“You’re too small, Ginny, you’ll never make an Olympic team,” asserted my first-ever rowing coach, way back in the late winter of 1978. I had just taken an enormous risk, as I stood in the basement of Yale’s Payne Whitney Gymnasium. I had confessed my dream, which was admittedly outsized at that point, to somebody whose opinion not only mattered, but whose emotional support could play a vital role. But, alas, the easy road did not lie ahead for me.
I was young back then, just twenty, and still an emerging athlete, having fallen in love with the elegance and beauty of rowing less than four years earlier. It had taken another year before I finally stepped into a boat for the first time, as a college freshman. Now, during my junior year, I had dared to speak up, to voice my dream. Maybe it wasn’t based in reality – after all, I had tried out for the national team for the first time the previous summer and been cut, I lacked the height that most Olympic rowers possess, not to mention much experience as an athlete, and I suffered from asthma, - but still, I was stunned by my coach’s response. Crushed not just by his choice of words, but by his certainty, I left the gym in a panic, forcing my tears back, rushing out into the cold winter weather to find comfort in the solitude of my off-campus apartment.
As I walked, I began to reassess my future, making room for my coach’s opinion, shoving my dream aside into a dark corner. A small internal voice had joined forces with the coach’s. “Maybe he’s right.” A jockeying of perspectives began as his view of reality crept into position to obscure my sense of possibility.
But then, another voice intruded on this internal dialogue. “What does he know? Why does he get to decide?” That voice sounded angry, strident, and most importantly, unwilling to concede the future without testing the expert prediction. Just because my own coach didn’t have faith in me, just because I’d heard an emphatic “no” instead of even a wimpy “yes,” that didn’t mean I had to give up on myself so quickly. By the time I arrived back at my apartment, I was furious with my coach and my dream was back on center stage.
Nothing came easy when it came to fulfilling that dream. I tried out for two more national teams and two different coaches cut me. When the 1980 Olympic Games, sited in Moscow, rolled around, the U.S. President, Jimmy Carter, decided our country would boycott, to protest the Soviet Union’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan.
Everything seemed to conspire against me. But I was driven. For some reason, I loved this sport, the feel of gliding over water between strokes that demanded near-heroic intensity and effort, the sense of continuity and community that emerged from a crew working in synch, the beauty of sunsets on water, shorelines shrouded in mist, raindrops bouncing off boats. I wanted to row among the best and I refused to stop until I achieved my goal.
I made that 1980 team, despite our not getting to compete at the Olympics. I kept training four more years, and also made the team that represented our country at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984. All the effort was worth the wait. And the lesson—not to give up on myself too soon, not to allow someone else’s opinion to trump my desire—that has stood me in good stead since those years. Everything I have today is a result of sticking with that dream, all those hours on the water, in the weight room, and in the stadium; they got me here, where I know now that big aspirations need not just time to develop, but unflagging belief in them. If I’m not going to be my own champion for my dreams, no one else will. And I will not allow anyone else to decide for me what’s possible.
GINNY GILDER is co-owner of WNBA's Seattle Storm and a two-time Olympian. Her memoir, Course Correction: A Story of Rowing and Resilience in the Wake of Title IX, will be published April 14th with Beacon Press. Lean more about Ginny at: www.ginnygilder.com.