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A Tribute to a Pioneer of Women’s Rowing: Carie Graves, 1953 – 2021

BY ED MORAN
PHOTO BY PETER SPURRIER

VIDEO BY ADAM REIST

Author Dan Boyne had known Carie Graves casually while Graves was the head women’s coach of Harvard-Radcliffe crew and Boyne was just beginning a new job teaching sculling at Harvard’s Weld Boathouse.

They did not spend a lot of time in that shared space as Graves left Harvard to coach at Northeastern University just after Boyne started, but it was just enough for Boyne to get to know Graves a little. What he remembers of that time was he knew that Graves had rowed on many successful collegiate and international crews, and had won gold and silver medals, but that none of that pushed through what Boyne describes as a modest “midwestern veneer.”

It wasn’t until Boyne was prodded to begin research of a 1975 crew Graves rowed on that was coached by legendary Harvard men’s coach Harry Parker, and had won a silver medal at the world championships. What began as opening research into a possible book idea, ended up becoming the driving force of The Red Rose Crew, the story of that 1975 crew and written by Boyne.

“I had known her for several years before I began to interview her for that book idea,” Boyne recalled. “We knew each other through mutual friends, but the thing that struck me was, I never knew all of her accolades, all of her stories, all of her accomplishments in rowing because she never carried herself that way.”

So, when Graves began opening up, and the story of her accomplishment tumbled out, Boyne knew he had to write about her and her 1975 crew. 

“She was just modest and unassuming,” Boyne said. “I knew she had been in gold medal boats, and silver medal boats, but I really didn’t know her. So, when I went up with my tape recorder to Northeastern and she started telling her stories, I was bowled over. And I knew I had to do this story. 

“As a reporter, you get this tingly feeling, and I felt ‘Oh my God, I’ve got to do this. This is incredible,’” he said. “All the women of that crew were that way, actually, but probably the most modest, or unassuming was Carie in terms of how much she had accomplished and how little people really knew.”

What few people did know about Graves was that from the moment she found rowing as a walk-on sophomore at the University of Wisconsin, Carie Graves had been a pioneer for women in the sport, piling up achievements leading other women into competition as both a teammate and coach.

Graves passed away Sunday due to complications from Alzheimer’s disease. She was 68.

“She was a unique combination of traits,” Boyne said. “One reason we hit it off was we were both born in Wisconsin, so she had the Wisconsin quality – the kind of unassuming way that you don’t get on the East Coast. She just had this very unassuming, midwestern, modesty. And yet behind it was this super competitive intensity. There was an intensity there that was beneath the veneer of this modest Midwesterner.”

Born in Madison, Wisconsin, Graves began rowing Wisconsin in the fall of 1973. Two years later she would help lead the Badgers to a national championship in 1975.

Graves made her first U.S. team that same year, as stroke of the silver-medal winning eight that would become known as the “Red Rose Crew,” and the subject of Boyne’s book.

She would go on to win two more world championship silver medals in the women’s eight in 1981 and 1983 and in both 1981 and 1984 she was honored by the United States Olympic Committee as rowing’s Female Athlete of the Year. 

Her achievements as an Olympic athlete include two medals – bronze in the 1976 U.S. women’s eight in the first Games that women were allowed to compete in the sport, and gold in the 1984 Games in Los Angeles. 

“Carie was a rowing idol being in the ‘84 eight and all, but it was really C.R.A.S.H.-B.’s that made her even more of an inspiration to me,” Linda Muri said.

“When I was competing [at Worlds], there weren’t a lot of masters women at C.R.A.S.H.-B.’s compared to the number of men. But there was Carie, retired from the Olympics and Worlds on the water competition, training hard and throwing down some amazing times. I thought that it was important to show the next generation that we could stick with the erging and competition just like she was showing me.

“Carie’s races were always crowd-pleasers. You knew it was going to be a great race when you saw Carie and Anna Bailey (UK) side by side. And if you’re enough of a badass like Carie, you can wear your reading glasses on a chain while crushing out another winning 2k and no one will bat an eye. We lost a great one with Carie.”

Her contributions to women’s rowing did not end when she finished her competitive career. Graves’s career as a head coach included a list of firsts that began when she was named head coach for Harvard-Radcliffe.

Graves coached Harvard-Ratcliffe from 1977 to 1983 and after earning a master’s degree of education in administration, planning, and social policy at Harvard University, she spent the next 10 years as the head women’s coach at Northeastern University.

During her time at Northeastern, Graves led the team from club status to varsity in 1990 and guided the varsity eight to a berth at the first-ever NCAA Women’s Rowing Championships in 1997. In 1998, Graves led her varsity eight to its second consecutive NCAA Championship appearance and a fourth-place finish.  

Following Northeastern, Graves was named the head coach for the University of Texas and is credited with building the program from the ground up. She led Texas to its first-ever NCAA Championship appearance during the 2002-03 season. 

Her crews won four consecutive Big 12 Rowing Championships from 2009-2012, including the inaugural championship in 2009, and she was selected by her peers as the 2012 Big 12 Conference Coach of the Year. 

She retired from coaching in 2014. 

Texas won its first national championship this past spring under the guidance of current head coach Dave O’Neill, who credits that foundation of the culture and base of the Longhorn team to Graves.

“Carie Graves was true pioneer and legend in our sport,” O’Neill said Monday. “Her athletic achievements were outstanding, but her greatest gift was her kindness and helpful nature that elevated us all. 

“My relationship with Carie went back to the early ’90s when both of us were coaching in Boston. I was just starting in my career, and there were numerous times she went out of her way to offer assistance and guidance. I was astounded that such an icon could be so generous, and I’m forever grateful for her support,” O’Neill said.

“All of us associated with Texas Rowing are greatly appreciative of everything she did for this program. She built this team from scratch and created the first successful Division I rowing team in Texas. Her leadership and influence were enormous, and she will be missed by everyone who worked with her.”

Graves is a two-time inductee into the National Rowing Foundation Hall of Fame. In 1984, she was selected as a member of the 1984 Olympic gold-medal crew. In 1991 Graves was honored by the Hall of Fame, when she was inducted as a member of the 1980 Olympic Team. 

During her time on the U.S. national team and as a collegiate coach, Graves is remembered as a fierce competitor and as a friend.

“Carrie was a relentless competitor and a true icon of our sport,” said fellow Olympian and former U.S. men’s team coach, Mike Teti. “She was an inspiration and my first hero in Rowing. I will always cherish her friendship and will miss her.”

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