It's surreal to think that 20 years have passed since the publication of Dan Boyne's "The Red Rose Crew." Now, with the recent announcement that Sports Illustrated Studios is the process of developing a film based on the book, under the direction of Alexis Ostrander and with a script adapted by Laura Hansen, the story of the 1975 US Women's Eight deserves another look.
To recap, "The Red Rose Crew" tells the story of the first camp-based US women's eight selection, under Harvard men's coach Harry Parker (as well as Steve Gladstone, then the men's coach at Cal-Berkeley), and their surprising run to a silver medal at the 1975 World Championships in Nottingham, England. The book is illuminated by Boyne's skillful examination of all of the events leading up to the camp and the formation of the group of athletes, as well as his depictions not only of Parker, but of many of the protagonists of the crew, including Chris Ernst, Anne Warner, Gail Pierson, and, centrally, Carie Graves.
(The crew's moniker, 'The Red Rose Crew,' stems from the red roses that team manager Debbie D'Angelis tied to the shoes in the boat at each seat as the crew was getting ready to launch for the final at the World Championships.)
When it was published in 2000, the events depicted in the book lay only 25 years back. Women's rowing in the US had turned a corner with the NCAA taking over the administration of the collegiate aspect of the sport in 1997, and, in 2000, the fourth NCAA women's rowing championships saw Brown University capture their second consecutive team title as more and more women's collegiate teams were vying for the title.
In the intervening 20 years, the growth in women's rowing, at all levels, has been explosive. The knock-on effects of the NCAA assuming control of women's rowing has been an increase in speed in the women's events, and a surge in the professionalisation of coaching staffs, equipment, training, and international participation in women's collegiate programs.
Not coincidentally, the effects of this "raising of the game" have been reflected in the performance of the US women's national team, who ended a medals drought in the women's eight at the 2004 Olympics, and have since won every Olympic gold medal contested in the event. 20 years of growth, indeed.
Back to Boyne's book: picking up the book two decades later, one is struck by how current the narrative strands and stories that Boyne weaves together still are. Indeed, Boyne's foreword to the first edition of the book may be the most eloquent description of the state of women's rowing written at the time, and the sentiments reverberate today. Writer David Halberstam's foreword to the 2nd edition of the book, posted on row2k in 2005, says as much.
"It is easy, of course, to make heroes out of people in retrospect," writes Boyne in the foreword to the book, "to assign purpose and significance where there may have been only innocent desire. Indeed, for most of the women in The Red Rose Crew, rowing was simply a way to explore and express a part of themselves that had largely been suppressed by American society, not to make a political statement. And yet in pursuing their passion in the sport, they indeed acted heroically, in the truest sense, without any thought about fame or profit. Ironically it is now, more than two decades later, that the full significance of their actions can be truly appreciated."
The origins of the book were remarkably humble. "I was doing an article about Gail Pierson for the Head of the Charles program," Dan Boyne told row2k. "Gail was the seven seat of the crew. Gail is an extremely accomplished former athlete and academic, and also very modest. At some point during the interview, she suggested that I write a book about the 1975 US women's crew, which was a pivotal team in women's rowing history. So, I started toting my tape recorder around to the various members of the crew, and with each interview the story got better and better."
For Boyne, the story quickly became about more than rowing. "The stories these women told resonated with me on different levels, but mostly because they were so amazing and accomplished, despite the overwhelming obstacles that they'd had to overcome," he said. "I'd grown up with an older sister who'd been denied access to sports when we were growing up, and when I started to hear the stories of discrimination that the women in The Red Rose Crew experienced I was morally outraged. I knew the story had to be told, and the members of the crew encouraged me to tell it."
Certainly, the narrative arc of a crew coming together, and the different characters that make up a crew will be familiar to many readers; and while not the first writer to employ it, (nor would he be the last), Boyne definitely nails it. His deeply researched and nuanced portraits of all of the protagonists not only help to tell the story, but also deeply illustrate the uphill battle it took for these women to even be able to take to the water.
