“Course Correction” – Ginny Gilder’s Story of Life and Rowing

by Ed Moran, | Jun 29, 2015
Ginny Gilder’s first thoughts about returning to the Olympics did not involve writing a very personal memoir about her journey in rowing, from Yale University to the 1984 Olympic Games.
GINNY_013_resized_mini-e1410491589845 (1)Ginny Gilder’s first thoughts about returning to the Olympics did not involve writing a very personal memoir about her journey in rowing, from Yale University to the 1984 Olympic Games.

Gilder said she was watching the 2008 Olympics and it was suggested to her that she should start training again and aim for London 2012. “We were watching the Olympics, I had turned 50 about two months earlier, and my wife said, ‘Ginny, you should start training again.’

“We were just horsing around, but a few weeks later, I was talking to my personal trainer and I told her. She said it was a great idea, and I started thinking about it.

“I wrote down all of the reasons it would be a good idea and all of the reasons it would be a bad idea. At the top of the “bad idea list” was age. And on the “good idea” list was opportunity and advances in training techniques and resources available to athletes, especially around sports psychology.”

So Gilder hired Michael Gervais, a Southern California based sports psychologist to help her deal with a fear of getting off the line and her age fears and she started training in the single.

It did not go well.

On the day she was scheduled to compete in a club event at Lake Union Crew Club, she participated in a stair climb event in the morning called, “The Big Climb.”

“Both experiences were miserable,” Gilder said. “I was slower than I had been on The Big Climb, I sucked in my single and I just decided that I hate this. I don’t know why I’m doing it. It’s exhausting. I don’t care. I have the rest of my life. I’ve got my medal. What am I trying to prove?”

Gilder talked with Gervais about the experience.

“I was talking to him a little bit about writing, and one of the things that became clear when I was back on the water again was it had reminded me how much I loved rowing. And then it kind of morphed into this thought that I have this story I want to tell.”

ginnyrowingIn the end, what started as a thought about a return to competition ended in Gilder writing her memoir, “Course Correction: A Story of Rowing and Resilience in the Wake of Title IX.” The title of the book suggests that the story is about how the federal legislation that ensured women have equal access to collegiate opportunities as men, resulted in the explosion of NCAA women’s rowing.

Title IX is a part of the story—a very small part. “Course Correction” is more the story of how a troubled 16-year-old high school junior fell in love with the idea of rowing while standing on the banks of the Charles River at the Head of the Charles Regatta and then pursued that idea as a walk-on athlete at Yale University.

“I stood on the Boston shore of the Charles River watching a meandering race, the synchronic back and forth of the rowers’ bodies; the fluid, controlled motion; the play of light on rippling water and polished wood; and I was a goner,” Gilder wrote.

Her story traces her path through collegiate rowing to the 1984 Olympic Games, where she won a silver medal stroking the women’s quadruple sculls. But the story is so much more the telling of a life’s journey, an athlete driven to succeed while filled with self doubt and using sport to overcome those obstacles and to put a haunting family past behind her.

Set up in four parts, the way a rowing stroke is—Catch, Drive, Release, Recovery — the book is about how Gilder used sports and rowing to overcome the resulting emotions of a troubled family life growing up the daughter of a successful and wealthy businessman whose marriage to Gilder’s mother ended in divorce.

In that beginning chapter, Gilder writes about going backwards to go forward, “something all rowers are familiar with,” but in a way that brings forth her story from the family life she was trying to avoid. Drive is about the burning desire to succeed and overcome, release is about letting go after having won an Olympic medal and recovery is about moving on.

Gilder’s story weaves its way through her days as an undergraduate at Yale where she participated with a group of Yale women who stripped down in the office of the athletic director in 1976 to demand female facilities in the boathouse, through her days on four national teams, the 1980 Olympic boycott and ultimately the 1984 Olympics.

ginnyolyIn each section, she describes how the motions of the rowing stroke relate to her life, how she overcame her fears and anxieties about her athletic ability, asthma, self doubt, became a Olympian and then her life after rowing, when she marries and suffers the heart-breaking loss of a stillborn daughter, to her recovery and the birth of a son and the adoption of two other children, divorce and a second marriage.

“When I stepped into this new world, I stumbled into its language, too, and began to learn a new set of terms and expressions, many of them stolen from everyday usage and angled slightly off their normal meanings to coin technical phrases,” Gilder writes.

“I loved discovering new meanings and learning to associate them with new sensations. I sprinkled rowing jargon like an old pro, name-dropping technical terms that mere months earlier, I didn’t know existed and couldn’t have used in a sentence.

“Start with the “catch.” What a word. A noun and a verb. Play catch; catch the bus. It can convey aggressive action or passive reaction. Catch a thief; catch a cold. It can describe a hindrance: what’s the catch? It acts upon the physical domain or the senses. Catch fire; catch her eye.”

Since writing the book, Gilder, a Seattle businesswomen and part-owner of the WNBA’s Seattle Storm, continues her support of rowing and is one of several Olympic rowers who have formed the Row to Rio Legends Circle, ambassadors of the sport who are helping to promote and support the 2016 Olympic hopefuls and the U.S. effort for the 2016 Olympic Games.

Gilder held a book signing at the 2015 San Diego Crew Classic and the Row to Rio kickoff and said there are plans in the works to hold an event in Boston prior to the Head of the Charles.

“The reaction to the book has been surprisingly good,” Gilder said. “I’m not a very public person, so I really wasn’t very comfortable speaking publicly. I was really apprehensive about this whole concept of talking to people. It’s turned out to be quite different, and I’ve gotten much more comfortable. I’ve had some really great conversations with people, so that’s been really good.

Gilder said there are two reasons why she wrote this story.

“The most relevant one was, I felt my experience in terms of rowing and lack of confidence and fear is not an extraordinary one. And I felt if maybe I could chart the course of what happened with me, that could help other people going through something not exactly similar, but perhaps on a parallel line, that it could make a difference.

“And that has defiantly happened. People have said that reading this has helped them shift something in their own lives or just helped them connect with themselves and their own lives. That was like wow to me. You do something, you have a reason for doing it and reason is validated, then what could be better.”

For more information on the Row to Rio Campaign go here.
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