Pulling Together

One hundred years ago, Mills crew became one of the first women’s competitive rowing teams in the country. Since then, rowers have worked together to sustain old traditions and earn new triumphs.

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The Mills crew centenary

Mills and Cal coxswains demonstrate good sportswomanship.
By Vanessa Marlin ’08

1915: The ladies of the lake

The pistol’s smoke lingered over Lake Merritt seconds after start. It was spring 1915 and the first boat race in Mills College history. From the banks of the shore, the whale boats looked like water bugs as six starboard oars and six port oars flew on a single plane towards the water’s surface. “Splash, two, three, four, splash, two, three, four….” The rowers, in white duck middies and navy blue sailor collars, moved in perfect unison. The warm sun beamed down on the glistening, placid water. “Beautiful!” “Graceful!” “Effortless!” the spectators shouted.

The feeling, however, was anything but as the 12 rowers, coxswain, and pilot inched passed the women from Cal. This wasn’t one of those frilly rowing pageants you’d see on Lake Aliso. This wasn’t about scoring points on boat maneuvering, like all the other women’s rowing events. This was a real race—440 yards, to be exact. Not wanting to leave anything to chance, just before the start, seat one bound her heavily pleated wool skirt and bloomers with rope. It didn’t catch on anything and she was glad. In the middle of the boat, seat four blinked the sweat out of her stinging eyes. The cox could see her rowers grimacing in discomfort with every stroke but she pushed them harder. Her voice was the only thing they attended to in those historic two minutes and 11 seconds.

Mills won.

The coxswains from Mills and Cal performed the customary handshake after the race. They smiled for the camera and then to each other with the understanding that these two teams had started something new. The Ladies of the Lake, as the Mills crew would affectionately be known, were part of the first women’s program west of the Mississippi. But little of that mattered to the Mills team. They proved that they could win. And they did it for each other.

1966: A boat of their own

Proud crewmates bring Daffodil to the water.

The day was finally here. Sleek, glistening, mahogany brown, the new shell was more beautiful than the team had imagined. No longer would they have to rely on borrowed equipment at the Lake Merritt Rowing Club. Their very own boat, the Daffodil, had arrived, her name emblazoned in gold.

The rowers, dressed in white shorts and navy blue T-shirts, lined up along port side for a picture. They were proud of their purchase—with the help of friends, relatives, faculty, and staff, the team had redeemed 1,200 Blue Chip stamp books to cover the cost of the eight-seat boat; Green Chip stamps paid for the oars.

Teammate Trish Roberts ’68 lifted a bottle of orange juice high in the air to christen the craft. Cheers erupted and a teammate was heard saying something under her breath about giving the St. Mary’s guys a run for their money.

Marina Simenstad ’68, MA ’11, felt like a rowing pioneer that day. Her coach, Ed Lickiss, had founded the National Women’s Rowing Association only a year before. As director of the Lake Merritt Rowing Club, he was already coaching the St. Mary’s boys when he convinced Mills to give the women a chance to train with him. “[These girls] do not have to prove how big and strong they are, they listen and they catch on fast. I think they’re the best in the country,” Lickiss told the College. Mills crew grew from four members to 40 in Lickiss’s time.

Coach Lickiss instructs the team in the finer points of rowing.

And, they were winning. Crew was declared an officially organized sport at Mills in 1963 and, since then, the team had placed first in 12 out of 18 1,000-meter races—half the length of the men’s races. In 1964, they were undefeated in the eight-oar shell races. In 1965, Mills crew would go on to compete in Nationals in Philadelphia, rowing in a huge regatta of mixed club and college crews.

But winning wasn’t everything to Simenstad and her teammates. Pageant magazine described the relationship between Mills and St. Mary’s as “two parts flirtation to one part competition.” “Heaven help us if the girls ever win,” one of the young men told the reporter. The relationship was strong and congenial, Simenstad says. Many of the Mills gals and St. May’s guys would later marry, be in each other’s weddings, and remain lifelong friends.

