From the day she walked on to Yale's new varsity women's rowing team in 1976, Ginny Gilder had a front-row seat to the slowly changing tide of women's athletics following the passage of Title IX. She would go on to stand naked with 18 of her teammates in a protest that forced Yale to pay attention to the rights of its female athletes. She also earned a spot on the 1980 Olympic team that boycotted the Moscow Games, and won a silver medal at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles. Now the CEO of her family's investment firm, she is a co-owner of the WNBA's Seattle Storm. Her memoir, "Course Correction: A Story of Rowing and Resilience in the Wake of Title IX," is out this month.
Gilder talked with us about her early days at Yale, her Olympic rowing career and how she came to be involved with the WNBA.
espnW: Tell us about your awareness of sports growing up. Did you wish there were more opportunities? What were your outlets as a girl?
Ginny Gilder: I played volleyball in middle school. I grew up in New York City and my dad would take us to the park and we would play running bases. He would say things to me like, "You throw like a girl." And then he would teach me to throw. I never thought of myself as an athlete. What I focused on was academics. I went to Chapin in New York and it was a really academically rigorous school so that's where I competed. Sports were ancillary.
espnW: What appealed to you about rowing crew?
GG: I actually decided to try rowing my junior year of high school when I saw the Head of the Charles [Regatta in Boston] for the first time. I just thought it looked like such a beautiful sport. I have no idea why I wanted to try it other than it was so beautiful.
espnW: Did it seem like a door that was open to you as a female at the time?
GG: I honestly didn't think about that stuff. I started going to all-girls schools in the '60s. I just never thought about whether girls could or couldn't do stuff. My father had been teaching us the Yale fight song since I could talk, but he never said it wasn't coed. In the fourth grade my best friend and I discovered our fathers had both gone to Yale and we decided we were going to go to Yale and be roommates. No one told us it wasn't coed so it just didn't come into our consciousness. Which was lucky, because if it had, I probably would have felt differently.
espnW: What was the process like of making it onto the team?
GG: I was a walk-on. I said I wanted to row and they had open practices and you basically rowed until they stopped going or until they named the varsity and JV and other boats in the spring.
It was just so grueling through the winter. That's the great thing about the Northeast -- that the river freezes. Even though you'd think, 'Why is that a good thing, you want to be rowing, don't you?' I think it's a good thing you have to go indoors and you don't get to do what you love -- you develop this deep longing for this thing you like to do and it makes you appreciate it even more.
So I slogged through the first set of winter workouts and it was incredibly tough. I had never done anything like that.
espnW: Can you share a memory that sticks out of the challenges you dealt with in those early years, fighting for your place as women in the sport?
GG: My freshman year the men called us names. We got into some arguments about access to weights, and we didn't have locker rooms at the boathouse. The university got this temporary trailer they put in the parking lot that had three shower stalls and [the men] wrote "sweat hogs" on the shower on the outside of the building. Stuff like that. So infantile. I'm like, really? You're here getting an Ivy League degree and this is how you have to behave?
Even a decade later, when I made the Olympic teams in 1980 and 1984, there was this idea that women's rowing just wasn't as important as men's, that women didn't care as much, that it was just a game and that it just wasn't serious. ... So it was uncomfortable always having to justify ourselves. And the problem was, at least for me, part of me wondered, 'Well, are they right?'
espnW: Tell me about the famous naked protest in 1976? How do you look back on that, and the role you played in it?
GG: Chris [Ernst] and Annie [Warner] were struggling with illness [as a result of our lack of shower facilities that winter.] When you're training for the Olympics, the last thing you can afford is to get sick. We were on the bus one day coming back from practice, and Chris was like, "Well, we could go take a shower in Joni Barnett's [the head of athletics] office." And it went from there to we could do a strip-in. Annie said, "I dare you," and, oh boy, that was it.
I wasn't thinking about possible repercussions, but that afternoon as we started taking off our clothes and writing Title IX on our backs, I was starting to realize this is kind of serious. Then when we got to the administrators' office there was a photographer from the Daily News and a writer who was a stringer for the New York Times.
Chris went in and we followed her. She was facing the administrator, so were we, and at some point Chris gave the hand signal. We turned around and took off our sweatshirts and dropped our pants. Chris read this great manifesto that she'd written. It was a pretty somber moment. Very serious.
I don't think I was old enough to appreciate the gravity of what we were doing. In some ways I hadn't really been discriminated against until I got to Yale. Yale was an Ivy League school. I thought they knew their stuff. It was just so not what I was expecting, so I think I jumped in fast.
espnW: How about highlights of your athletic career? What hit it home for you that this was where you were meant to be?
GG: I loved the women on my freshman crew. I loved being part of something that was really close-knit. I remember my sophomore year right as we were about to go to the line for the Eastern Sprints finals, I remember thinking to myself, 'I don't know if I deserve to win. I don't know if I can do this. But I know Cathy deserves to win.' She was the one right in front of me. 'And I know Elaine really deserves to win.' I really wanted to do the best that I could for my teammates and that took me through a lot.
A big highlight was making the 1980 Olympic team. I'd gotten cut three years in a row trying out for national teams, and even though we were boycotting, it was really just a sense of, 'Wow, I finally got what I wanted.'
espnW: You had a lot of opportunities growing up academically, financially, etc., but what did you take away from your athletic experience specifically that has turned you into the businesswoman -- and person -- that you are today?
GG: I would say this about the opportunities I had growing up: There's no question I had access to an amazing education and that's something that having financial resources makes possible. But what I learned rowing went much beyond what money could buy. I think some people think money is the answer to everything and it's really not. You can't buy the kind of really painful experiences I had with failure. It can't buy you a sense of when you commit to something and you don't achieve what you really want. It's a brutal lesson, but it's an important one. And that's what rowing really taught me. First of all, the upside of really wanting something and committing, and the downside of caring so much.
Ever since, I tend to jump into projects with two feet. It's not always the smartest thing and I get my butt kicked still, but I've won enough that I love the taste of winning.
espnW: Tell me about your decision to become a co-owner of the Seattle Storm.
GG: I knew Dawn Trudeau, who'd been involved in bringing the Seattle Reign to Seattle in the ABL. So when it was in the news about the Storm being sold to an out-of-towner, I said to her, "I don't know if you're doing anything about keeping the Storm here, but if you are and you need some partnership, I'd be interested." I was working in the investment business, which is a very male industry. I was feeling out of touch with my community because I was traveling a lot for business, so I was kind of looking for something I could do to get some more balance in my life.
Dawn called me up a few weeks later and said, "So we're putting together this group. Are you serious?" And I said sure! It was this whole idea of creating access to opportunity for women in sports. The WNBA is the longest-running women's professional league for team sports, really in the world. So it just seemed like a great fit.
espnW: How active are you now and how important is staying active to you?
GG: I row about once a year at the Head of the Charles. ... I tend to cycle mostly, though. It's a lot easier for my body. I can't help but train pretty hard. There's an event called RAMROD (Ride Around Mount Rainier In One Day). It's about 150 miles and a 10,000K-elevation climb, which I'm doing with a bunch of friends this summer. I love being outside.
espnW: What do you hope your readers will take away from "Course Correction"?
GG: It's funny, I've been getting emails from people I haven't been connected to in a long time. I got one this morning saying, "I always thought you were so confident and strong." And, of course, the book really talks about the underside of what it was like to be me in those years. I think it's important people realize I'm not a big believer in "fake it 'til you make it," but I am a big believer in not letting your fears dictate what you're going to do.