How a naked protest changed women's rowing forever

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RIO DE JANEIRO — Forty years later, 40 years after the naked protest, a group of the finest American athletes got into boats in the shadow of Christ the Redeemer on Sunday, and rowed to glory.

It was not the climax of decades of change, because the change keeps coming, but it is a fitting place to stop and look back. The U.S. women’s eight – coxswain Katelin Snyder, Amanda Elmore, Elle Logan, Meghan Musnicki, Tessa Gobbo, Lauren Schmetterling, Amanda Polk, Kerry Simmonds and Emily Regan – won the 998th Summer Games gold medal in American history Saturday. There on the sunlit Brazilian bay, they added another brick to their rising reputation as one of the top dynasties in Olympics history. The team won its 11th straight Olympic or world title.

All of this happened in barely more than six minutes, and all of this happened in barely more than 40 years.

On March 3, 1976, a group of 19 Yale women rowers marched into the office of the director of women’s athletics, and took off their clothes.

The U.S. women's eight rowing team celebrates after winning Olympic gold Saturday. (AP)
The U.S. women’s eight rowing team celebrates after winning Olympic gold Saturday. (AP)

The group was fed up with the discrimination they faced, having to sit outside after workouts, some getting sick in the process, while the men enjoyed team facilities like showers. Some of the men were hardly sympathetic, calling them “sweathogs” and worse.

Title IX was about four years old by then, but new laws don’t automatically bring change. There was de facto discrimination, and the feeling was that women might belong on paper, but they were far from belonging in the most important ways.

So the Yale women, led by a rower named Chris Ernst, wrote “Title IX” on each other’s backs in blue felt-tip pen, and simultaneously removed their clothes in front of administrator Joni Barnett.

Then Ernst read a letter that began, “These are the bodies Yale is exploiting.”

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The New York Times picked up the story, as did newspapers around the world. A facility for the women was built not long after.

The rest is sports and societal history, as rowing has become one of the major beneficiaries of Title IX. Saturday’s gold medalists came from all over the nation, the product of immense resources and investments from their families, their communities and their colleges. The Yale protest, even though it came after Title IX, remains so significant that silver medalist sculler Gevvie Stone mentioned it Saturday in her press conference.

When asked about the American dominance, British coxswain Zoe De Toledo marveled: “There are a huge amount of women rowing at the intercollegiate level,” she said. “They have incredible setups. We visited Washington and their setup was better than that of our national team.”

The result is rock-star treatment, at least on this perfect weekend day by the water. As the eight rowers walked through the media mixed zone, fans hung over the barrier behind them, shouting their names and asking for selfies. The stands were completely packed for all the races, and there were even fans who lined up along fences, peering through the chain links. The U.S. men finished fourth – respectable for sure – yet they were not the main draw.

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Stone was also feted, even though she rowed alone before the eights began. The Princeton product with an M.D. from Tufts spoke afterward about the long distance between generations. Stone’s mother, Lisa Hansen, also competed at the Olympic level – also 40 years ago. Stone didn’t know what her mom had accomplished until she got to the training center in Chula Vista, California, and saw “Lisa Hansen” among the records on the wall. Hansen, Stone pointed out to the reporters assembled, did not have a state-of-the-art college facility. She didn’t even have an intercollegiate team. She had to row as part of a club.

Now there are titanic teams all over the U.S. – 49 have been added since 1997. The University of Michigan, for example, started its club team 24 years ago and has since won 11 Big Ten titles. It has also produced Elmore, who earned her way into the boat Saturday – a process that is more and more intense. “Just a really good group,” said coach Tom Terhaar. “They’re always pushing each other. And if one has a bad year, they don’t make it. Which is hard.”

Nobody knows that more than Polk, who made it to gold on Saturday after missing the boat four years ago. “Being chosen for the team was a major step to get here,” said her mom, Joanne. “The lowest point was not making it in the boat for London.”

Her comeback required “determination beyond belief,” in the words of her father, Ken.

“These women have pushed me every day,” Polk said. “Individual erg tests, pieces on the water. Every time you think it was good enough, it wasn’t. You can feel them push you harder. Basically complacency is not there. It’s nonexistent.”

That’s part of what makes this machine keep moving so fast. The toughest competition is within American borders, with a new crop of rowers pushing the old every single year. And then once the most elite group is found, those rowers then push each other even harder. The embarrassment of resources of 1976 has become an embarrassment of riches in 2016.

“We have had an amazing group of women, and amazing chance to capitalize,” Musnicki said. “And so far we have capitalized.”

It took a little more than six minutes, and a little more than 40 years. The uncertainty of the beginning seemed like a foregone conclusion by the end.

Strong women made it so.