1981: The regatta comes to Oakland

Mills crew after taking second place in Nationals at Lake Merritt in May 1981.

Mills crew had been on a losing streak all season. Blistered and sore, the rowers were discouraged. For the past eight months, they had been getting up at 5 am for brutal practices at Lake Merritt. Louise Sully, sophomore coxswain and former dancer, would later tell the Montclarion newspaper: “You’re training every muscle in your body right down to your fingertips. It’s the most agonizing, tortureizing thing you can do to your body.” The entire season totaled just 40 minutes of competition, and they were running out of chances to win.

Coach Jennifer Hunsaker would pump their spirits after every disappointment. Hunsaker, a former Cal rower, had seen an opportunity to revive the waning crew program at Mills. She cobbled together a novice crew with no previous rowing experience. Every race was a “learning experience,” she told the team. “You’re getting faster!” And she meant it.

Turns out she was right. In the second to the last race of the year, at the North West Regionals in Seattle, the Novice 8 finally pulled off a win by six seconds. The triumph qualified them for Nationals, the nation’s premiere rowing competition and, for the first time in history, Lake Merritt was set to be the scene.

Coach Hunsaker reflected on the team’s seemingly unlikely win and made a note on her copy of the season’s regatta schedule: “The team spent too much time losing all season to make them cocky over one big win,” she wrote. “They are still very hungry, almost with a grudge to race some of the schools… especially Cal. Personally, I won’t call the results, but I think it would be well worth coming to see the race.”

Once the results were in, Yale, the top contender, won as predicted. But Mills beat Cal by a fraction of a second: 3:24.4 to 3:24.6.

1987: Building a Boathouse

Lightweight rowers practice at Briones Reservoir.

Mills President Mary Metz gave a thumbs up to the sinewy campus facilities worker standing in the doorway of the new boathouse. Don Lehman, ably assisted by his co-worker Martin Butler and the whole of the Mills crew team, had donated his summer and weekends to lay shingles and pound nails to build the wooden shack that would house the precious boats. Now, he was securing bunches of red balloons under coach Kathryn Noeller’s direction just moments before the boathouse dedication.

Varsity rower Heather Cox ’88 snapped a picture, reveling in the moment she and her teammates had worked and waited for. It felt good to move into a new home on the bucolic, albeit muddy, sanctuary of Briones Reservoir. The rolling golden hills and quiet sunrises over mirrored water felt like paradise compared to the urban bustle of Lake Merritt or the Oakland Estuary. At last, Mills had its own little boathouse built out of love and a lively rowing community.

That year’s team, the self-proclaimed “Rowdy Rooters,” were easily identifiable by their blue and gold face paint, pom-poms, and kazoos as they cheered for teammates and opposition at home events.

Now they cheered President Metz as she christened her namesake boat and took a playful swig from the champagne bottle. At her side was Dean Dorothy Keller, a quiet force, Cox says, and a devoted rowing advocate.

When Cox came to Mills, she didn’t know she was an athlete. She didn’t know she would be a part of something bigger than herself and belong to a community that shared sweat, tears, callused hands, and triumphs large and small. She especially didn’t know she would build a new home for rowers that would stand for the next 20 years.

1996: Competing at a higher level

Mills Four training for Pacific Coast championships. They won!

The Mills Novice Four team crossed the finish line at Nationals fully spent. Every bit of energy had poured out over the course of 2,000 meters. The din of screaming spectators was muffled by the team’s pounding hearts. Race officials, eschewing the traditional awards ceremony, shouted over the loudspeaker for the winning crew to row up to the podium to collect their medals. “We won! We won!” they shouted when they finally came-to, high-fiving each other with aching, bandaged hands. The coxswain’s voice snapped them out of their celebratory mood. “Sit ready,” she commanded. “Row.”

They paddled their brand new shell towards the deck, basking in their triumph amid the cheers from crew teams around the country.

