Hall of Fame
Hall of Fame
Harvard Athletic Achievements
Hall of Fame
Remembering Harvard Athletics
When reminiscing about my time at Harvard, I can’t help but think back to September of 1998, when this naive but earnest freshman thought she would give sailing the literal college try. It wasn’t a random decision-- I grew up spending time on the water with my grandparents in Quincy Bay and had messed about in boats at camp on the Cape-- but I had no idea what I was getting myself into, and even if I had, I could not have imagined quite how much Harvard sailing would shape and ultimately define my Harvard experience. Neither would I have ever anticipated this Hall of Fame induction, but I am honored and humbled to be included alongside such talented and distinguished athletes, and I am profoundly grateful for the influence that Harvard sailing has had, and continues to have in my life. My college sailing career began that fall at the John Harvard statue, where the team captains met the freshmen recruits and walk-ons like me before we headed to our first practice. As I surveyed the group, I realized that many of these people already knew one another; several folks were carrying their own lifejackets and bags of gear. I hadn’t yet learned that competitive junior sailors are committed and disciplined athletes who train and travel extensively, and arrive to college ready to compete at an elite level. I had danced, done gymnastics, and played volleyball in high school, but somehow managed to equate enjoying a nice sailboat ride to qualification for showing up that day. Enormous credit goes to my parents, who have always most clearly demonstrated their love and confidence in me through their trust in my decisions and belief in my capabilities. They knew I wanted to try sailing because it was a special connection to my grandparents, who were still alive at the time. In particular, my grandfather, who had given me exactly one sailing lesson, had been an accomplished skipper in Massachusetts, even racing catamarans before they were cool, and had coached the BU team in the ‘60s. My father, who had grown up sailing, either didn’t know or wasn’t worried about what would happen once I actually got to the river and tried to get in a boat alongside real sailors.
Blissfully unaware of the many things that might go wrong, I walked with the group from the Yard to the T and boarded an inbound train. For the first of hundreds of times, we climbed out of the station at Kendall, meandered towards the river, crossed Mass Ave fairly safely, and burst through the double doors of the Harvard Sailing Center. On the other side of the MIT campus, next to the Longfellow Bridge and facing the State House dome, the sailing center is an unimpressive, unassuming building best judged by the legacy and camaraderie of its sailors and coaches rather than its modernity or the pervasive smell of dried Charles River water. When we return for alumni regattas, it is both heartening and disheartening to see how little has changed. But on that first day in 1998, after introductions and amidst the hustle and bustle of upperclassmen going about their regular practice, what I remember distinctly is a coach telling me, very reassuringly: “You’re going sailing with Sean today.” The tall recruit, my fellow inductee and now husband Sean Doyle ‘02, didn’t seem nervous about my crewing for him, so it didn’t occur to me to be nervous, and we (he) rigged up, pushed off, and had a pleasant, uneventful afternoon, at least far as I was concerned. I couldn’t tell you whether we did boat-handling drills or practice races that afternoon, but I do remember that Sean’s skill as a skipper and his patience with me were substantial enough that I was able to listen to his directions and still appreciate the gorgeous sunlight, cool breeze, and spray off the river. I was hooked. Why wouldn’t I want to spend every afternoon sailing?
From that point onwards, I quickly fell into a daily rhythm familiar to college athletes: classes, practice, sleep, repeat for four years of a two-season sport. Lasting friendships that went beyond skipper-crew pairings and transcended graduation years would grow from those shared hours of practice, long van rides, and full-day regattas in light air, heavy breeze, rain, and snow. I would train hard, but sometimes the breeze dictated that I sit on the shore while another crew stepped into my place; sometimes I was the crew stepping in for another. My supportive parents would accept that I wouldn’t come home pretty much ever, opting instead to coach and sail regattas throughout the summers, and my long-suffering roommates would come to tolerate the lingering smell of drying sailing gear in our shared bathroom. Despite becoming known as “the one who is always away sailing,” I would maintain close relationships with those same roommates, eventually serving as bridesmaid in each of their weddings as they did in mine. I would compete each weekend against teams from across the country and would meet coaches who knew my grandparents; my grandfather, his cognitive skills in decline due to Alzheimer’s disease, would proudly remember to tell his caregivers that his granddaughter sailed for Harvard. I would write a Classics thesis on seafaring in the Roman world, and at the end of my time at school, make the choice to miss Commencement in favor of the National Championships in Hawaii. Flash forward past college, and I would marry that first skipper and have two beautiful boys, Conor and Grant.
But back to those first practices, where it became more obvious to me that, motivated by my skipper’s incredible work ethic and time spent practicing starts, mark roundings, tacks, and gybes that fall, I could follow in the storied footsteps of Harvard crews who had come before, other novices who put in the hours, also benefited from supportive coaching and experienced mentors, and who had likewise started to look deceptively good in a short span of time; this made me want to work harder so I could be more confident about my actual skills. In subsequent years, I was privileged to call fellow inductee Margaret Gill Nyweide ‘02 my regular skipper. Although I learned a great deal from every one of my teammates, skippers and crews alike, I came into my own while sailing with Margaret. An unbelievably talented sailor, she was also a lot smaller than Sean; all of a sudden, I had real power, or at least more physical responsibility for what happened in a boat. If I lacked the strength to hike out and trim for as long as was needed, responded too slowly to a wind shift, or slipped during a maneuver, we would at best be slow, at worst be swimming; this I learned through repeated experience until I got better at anticipating what might be coming down the race course.
Life lessons about being prepared for any eventuality, confidence gained through mastering new skills, amazing friendships… the sailing team could not have provided any of these things without the foundation laid by our incredible coaches, Mike O’Connor and Bern Noack. On the water, Mike and Bern kept us competitive, challenged, and safe. Off the water, they continued to model and expect hard work and firm commitment to the team effort. Not only are they superbly qualified coaches, they set a cooperative, constructive tone for the team that enabled us to build on one another and be successful. I am so grateful to them and their families for the quality hours they spent with us, and for every opportunity we have to visit and reconnect. When our coaches and team members reunite, the years fall away instantly, and I know how lucky we are to have shared hours on the Charles River and beyond.
I am truly thankful to Harvard and the Harvard Varsity Club for this honor and the opportunity to not only really feel a part of the history and tradition of Harvard Athletics, but also to reflect on Harvard sailing’s tremendous impact on my life. I may have missed special occasions with blockmates, including the weekend my dorm room flooded, and even the Harvard graduation experience, but in the end, I wouldn’t say I missed those things at all. Those moments were a fair price to pay for what I gained in exchange: a more tangible connection to my grandparents, a close-knit group that supported me throughout college, recognition for my hard work and dedication, love of an extraordinary sport, lifelong friendships, and a husband who really knows me. A couple who has sailed together in all conditions has seen the best and worst each other have to offer, and through the years, Sean’s best-- his commitment to what he loves, whether sailing or our family-- has never wavered. We rarely race when we go sailing these days, but we do bring along our sons, and someday we will race with them. If they want it, I hope they have the same opportunity to appreciate gorgeous sunlight, cool breeze, and spray off the water, just like I did. Who wouldn’t want to spend every afternoon sailing?