The book: I Can Do Anything: Stories from the First 50 Years of Women’s Athletics at Princeton University (Prism Color Corp.) draws generously on the voices of Tiger alumnae to tell the story of women’s sports from the early years of coeducation to the present day. Jerry Price, a first-hand observer for more than half of that span, writes in the introduction that he didn’t want the book to be an encyclopedia, and it’s not — but the breadth of stories is encyclopedic.
Included in the 499-page illustrated volume are trailblazers such as tennis star Margie Gengler Smith ’73 and Olympic rowing medalist Carol Brown ’75; influential coaches and administrators, starting with Merrily Dean Baker h’75; mother-daughter pairs like hockey’s Amanda Hodgson Hompe ’83 and women’s lacrosse’s Olivia Hompe ’17 *21; veteran pro and Olympic athletes like women’s soccer’s Diana Matheson ’08 and rowing’s Gevvie Stone ’07; and scores of other notable women who left a lasting mark on the playing field. Each varsity program’s history receives a brief review in the back of the book. Price also debunks an oft-told story about one early benefactor of women’s athletics, the late Carl Otto von Kienbusch 1906, whose name graces the prize for Princeton’s top female athlete.
The author: Price, the historian and senior communications adviser for Princeton Athletics, has worked in athletic communications for the University since 1994. Before that, he covered sports for The Times of Trenton. He was honored for his contributions to collegiate athletics by the College Sports Information Directors of America in 2020. Price is also the author of a novel, With You, published in 2020.
The phone rings in California, and Amy Richlin ’73, Distinguished Professor of Classics at UCLA, answers. If anyone would know about that supposed meeting between Mr. von Kienbusch and the first Princeton women’s rowing captain, it would be Amy Richlin. She, after all, was the first women’s rowing captain.
“I only remember having to talk one person into coming around on women athletes at Princeton,” she laughs. “And it wasn’t C. Otto von Kienbusch.”
In fact, Amy Richlin was much more than the first women’s rowing captain. She was the force that brought women to Lake Carnegie in the first place.
Women’s rowing at Princeton has enjoyed incredible success through the decades. Princeton’s open rowers are one of three programs to have qualified for every NCAA championship meet since the event began in 1997, and the Tigers have won two first varsity 8 NCAA titles. As a team, Princeton finished in the top eight twenty times in the first twenty-three years of NCAA championships and in the top five ten times.
Princeton won ten Eastern Sprints titles from 1972 through 2011, when that event was replaced by the Ivy League women’s championship. From 2012 through 2019, Princeton won six Ivy titles.
The lightweight women won seven Eastern Sprints titles after that program debuted in 1998. Princeton also won six IRA national championships and added four more second-place finishes.
Beyond that, Princeton women’s rowing made its Olympic debut in 1976, when Carol Brown ’75 won a bronze medal in the women’s 8 and Mimi Kellogg ’76 led the women’s 4 with coxswain to a sixth-place finish. Through the 2021 Games Princeton’s women had made twenty-five Olympic appearances, winning a combined eight medals, including a pair of gold medals for Caroline Lind ’06 in 2008 and 2012 and silvers for Ann Marden ’81 in both 1984 and 1988. There were four Princeton women who rowed in the 2021 Olympic Games.
And that doesn’t even take into account the number of times Princeton’s coaches and staff worked at the Games. Today women’s rowing at Princeton has nearly 100 athletes between the two programs, giving it by far the largest roster for any women’s sport. This all started with Amy Richlin.
“I was short for a rower,” she says. “I remember running into the coxswain from Wisconsin at the Head of the Charles, and I had to look up at her.”
Amy Richlin grew up in Bergenfield, in North Jersey, about ten miles outside of Manhattan. She went to the local public school, which had never sent anyone to an Ivy League college. She was an only child and a first generation college student, her father having studied music before fighting in World War II and then working as a butcher to support his family.
Her town was very blue collar (“I thought prep schools were where kids who needed remedial work went”), and she grew up very involved in music and not at all involved in sports. When she left Bergenfield, she went to Smith College, the women’s college in western Massachusetts. She had seen rowing in a film the school had produced about campus life, and she was intrigued by it.
“Everyone had to do phys ed there,” she says. “I still have my gym outfit. It was a yellow tennis dress. You got to pick what you did for gym, and I remembered the film so I chose rowing. I’d rowed a little at scout camp. The rowing coach at Smith was named Rita Benson. She was an amazing woman. We had old equipment. The boats were very heavy.
The boathouse was old. That’s where I started rowing, and I fell in love with it.”
At the same time, Princeton was finishing its first year with women students. That year saw a male:female ratio of 16:1, and the University wanted to bring that up to 8:1 the next year. One way was to take transfers, and Amy Richlin jumped at the chance. Once she got to Princeton, now a member of the sophomore class, she wanted to continue to pursue her love of rowing — starting immediately.
“The very first thing on my first morning I went down to boathouse to look it over,” she says. “I was determined to row at Princeton, so I walked into the boathouse. I was just standing there looking around. Then Pete Sparhawk sees me.”
Pete Sparhawk spent twenty-three years as the head rowing coach at Princeton. A Cornell grad, he had been a member of the 1956 U.S. Olympic team, not to mention a captain in the United States Air Force. He could be intimidating.
“So he sees me,” Richlin says, “and he says ‘What are you doing here?’ I said I just arrived at Princeton and I’d like to row. And he said ‘no.’ And I said ‘no?’ And he said ‘No women in the boathouse. No women row here. Forget it.’ I asked if I could at least help out, work maybe. And he said no and threw me out.”
