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Team Dreaming: Iowa Women’s Rowing – Club to NCAA

By: Imani Hedt

A big thank you to Ann Schaefer and Sean Tobin for making this article possible.

All photos courtesy of Ann Schaefer.

It’s a chilly Monday in December and the midday sun is trying to attempt an

appearance. A lunch bell rings as high school students make their way through the arching

halls of Iowa City High School, lined with lockers, tiles and exposed brick. Ann Schaefer –

Mrs Schaefer to her students – invites me into her office at the back of her classroom with a

warm smile and an enthusiastic comment about how nice it is to talk to another tall woman.

During the fall semester of 1992, Ann joined the world of rowing at the University of Iowa

after a friend invited her to a training session. At the time, the sport was only offered at a club

level which meant they received no funding towards competing from the university, even

though the men and women who rowed as part of Iowa rowing competed against NCAA

(National Collegiate Athletic Association), Ivy League, and Eastern Sprint League rowing

teams like Harvard and Cornell. This lack of funds meant that the team had to be creative

when it came to raising and spending money.

Early into our conversation, it is obvious that Ann and her teammates had and still

hold immense pride for the community that they were a part of. The first few snapshots she

shares with me helps to show how important the club was to these young athletes. “Boats

were purchased with 100% fundraised funds. We had to buy our own [gear]. We had to create

our own meets, we had to register ourselves, we had to get our own sweats. Everything was

student lead. Drive our own boats, load our own boats, find a truck [to transport boats] and

rig them up ourselves.” There were such little funds, that at some competitions coaches had

to ask other teams to borrow boats in order for Iowa to compete. With a wistful smile on her

face, Ann explained how they raised funds one semester, “We just tried to make money any

way that we could to try and support [the club]. Once we sold an old boat that couldn’t be

rowed to a bar that’s no longer around, called Romeo Tangos, and they had it on their ceiling

as part of their bar décor.”

During the academic year of 1992-93, Ergs (rowing machines) were stored in the

bottom basement of Halsey Hall on the university campus, a building built in 1915 and

named after Elizabeth Halsey who pioneered the inclusion of women in sports through the

creation of a women’s gymnasium facility. The boats the club used were stored in an

abandoned house close to campus and near the banks of the Iowa River that runs through

Iowa City. Iowa Rowing wouldn’t receive designated facilities until the Beckwith Boathouse

was built in 2009.

Despite being a non-funded club, there was no question that Iowa Rowing was a

strong part of the collegiate rowing community, “Even though we were a club, people took us

seriously. We were Iowa Rowing, it wasn’t ‘That group is just a club’. It was, ‘You’re here

and you’re here to compete’”. One year “We ran Head of the Iowa and teams from the upper

Midwest and [BIG 10] came. We were competing while also running it. So, I remember being

up at 5 a.m. going to get coolers, food, water, setting the course, getting the boat launches,

trying to find officials, as well as being in the boats racing. It was like ‘Oh you’re racing, but

oh you need to be at the finish line.’ We were running the entire race start to finish as a club.”

This was something that truly amazed me, listening to all of Ann’s stories. Here was a group

of women and men who organised practically everything – from fundraising to coaching –

and who managed to do so without University of Iowa support, all while competing against

NCAA and BIG 10 schools. The validation that encouraged them to keep going? The

women’s team were really good. “I think that the cool thing was, here we were, a group of

club women who were actually good. We showed up and did something right. The novice

team would win frequently. The big race at the University of Wisconsin – where it snowed,

and we rowed in this huge snowstorm – our novice eight walked away winning. It was

amazing the amount of parents and grandparents that showed up to these events. The people

that were there were just fabulous. Your family showed up and they were doing everything

possible. We would walk to the water, and we would have these adults that were trying to

help us, just by being there.”

In 1994, Mandi Kowal became head coach as the team transitioned from being a

men’s and women’s club team to a women’s NCAA funded University of Iowa team. The

young women had been gaining attention, so much that three very qualified women sent in

applications to coach, Mandi being one of them. Ann was the secretary of the club before the

shift and so was one of the athletes who helped to make the decision on the future coaching

staff. Among photos that captured team huddles and crews in boats, Ann still has the resumes

detailing the qualifications of each of the women. Each boasted college, Olympic and/or

World Rowing Championship experience representing the US. Before coming to Iowa, Mandi

was a triple gold medal winner at the World Rowing Championships in the lightweight

category, as well as having previous coaching experience at the University of Wisconsin. The

first-year rowing under Mandi, Iowa’s first ever NCAA varsity eight achieved 3rd at nationals.

