BY SOFIA SCEKIC | PHOTO BY KATIE LANE/HUDSON
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“We before me.”
That’s the attitude and approach that propelled Stanford women’s rowing to the top of the podium at this year’s NCAA Championships after two straight years of runner-up finishes, both to the Texas Longhorns.
In the year before the pandemic-fueled cancellation of the 2020 NCAA Championships, the Stanford women had found success throughout the spring racing season and closed out the 2018-19 school year with a respectable fourth-place finish at NCAAs. The following year, says head coach Derek Byrnes, Stanford fielded a very strong group of seniors who might have been able to lead the team to a higher finish at NCAAs but never got the chance because of Covid.
In 2021, many athletes chose to return to campus despite the uncertainty surrounding the spring racing season. Ultimately, the NCAA Championships were held in Sarasota, and Stanford’s varsity eight, second-varsity eight, and four all took second in their respective races to lead the team to their best finish at nationals since 2011. The Cardinal scored 126 points over the weekend —tying for first in the team standings with both Texas and Washington—but were edged out in the final team standings by the Longhorns in varsity-eight placings.
The year 2022 brought more of the same. The Cardinal and Longhorns tied once again with 124 points, but Stanford finished second in the team standings after Texas won the varsity-eight race. The next year, Stanford broke through, as the Cardinal scored 129 points behind its varsity eight’s victory and claimed its first NCAA title since 2009. The title also gave Stanford its 134th overall NCAA championship across all sports, the most in Division I athletics.
So why was the Cardinal able to succeed finally after nearly half a decade of coming close to, but not quite reaching, the top? According to both rowers and coaches, nothing significant was done differently this year. The win was a product of several generations of Stanford rowers leaving their mark on the program and allowing it finally to reach the pinnacle again of collegiate rowing.
“This win is also a product of recent alumni and the legacy they left the program,” said rower Fiona Mooney. “Even though they weren’t on the team this year, they set up the team for success.”
Mooney rowed in the six-seat of the second-varsity eight at the NCAA Championships this year and in the varsity four at last year’s championships. She will be a junior during the upcoming school year.
As soon as racing was done at NCAAs this year, associate head coach Molly Hamrick, who joined the Cardinal before the 2019-20 season, texted the athletes who had graduated in 2021 and 2022 to let them know that the victory was as much a product of their time in the program as it was the efforts of this year’s athletes.
“Something I’ve learned is that success doesn’t happen in a year,” Hamrick said. “It takes years and it takes dozens and dozens of people, not just the people who are at Camden County Park this year.”
Rachel Miller, who finished her undergraduate degree in 2023 and coxed the varsity eight at the most recent NCAA Championships, attributed the win partially to at least 15 years of athletes before her time who set aspirational goals for themselves and the team, which positioned the team for future success.
“Knowing that, OK, we didn’t make it to the grand final, or we didn’t make it to the top three or the top one this year, but we’ve absolutely taken steps forward for our team to do that next year or the year after,” Miller said, was crucial to this year’s team taking the crown for the first time in 14 years.
Miller is returning to Stanford next year to complete a master’s degree but does not plan to row. After the Cardinal’s victory in May, she feels she has met every goal she set for herself as a rower and wants to spend her final year in Palo Alto taking advantage of other opportunities.
When Byrnes arrived at Stanford for the 2016-17 season, he was struck by the way in which one of the athletes, Ruth Narode ’17, mentored younger athletes while recovering from a knee injury that required surgery.
“She did it with such class and put down this uncompromising work ethic but also showed so much compassion for those around her,” Byrnes said. “I noticed how she was trying to educate the younger kids and how to approach stuff in a compassionate manner. And since then, I’ve leaned into that.”
Often, Byrnes steers younger rowers toward older mentors from whom he believes they’ll learn the most, and he recognizes the importance of peer leadership in developing a strong team. Even after senior rowers graduate, Byrnes continues to exploit the advantages of peer leadership. For example, Caroline Ricksen ’22 still serves as a resource for the coxswains.
