Ginny Gilder, a former member of the US National Rowing Team, adored the sport of rowing ever since she witnessed shells racing on the Charles River in Boston, MA when she was sixteen years old. Standing on the shore, she watched as oarsmen and women worked their hearts out, and longed to trade places with any one of them to compete in the hot seat.
Course Correction: A Story of Rowing and Resilience in the Wake of Title IX by Ginny Gilder, is not only the story of Gilder’s rowing career, but also the story of her childhood, coming of age, and coming out. She faced competition on the water, and also overcame her biggest fears when it came to being true to herself.
The book is divided into four parts, each a segment of a rowing stroke: catch, drive, release, and recovery. Gilder does a brilliant job reflecting upon her life both on and off the water and relating it to that particular part of the stroke. Her ability to tell her story without losing the reader in minutia is her strongest skill.
Gilder’s childhood, which was saturated with emotional pain, prepared her for the physical pain she would have to overcome competing as a member of a team, and as a sculler. She and her siblings faced hellish struggles due to an emotionally distant father—who moved out when Gilder was young—and an emotionally unbalanced mother with whom Gilder and her siblings all lived. Depicting the struggles from her childhood, she described how she learned to find her sense of self while learning how to navigate life. She moved into her father’s home, along with her eldest sister, where she finally found the stability she’d been yearning for—even if her stepmother never fully accepted her.
After proving herself to Nat Case—the Yale varsity women’s coach who doubted her ability due to her size—Gilder rowed starboard in an eight with a mix of novices and upperclass(wo)men. She rowed all four collegiate years, with Chris Ernst (an olympic hopeful/future olympian) as her mentor through her sophomore year when Ernst graduated. During Gilder’s freshman year in 1976, Ernst led the women’s rowing team in a crusade for better facilities by organizing a strip-in for the women rowers in the Director of Women’s Athletics’ office. This event helped mold the Title IX movement, beginning right there at Yale where their actions won the women’s rowing program better access to equipment and training facilities.
While in college, Gilder found herself plagued with asthma. The harder she worked the worse her attacks became. Diagnosed as a child, it wasn’t until she was an adult that her doctors finally convinced her to value the medicines that would allow her to remain on the team.
Every year that Gilder tried out for the US National Rowing Team, she did it despite doubt from coaches. However, after years of letdowns and watching others compete for her seat, in 1980 she made the team—just in time for the United States to boycott that year’s Olympics held in Moscow. Gilder had to wait another four years to compete as an Olympian, and went on to represent the United States on four national rowing teams, including two Olympic teams.
Initially, Gilder competed in fours and eights, but when she didn’t make the four one year, she took a chance on the small boats program and learned to scull. During camp, she met Ann Strayer, her first girlfriend, though she never referred to Strayer as such. Everyone questioned the nature of relationship, but they never publicly admitted to having a romantic relationship despite living together. And despite his absence in her life, the person’s approval she feared she would lose was her father’s. Eventually, she broke her own heart, and Strayer’s, by ending the relationship, immediately dating a man—Josh Keeler—and marrying him.
Gilder went on to have three children, even continuing to compete while she was pregnant, ignoring her doctor’s orders. She sculled in the Head of the Charles, setting records year after year, while competing with Strayer.
Ginny Gilder, despite her olympic medals and world records, finally faced her father, telling him in a letter that she was a gay woman, deciding the only approval she needed was her own. Gilder retired from rowing and took up tennis. Eventually, she met Lynn—her tennis instructor—who later became her wife.
Course Correction links perfectly with The Red Rose Crew, by Daniel J. Boyne, providing a closer look at some of the same athletes who paved the road post-Title IX. Gilder describes overcoming personal and professional hurdles to find success both on and off the water.
This is the third in a series of book reviews by Kate Craig – a writer, editor, and photographer who coxes for DC Strokes Rowing Club. She enjoys being active and finding ways to make a difference.
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Photo credit: Book cover – http://ginnygilder.com/