Woo-hoo for Blue Crew! Wellesley Wins 2022 NCAA DIII Rowing National Championship

The crew team pose for a photo, throwing confetti strings and holding up their trophy.
Image credit: Mike Janes
Author  E.B. Bartels ’10
Published on 

While most of the class of 2022 gathered on campus May 27 to celebrate commencement, Olivia Gorman ’22, a studio art and women’s and gender studies double-major, and Katherine “KB” Ball ’22, an economics major and history minor, were in Sarasota, Fla., alongside 19 other members of Wellesley Blue Crew, at the 2022 NCAA Division III Rowing Championships. On Saturday, May 28, at Nathan Benderson Park, the Wellesley team won the 2022 NCAA Division III National Championship. This was the second time Blue Crew won the national title, and their first time winning since 2016.

Gorman and Ball had been hoping for this kind of commencement celebration for their entire Wellesley careers. Both started rowing for Wellesley as first-years—Gorman had rowed in high school, and Ball walked onto Wellesley’s novice team—and they went to the NCAA Championships during commencement weekend in 2019.

“I remember thinking, ‘Wow, the seniors must be so bummed to miss commencement,’” said Ball. But when head crew coach Tessa Spillane and the rest of the coaching staff put together a special mini-graduation ceremony to honor team members in the class of 2019, Ball changed their mind: “It seemed so nice to graduate that way.” During a team dinner, Spillane shared reflections about each of the graduating seniors. “It was really special and personalized, not just a handshake and 30 seconds on stage,” said Ball. Gorman felt the same way. “I never saw missing commencement as a loss,” she said. As soon as she saw that 2019 ceremony she knew “this is what I want, to be with people I love the most.”

Historically Wellesley crew has been strong, usually making it to the NCAA Championships each spring, but for a couple of years it seemed Gorman and Ball might not get to live out their dream. In spring 2020, just as the team was about to leave for spring training, COVID hit and everyone was sent home. “It was pretty devastating,” remembered Gorman. “We had been confident we could win the title that year.” There were no NCAA Championships in 2020; the team tried to stay connected by meeting for informal workouts on Zoom.

In fall 2020, the team could once again meet and train in person on campus, but they could only gather three times a week, they had to wear masks, and no more than four rowers could go out in a boat. Additionally, due to COVID, Wellesley decided not to participate in races in the 2020–2021 school year or the 2021 NCAA Championships. “We did the best we could,” said Gorman. The competitive spirit was lacking, she said, but that year she rediscovered her love of rowing, being out on beautiful Lake Waban with her teammates: “It was nice to row for the sake of rowing.”

But by fall 2021, the rowers were hungry for competition. Gorman and Ball were the only members of the team to have been to an NCAA Championship, and at times they worried about the team’s inexperience and lack of institutional knowledge. But “the joy of being all together again was wonderful,” said Gorman, and Ball said it was perhaps because their team was so young that they had such a drive to win. “There was just this excitement about everything being new,” said Ball. “The energy level was at a different place this year than it was in 2019. There was just this insane ferocity.”

Ball said usually rowers get faster and stronger as the season goes on, with races getting harder and more competitive, but right away, from their first weekend of races at Tufts this spring, all the teams were rowing at a level usually only seen toward the middle or end of the season. “It felt like something we had been looking forward to for so long,” said Ball. “I hadn’t realized how much we had missed it and wanted it.”

Gorman said much of what they worked on as a team this season was figuring out how to blend the supportive and encouraging feelings from their 2020–2021 COVID year with the competitive drive of a non-COVID year, but Blue Crew pulled it off with great success. In the end, the first and second boats on Wellesley’s team—with eight rowers and one coxswain each—plus two alternate rowers and one alternate coxswain headed to Sarasota. Both boats placed second in their individual races, but because of the NCAA scoring system, the Wellesley team ended up winning the entire championship. “It was a fitting way to win the national championship for us,” said Ball. “Neither boat could do it without the other. It’s reflective of how we are as a team, and why every single person on it matters.”

“I am so grateful to have had this opportunity,” said Gorman. “It was worth everything—waking up at 4:15 a.m., all the COVID precautions, everything—to get to the championship. I couldn’t have done it without my teammates.”

“People are always making sacrifices for crew,” said Ball, pointing to the early wake-up times and long practices. But this past year the team was especially all-in, opting out of events like the big athletics banquet and senior gala to make sure no one got COVID. “Having one or two people out of a boat for a weekend would have been a huge disadvantage,” said Ball. “And to see all our sacrifices come to fruition was really special, but especially so to win with people who were willing to sacrifice so much to keep you safe and keep the team’s dream alive. It speaks to who we are as a program. I love this team so much!”

And so, after the NCAA award ceremony, under a tent at Nathan Benderson Park, Gorman and Ball donned their caps and gowns and ate sandwiches and cake, celebrating their commencement with some of the people they love the most.