“All of our younger coxswains know of Ricksen,” Byrnes said. “I have no problem—with the kids who are having a hard time doing something or trying to figure out how to lead—giving them Ricksen’s number. She will talk to that kid for hours on end.”
Several alumnae who’ve been integral to Stanford’s success this year and who continue to serve as valuable resources for current team members are Sophia Boyd-Fliegel ’21, Abby Tarquinio ’21, Eva Nates ’22, Ricksen, and another coxswain, Nicole Pofcher ’22, Hamrick said.
It was Tarquinio who coined the phrase “everybody gets a ring” if the team wins NCAAs—a reference to the hard work put in by everybody on the team, not just the 23 athletes competing in the two eights and the four at NCAAs. The team deployed that phrase a lot this year, and it reflects an aspect of Stanford women’s rowing that was highlighted by several athletes: Every single person on the team is equally important—a principle evident in the way they practice, interact, and compete.
The level of intra-team competition was noticeably higher this year, which contributed to the team’s breakthrough performance in New Jersey, said Belle Battistoni, an incoming senior who rowed in the stroke seat of the second-varsity eight at NCAAs.
“Stanford women’s crew does a good job with intra-competition and creating little milestones that lead to bigger ones,” Battistoni elaborated. “That takes some of the monotony out of training for three months on end without any races [in the winter].
“This year we’ve rallied as a team—whether you’re in the 1V or the 4V, you made a big impact,” Battistoni added.
Recent graduate Katelin Gildersleeve, who is pursuing a spot on the U.S. National Team and raced at U23s in the single in June, recalled being struck during her recruiting visit five years ago by how competitive, yet supportive, the Cardinal were when it came to training.
“There was something about how the team functions, seeing them erg and on the water and hearing them cheer for each other. The competitive but very supportive nature was so apparent,” Gildersleeve explained.
Gildersleeve, who was quiet and introverted in high school, often flew under the radar. At her small boat club in Dallas, she sculled primarily and learned to sweep when she joined Stanford’s team as a freshman. Despite struggling in her first year to learn a new rowing technique and not contributing competitively, she always felt she was a valued member of the squad, she said.
“That’s one of the best things about our team: It’s so small that everyone really matters, and there’s no one left behind,” Gildersleeve said.
The Stanford coaches focus on having “a lot of joy in the everyday,” Hamrick said, “and leaning into the whole team. There’s no one person, it’s not about one boat. It’s the strength of all 45 who show up and work every day.”
A feature of Stanford women’s rowing that has bred a culture where everyone feels important is that “team leaders” (TLs) rather than seniors serve as team captains. Each class elects its own TL about a month after school begins to serve as the liaison between athletes and coaches during the year. Miller and Mooney were elected TLs for the classes of 2023 and 2025, respectively, this past season.
“It’s the type of team where you don’t have to wait until you’re a junior or senior to contribute and share in conversation and in practice,” Mooney said of the advantage of having TLs. “There’s no strict hierarchy.”
TLs meet with the coaches every other week to discuss how things are going from their class’s perspective. The TLs either have dinner with their class before meeting with the coaches or text in their class group chat to learn what their fellow classmates want to bring up, Mooney said. The conversations range from logistical questions about the racing schedule, to post-practice snacks for the boathouse, to more serious conversations about athletes their teammates believe would benefit from check-ins with the coaches.
“The best part about having a representative from each class is, as a freshman and sophomore, you get to sit in on important conversations where you get a sense of how to represent your team and your class from older team leaders,” Miller said. “It’s also a great way for the coaches to get an authentic sense of how the team is doing.
“The bond that’s developed among the TLs this year specifically has been really cool because it bridges the classes,” Miller continued. “It’s opened the communication channels so much that I feel like we’re always on the same page.”
The idea of having TLs rather than senior captains arrived at Stanford eight years ago, around the same time Byrnes showed up. From the coaches’ perspective, one of the main benefits is that it opens lines of communication and helps prevent misunderstandings. It involves rowers in the decision-making process and enables them to understand the reasoning behind many of their coaches’ decisions.
