BY CHIP DAVIS | PHOTO COURTESY HARVARD ATHLETICS
Pioneering oarswoman and coach Liz O’Leary retired from coaching Radcliffe after the Ivy League championship regatta in mid-May, after 37 years of guiding Harvard-Radcliffe rowing.
Before women’s collegiate rowing was recognized as a varsity sport, O’Leary competed in a college varsity eight—in a University of New Hampshire men’s eight. Before women’s rowing was an NCAA sport, O’Leary was coaching championship crews—and then won an NCAA national championship. And before The Boys in the Boat, O’Leary put great rowing on the big screen—as Meryl Streep’s sculling stand-in for the opening scene of The River.
O’Leary, a two-time Olympic athlete (1976 and 1980) who also coached the 1988 Olympic squad, began coaching at Radcliffe in 1986 and produced championship crews immediately, winning the Eastern Sprints (when it was still also the de facto Ivy League championship) in 1987 and 1989. She coached the Black and White to another Eastern Sprints victory—both varsity and team points—and to the NCAA Division I national championships in 2003.
O’Leary also coached Radcliffe to the inaugural Ivy League championship when it became a stand-alone event in 2012. Under O’Leary’s leadership, Radcliffe qualified for the NCAA championships 18 times, and she coached 14 women who went on to represent the U.S. on the national and Olympic teams.
“She set the bar for all female coaches looking to make an impact on young women,” said Duke coach Megan Cooke Carcagno.
More than her racing successes as an athlete and coach, O’Leary is known for being a good person who influenced others—her own athletes as well as competing coaches—positively.
“It was an honor to race against Liz,” said Yale women’s coach Will Porter. “She was so welcoming to me as a young coach. She taught me a lot of things about being in healthy competition and being worthy competitors. I hold her in high regard as a human being, and that translated into her coaching and the way she competed. It was never hostile. It was always about the speed of the boats. It was always to help everybody be better and faster and grow as young people.
“I’m going to miss her a lot.”
O’Leary graduated from the University of New Hampshire, where she rowed in the men’s varsity before UNH had a women’s varsity. In addition to the 1976 and 1980 Olympic teams, O’Leary rowed on six U.S. National Teams at world championships, winning medals three times. Besides coaching the 1988 Olympic team, she coached for seven U.S. National Teams and also trained elite and aspiring athletes at the Boston Rowing Center.
She coached at UNH and the Brooks School in North Andover, Mass., before Radcliffe. O’Leary was inducted into the UNH Hall of Fame in 1994, and the O’Leary Cup, presented to the winner of Radcliffe’s annual race against Syracuse and Dartmouth, is named in her honor.
“I’ve known Liz since she was an athletic director at Brooks School,” recalled John Murphy, the longtime women’s coach at Brown University who said the crews coached by O’Leary were “always tough.”
“She’s such an excellent person—honorable and just a good spirit. It’s hard to see people like that go.”