Richlin left the boathouse, and her earliest days at Princeton were spent in the choir and drawing for the humor magazine. Still, the love of rowing was strong, and the way that first meeting went nagged at her.
“I thought to myself that I wouldn’t just accept what he said,” Richlin says. “I made up some flyers, and I posted them. I said if there were women interested in rowing that they should contact me.”
A member of the men’s rowing team, Arthur Miller, who happened to be a sophomore also, saw the flyers and contacted her. He gave her some basic advice about how she might go about getting the answer she wanted. To this day, the two are still friends.
Her first Princeton boyfriend turned out to be a weightlifter. He introduced her to Dick Landis, who was then the weightlifting coach, a few decades before the term “strength and conditioning” was introduced. Landis introduced her to lifting weights, something she’d never done before. He also taught her how to organize better. She put together a group of a dozen or so women who wanted to row, and Landis put together a training program for them.
“There were men who asked us if we were afraid that we might get muscles,” she says. “That was the state of women’s athletics then.”
Eventually, Richlin set up a meeting with Sparhawk and Baker, as well as then Director of Athletics Royce Flippin and his deputy Sam Howell. As Baker recalls, she got the same line that Richlin had gotten from Sparhawk about how women would not row out of his boathouse, and she famously corrected him, saying that she wasn’t looking for his permission, only his help. Forced to include women, Sparhawk threw out an offer he thought would not be accepted.
“He said ‘Fine, the women can row at 6 a.m.,’” Richlin says. “I remember it clearly. He said we had to row at 6 a.m. because we’d be too much of a distraction to the men, that our perfume would come across the water. So I said ‘6 a.m.? Fine with me.’ And he turned beet red and said ‘shit’ right in front of all of us. Then he asked what he should call us, oarsmen? And I said ‘At Smith, Miss Benson always called us ladies.’”
And that’s how women’s rowing at Princeton was born. That first year Princeton’s women rowed at 6 a.m. under the watch of Jim Rathschmidt, who had volunteered his time to coach the team. Richlin did even more recruiting that fall, using a flyer included in a packet sent to incoming freshmen. Her flyer included the now-legendary words “You wouldn’t be at Princeton if you liked to do things the easy way.”
That fall there was an assembly for women interested in athletics. Richlin went to represent the women’s rowing program, and she brought with her an oar.
“It was twelve feet, six inches long,” she says. “Carol Brown said ‘There’s little Amy with a big oar.’ I made a rabble-rousing speech. That spring, my junior year of 1972, we won the Eastern championship. It was amazing to be part of that group of women.”
By then, they had a more normal practice time. And a new fan. Sparhawk had been up front about his opposition to women’s rowing, even going so far as to say in the Daily Princetonian that:
“It’s no secret that I’m not in favor of girls’ crew, particularly in the men’s boathouse. It’s been a man’s sport for a couple of hundred years, and in this country women’s crew is more of a gamey thing. It’s a pretty poor effort. To throw in a bunch of girls who might just play around is completely inconsistent with our professional atmosphere.”
There was a bit more to that quote, though. This is how it ended: “They’re shoving them [the coeds] down my throat. But I’ll be happy to have them down here if they’re interested in more than just having a lark.”
“Pete Sparhawk definitely came around,” Richlin says. “My senior year I was voted the most valuable oar. He was famous for making these Perfect Oars as awards, and he made one for me. It’s in my living room right now. It’s such a great life lesson. If you keep pushing, keep working hard enough, you can get what you want.”
Pete Sparhawk, by the way, stood next to Merrily Dean Baker on the side of the river when Brown won her Olympic medal in Montreal. According to Baker, Sparhawk was in tears as Brown and her teammates crossed the line.
When Richlin graduated, she had more than just a Sparhawk Oar. The Class of 1916 Cup is given to the senior athlete with the highest academic standing on graduation; Amy Richlin was the first woman ever to win the award.
After graduation she went to Yale to get her PhD, and she rowed for the Bulldogs during her first year there. It wasn’t the same for her. She went on to coach rowing at Choate Rosemary Hall and later at Lehigh University. Her one year at Lehigh was the last time she was ever in a boathouse, though she admits that “there are times I still dream about rowing. I still miss it so.”
She’s spent her adult life in California. She hasn’t come back for Reunions, but she treasures her time at Princeton. And it also prepared her for what she encountered as she pursued the field in which she has spent her professional life.
“I got to a place where my work was more important than rowing,” she says. “I threw myself into my research. And into women’s rights within my field. There were almost no women in my field when I started. It was just like the boathouse. Becoming a classicist turned out to be like joining the crew at
Princeton. It was a long, hard fight.”
Again, she was up to it.
Oh, and what about Mr. von Kienbusch?
“Did I ever meet Carl Otto von Kienbusch?” Amy Richlin asks with a mixture of laughter and bemusement. “I might have. Alums then were mysterious figures to us. I may have met him. It’s certainly possible.”
That’s okay. The truth about Mr. von Kienbusch is actually better than the legend. As for Amy Richlin?
She came to Princeton wanting to row and not willing to take no for an answer. Because of her, the door to the boathouse swung open for every Princeton woman who has followed her down a path toward what has become a national rowing powerhouse.
Now that’s the stuff of legends.
Reprint with permission from Jerry Price, published by Prism Color Corp. Copyright © Princeton University 2021.
“The women featured in this book, with all their amazing accomplishments, are such great representatives of all of the inspiring and incredible women who competed at Princeton in the first 50 years. Their stories hit home with me and spoke directly to my own experience as a Princeton woman athlete.” — Caroline Lind ’06, member of Princeton’s 2006 NCAA championship crew and a two-time Olympic gold medalist (2008 and 2012).