“To say, ‘Hi, come and be a coach for very little money, here’s a dilapidated boathouse, a

dilapidated set of boats, and here’s this rag tag bunch of women that are winning but kind of

random.’ I am so glad that she [Mandi] believed in the program, and that Christine Grant was

someone who was able to take us seriously.” In 1969 and 1970, Dr Christine Grant earned her

bachelors and master’s in physical education at the University of Iowa after playing and

coaching filed hockey in Canada and her home country of Scotland. After finishing her

studies and with the implementation of Title IX in 1972, she became the first director of

women’s intercollegiate athletics in 1973. With the expansion of women’s sports at Iowa, Dr

Grant helped to provide facilities for the newly official rowing team. “Equipment was huge.

One of the things that Christine Grant did that was amazing, she sent three or four people to

Harvard to explore programs and told them, ‘I want you to come back with the ultimate

dream.’ Then Christine sat us all down and asked us what we needed moving forward.

Coaching was what we needed, and we needed equipment.” Things had changed. The team

were still practicing 20 hours a week, twice a day, but they didn’t have to pay out of their own

pockets for gear. There was academic help and mock job interviews available for each of

them. “I think that they do a better job with academic planning for athletes just to be able to

schedule practice and course work compatibly. If we were going to be away as a club, there

were professors who gave you absolutely zero grace because you had no protection as a club,

whereas once we became official university athletes, your schedule was official and there

were ways to communicate with professors.”

Even with this new support, the team still had to watch budgets and where they put

their resources. “The first time that we went to a race there was still some things; we didn’t

have housing money. So, when we went to Head of the Rock in Rockford Illinois, which is

close to my parents’ house, we parked the boats in the front yards of people’s houses, and

everyone slept on my parents living room floor. We were still trying to find ways to cut

money, so we were still sleeping in church basements and on wrestling mats at universities.”

Boats were moved from the abandoned house to the bottom of the Laser building, which had

dirt floors at the time. “Because everything was wet and making mud we went and asked for

a whole heap of carpet remnants to cover as much of the dirt as possible.”

Although the women’s part of the club became an official sport and the men stayed as

a club, Ann says that there was nothing bitter about it. “The beautiful part was that never

once did one of those men not allow us to continue on and become a sport. We were all

rigging boats, we were all cleaning boats, we were all working together. It was never, ‘Oh let

me take care of this, I’m a man’. They believed that we were all together and a team. And so

when we became a sport and the men stayed as a club, we were really trying to look out for

how the men could benefit from this also. Those of us on the women’s team looked out for

ways that we could protect our men.”

One of my biggest takeaways from our conversation, was the community that these

young athletes had joined, not only locally, and how willing they were to be a part of it. “I

know this sounds so strange, but I could walk into any boathouse anywhere in the world, and

it would be a safe space for me. I had a school conference, and I was sent to the University of

Washington, and I visited their boathouse because I needed to just say hello. We were friends

with every team in the Midwest, and you would learn their names. You learned who those

women were, and I think that was one of the things that made our team Iowa. We talked to

everybody. We were out on the water waiting for races to start, and we look around at each

other laughing, somebody would start singing then everyone would join in singing. Those

were the moments where you were not only in it with your own women, but you were in it

together with those other teams. Our Iowa team was very kind and congenial. It was a little

community within a bigger one. We would trade shirts and jerseys as a way of meeting new


Ann saw a lot of change over her rowing career at the University of Iowa; starting as a

novice, continuing on to place 3 rd at nationals, and being invited to try out for the US national

team after winning a 10km erging competition. I (a novice rower myself in need of some

motivation) asked her what she would say to encourage athletes going through a rough patch.

“One day at a time. Rely on your teammates; use your teammates strength. I don’t want to

say that it's more about the journey, but truly for me, rowing has been a lifelong journey.

Rowing is not over, even though I started 32 years ago, it is something that is always there,

every day, in the habits that you create. Where sometimes the best thing is just showing up.

My students sometimes ask me, ‘Were you any good?’ and I just say, ‘Some days I was.’ I am

no longer at the age where I am going to be getting PRs, but it isn’t about that. It’s about the

journey and showing up and motivating those around you. The days that you don’t want to

show up, you have just got to show up and push through.” Through this piece of advice, Ann

captured the true essence of rowing. The team is the only way to move the boat, all together,

moving as one. There is no singular player. It is through the collective strength of leaning on

each other that boats move, races are won, and a community is solidified.

Before we wrapped up our time together, with a reminiscent chuckle, Ann shared with

me one of her favourite memories from her time at Iowa. “After we had rowed against some

big names in Wisconsin, the team went out for dinner. We all ended up standing up at the

exact time at the end of the meal, and everyone’s heads in the restaurant turned towards us

with faces saying, ‘Who are you?’. Being a tall female athlete there was this shared feeling

of, ‘Yeah, these are my people.’ That was my very first experience of realising that this was

powerful. This is a group of powerful women, and we were so proud of being able to do


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