicling the first all-Black high school rowing team from Chicago’s West Side, and their reunion 20 years later. This film can be streamed on Prime Video.

Ginny’s book Course Correction: A Story of Rowing and Resilience in the Wake of Title IX is part of the Alumnae Authors Collection in the Nina Heald Webber 1949 Archives at Dana Hall School.

Ginny was a Wannamaker Lecture Series speaker at Dana Hall School on Jan. 12, 2012 and the closing keynote speaker at She Sails on May 1, 2021.  At She Sails/Reunion she was awarded the 2021 Distinguished Alumna Award for outstanding distinction in her professional field of endeavor, providing an inspiring role model for students.

Bibliography

1984 Olympic Medal Ceremony. 1984. Photograph. Ginny Gilder, Seattle, Washington.

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Durham, Jennifer. Ginny Gilder. 2014. Photograph. Ginny Gilder, Seattle, Washington.

“Gilder Boathouse.” Yale University Rowing, Yale University, 2011, rowing.yale.edu/facilities. Accessed
     18 Jan. 2021.

Gilder, Ginny, Course Correction: A Story of Rowing and Resilience in the Wake of Title IX. Beacon Press,
         2015.

Levin, Dan. “Revel of Oars and Shells.” Vault, Sports Illustrated, 11 Nov. 1974,
     https://vault.si.com/vault/1974/11/11/revel-of-oars-and-shells. Accessed 21 Jan. 2021.

“Meet the Team.” Gilder Partners for Growth, 2011, www.gilderpartners.com/
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Yale University Race. c. 1977. Photograph. Ginny Gilder, Seattle, Washington.

“Yale Women Strip to Protest a Lack of Crew’s Showers.” New York Times (1923-Current file), Mar 04
     1976, p. 65. ProQuest. Web. 24 Jan. 2021.