Another feature of the team’s culture that rowers mentioned frequently is how much fun the team has while training, racing, and supporting each other. Several athletes said egos are “checked at the door,” and the team focuses on having fun with each other, no matter the situation.
“There’s not a day that we’re not laughing together at least once,” Gildersleeve said. “Even at NCAAs, we’re all dancing. Last year, we were singing show tunes. It’s never too serious—it’s all very lighthearted and fun.”
On the morning of the NCAA finals this year, the crew was having fun singing and keeping everyone loose and confident for the upcoming day of racing. Battistoni, who gets nervous before races, was having such a good time that she didn’t feel as anxious as she normally does, which made her optimistic that the Cardinal would be taking home the championship trophy again.
Even on some of the hardest training days, Miller said, the team keeps things lighthearted and fun. “There’s this positive energy of ‘we all know this is going to be really hard but we’re excited to do this as a team and be stronger because of it.’”
When asked about their favorite experiences with the Stanford team, several athletes mentioned winning races, but all recalled seemingly insignificant moments from the day-to-day as a collegiate athlete: the 20-minute van rides back to campus after morning practice; watching movies together the night before races; team runs to a well-liked burrito joint. It’s a measure of the strong bond among these outstanding rowers that their most precious memories revolve around spending time with teammates rather than standing on top of the podium.
The moment Gildersleeve cherishes was the night the team went to Philadelphia to get ice cream during this year’s NCAA Championships. “I don’t think I’ve laughed so hard in a long time.”
For Miller, the daily practices and the opportunity to be on the water with her teammates will always be more memorable than any races or wins.
“The work that happens during the season puts you in a position to perform at your best at the end of the season,” Miller said. “The moments of working hard and being in the process day to day are the building blocks of an amazing performance at the end of the season. It’s the process that creates those moments.”
In his time as head coach, Byrnes has seen the team’s culture change significantly. Today’s team is more tight-knit than it was in the past, with rowers forming personal bonds that drive the squad forward. These changes were apparent especially after the outbreak of Covid sent student-athletes back home and halted racing. Many of the athletes chose to return to campus for a possible 2021 spring racing season, even though there was no guarantee.
“It pushed them together in a way I’d never seen the Stanford women push together,” Byrnes said. “And they’ve held tight to it ever since. The way they approached it during that period and after has very much been ‘We before me’.”
Looking ahead to the future, the athletes and coaches are intent on maintaining a team culture that is close-knit, supportive, and fun rather than focusing solely on race results. When a team reaches the top in a sport like rowing, Hamrick pointed out, sometimes it can be challenging to think about what comes next.
With Stanford women’s crew, that isn’t a problem, and she wants the team to continue growing together.
“It’s about the challenges,” Hamrick said. “What can we do today? How can we get better? How can we empower each other? So I’m really excited to see what the future holds and what this year holds.”
Four of the nine athletes in Stanford’s NCAA-winning varsity eight were seniors or fifth-years, and at least three of them will not be returning next season, so the Cardinal are likely to see significant lineup changes next fall and spring.
Two of the athletes from that boat who won’t be returning—Gildersleeve and Miller—hope the team will build on the culture they created over the last few seasons, which they believe will lead to continuing success on the racecourse.
Battistoni and Mooney want to preserve the team’s strong culture and sense of closeness while working on rowing even faster as a unit and continuing to shape Stanford women’s rowing for years to come by mentoring younger athletes.
For Byrnes, the goal is to continue doing what they have been doing to achieve success at the Pac-12 and national level.
“The way you navigate it is by having hard-working people who want to be part of something that’s bigger than themselves,” Byrnes said.
If this year is any indication, what Byrnes, Hamrick, and the countless athletes who’ve come through Stanford’s program have built is here to stay. Just like the alums from past decades who were essential contributors to this year’s NCAA title, the current team is going to make sure they set up Stanford women’s rowing for many more national titles in the future.
“What we are is a testament to the 45 women who are sitting on the erg and getting in boats every day,” Hamrick said. “This is a product of them.”