The crew with their medals at the '75 World Championships; from left to right, Warner, Silliman, Storrs, Graves, Schneider, Brown, Royden, Ernst, Pierson (photo credit: Red Rose Crew/Arthur Grace)
Some of these battles are more well-chronicled than others; in the year after the events depicted in "The Red Rose Crew," Chris Ernst and Anne Warner spearheaded the famous "These are the Bodies" protest in the Yale president's office that finally turned the tide at Yale in getting equal facilities, access and support of rowing for women at that school, events chronicled in Mary Mazzio's film "A Hero for Daisy."
And that's just the most well-known story. At every turn, the women in 1975 had to contend with prejudice, cultural stereotypes, lack of funding (they raced the world championships in essentially homemade uniforms), and yet they were undeterred.
Rereading Boyne's book, which plays like a novel even as it deals with facts (a testament to Boyne's prodigious skill), one is struck by the sheer character, for lack of a better word, of his protagonists. Some of the rowers portrayed would have to have been invented if they did not already exist, and Boyne's masterstroke is rendering these women in such a way that makes them leap off the page.
Examples include seven seat Gail Pierson, an economics professor first at Harvard and then MIT, originally from Louisiana, a nationally ranked rifle shooter, who was also the first woman to row the Head of the Charles (there were no women's events when she began rowing, but she couldn't find an explicit prohibition on women rowing in the event, so she raced with the men), and, after the addition of the women's single event, won the race six times in a row.
Or, take Carie Graves. Boyne traces her path from her rural Wisconsin roots, to UW Madison and the national camp, while noting traits that Graves carries to this day; her absolute will to do what it took to win (sometimes to the discomfort of the people around her).
Graves looms large over the narrative, and that's not accidental, as she is truly larger-than-life. Born and raised in Wisconsin, with family roots in the Wisconsin rowing program, Graves as an athlete seems to want to bend the boat, the sport, and indeed the world around her by sheer force of will, and Boyne's balances this will skillfully against the coaches and teammates who sought to harness Graves' drive for the benefit of the crews she rowed in.
Another example is Lynn Silliman, who coxed the crew to silver at the World Championships when she was only 16 years old; Silliman, who also coxed the crew at the Olympics the following year, made her mark by arguing (and winning arguments) with Harry Parker during practices.
If these women had not been real people, you'd have to make them up, but if you did make them up, no one would believe you. In an unlikely way, that's a metaphor for early women's rowing in a nutshell. All along the way, the women are faced with obstacles, financial, cultural, athletic, or otherwise, that would probably be less familiar to the female rowers of today, and it's possibly the biggest contribution the book makes, to remind its readers that ordinary perseverance and the ability to not take "no" or "you can't" for an answer are still the attitudes from which all great achievements flow.
Coach Harry Parker with the crew (photo credit: Red Rose Crew/Arthur Grace)
There are many other reasons to pick this book up, again, or for the first time; Boyne's descriptions of the athletes, the camp, and the training that lead to this unlikeliest of rowing medals are gripping, and the way Boyne places the women, and their coach, in the context of larger movements in the world, of rowing and beyond, does more than merely memorialize a great crew; it offers a portrait of an unlikely group of individuals coming together, and striving together, for the highest goals, and those goals were not necessarily to vanquish an enemy, but to achieve the absolute best that they could.
"I think the stories in the book are still relevant because they capture a sense of true heroism, and that never gets old," says Boyne. "These women inspire the rest of us to get out there and do something powerful with our lives. Hopefully, the book will continue to inspire future generations of female and male rowers for many generations to come."
Readers of the book and fans of rowing in general should look forward to the story of the "Red Rose Crew" making the leap to the big screen; however, potential actresses should be warned: anyone playing the part of Carie Graves will need to hit the weightroom (and the ergs) first.