Elese Lebsack ’98 had been a swimmer in high school, but it wasn’t until she pulled an oar that she learned what her body loves to do. When she got into a boat with Emily Kelley Mason ’96, Mollie Lounibous ’97, Laura Buhl ’97, and Bobbye Roberts Schubert ’98, it proved to be a winning combination. They swept the competition by boat lengths at the West Coast Championships, and undertook intense training to prepare for Nationals. Coach Karen Smyte had them at Briones Reservoir for full days of training, punctuated by a meal and a nap.

“I couldn’t eat enough, I was burning so many calories,” Lebsack says. “I was in the best shape of my life. For three weeks my only job was rowing, eating, and sleeping.” The team qualified for Nationals again when Lebsack was a senior—this time, led by a different coach, and competing in a different realm.

Coach Kevin Harris was hired by Mills in fall 1997 to take an already successful program to the next level. Harris was the country’s first African American to lead a varsity crew. “I want to model that crew really is for everyone,” he said at the time. “As head coach, if I don’t break through the color barrier, who will?”

In addition, the National Collegiate Athletic Association—the leading organizer of college athletic programs—had taken on crew as an emerging sport that year. The NCAA championship was between the fastest women’s college crews in the country. “There was pomp and circumstance,” says Lebsack. There was an inspirational speaker and a big banquet, and the races took place in a former Olympic rowing site.

This time Mills was up against more competitive and experienced rowers. They did not win that year, but the experience helped Lebsack deepen her understanding of what it meant to be an athlete. “Now my definition is broader,” she says. “Becoming an athlete at Mills helped me to discover my drive to win. My connection to the team is part of that drive.”

2014: Connection and tradition

As I near Briones Reservoir, I drive past a dozen rowers running in dark hoodies, the warmth of their breaths visible in the dim sunrise. I park and approach the boathouse, feeling a familiar chill in the air and flooded by the anticipation and trepidation I remember from my days as a student rower eight years earlier. I expect to see the usual suspects: Shannon Van Meir ’07, my pair partner and best friend; Katie Jo Donnell Ramirez ’07, a farm girl from South Dakota—tough on the outside and solid on the inside; and Wendy Franklin-Willis ’93, my coach, who had a young daughter the same age as my own. In my senior year, Wendy surprised me with a German chocolate cake and the team sang “Happy Birthday”—even though I hadn’t told anyone it was my birthday.

But this morning I am greeted by coach Sara Nevin, who filled the pilot seat of Cal’s launch before she decided to take a turn at coaching—becoming the driving force behind a group of women who balance an early bedtime with the demands of college study, who sport blisters like a badge of honor, who take pride in the insanity of getting in a workout every day before breakfast, and who understand the commitment it takes to be on the crew team.

In addition to coaching a strong team this year, Sara is planning the 100-year anniversary of Mills crew. “Of all the sports,” says Mills Athletic Director Themy Adachi, “crew has the most connection and tradition.”

The statement rings true for Marina Simenstad, who rowed in the ’60s. Now a referee with the US Rowing Association, Marina remembers working the finish line at the Redwood Shores course a few years ago. There was a group of Mills women there, cheering for their team. “They had such incredible spirit,” she says.

As I watch the sunrise from Nevin’s launch during practice that morning, it occurs to me that Mills crew is constantly changing. In the last decade the crew team has welcomed students of increasingly diverse ages, ethnicities, and lifestyles; the uniforms have changed; the drills and equipment have evolved; coaches and assistants have left their marks. But the tradition will always remain the same. The intensity of this experience strengthens our bodies and minds, creates deep relationships, and teaches us that if we can endure this experience, we can do anything.

But more than that, it teaches us that Mills crew isn’t entirely about winning and individual achievements. It’s about doing your best for the greater good of the team and feeling safe and challenged in a strong community.

“It’s women for women,” says Adachi, “Honoring our past and connecting with our future.”

Vanessa Marlin was on the Mills crew team and is a member of the South End Rowing Club in San Francisco. Last summer she rowed 125 miles on the Canal du Midi in the south of France.