The best-laid schemes of mice, men and Olympic athletes often go awry these days, but Ginny Gilder, 26, has seen more than the usual number of snafus. She was a member of the U.S. Olympic rowing team that did not go to Moscow in 1980. She is a member of the 1984 squad in Los Angeles, but she won't get to meet the Soviets and the East Germans, the superpowers of women's rowing.
But worse than those disappointments for Gilder, the best single-sculler in the U.S. in 1983 (she won a bronze medal at the world championships in Duisberg, West Germany), was seeing the U.S. single-sculling spot at the Los Angeles Games slip from her grasp. Handicapped by a series of training injuries that began barely a month before May's Olympic trials, Gilder finished fifth in a field of six in the final. Overnight she was transformed from an individual star to a team player. While Carlie Geer, a Tufts University graduate student, becomes this year's single-sculler, Gilder and three other singles also-rans will form the Olympic quadruple sculls. For Gilder, however, the cloud of failure had a silver lining. Finally the pressure was off.
"Last summer when I was winning everything, I became the focus of a lot of attention," she says. "A lot of my energy this year has gone into defending myself, maintaining my position, and it's been a hard time. But, I know from experience that I'm a good force in a team boat. I'm so determined I help to unite people."
Determination of the highest order has been the hallmark of Gilder's rowing career. When she entered Yale in 1975, she was virtually a non-athlete—asthmatic and, at 5'7", too short to be a likely prospect for the women's crew. She had never been in a boat. But Gilder had decided to be a rower, and a rower she became.
Anne Warner, a lawyer in San Francisco, was a junior and the stroke of the Yale women's eights when Gilder was a freshman. Warner became her friend and something of a mentor, but she still remembers the freshman clearly. "She was a pain in the butt and a loudmouth, very blunt and frank." says Warner.
Both Warner and Chris Ernst, another Yalie, were on the Olympic crew in 1976. "So right from the beginning I had the awareness that the Olympics was a tangible goal," says Gilder.
In 1977, at the end of her sophomore year, Gilder began to aim for the national team. The team selectors, who were looking for rowers with potential to make the 1980 Olympic team, were unimpressed. Nat Case, the Yale coach and a prime selector for the '78 team, told Gilder he could not pick her because she was too small. "You can imagine what that did to me," says Gilder. "I was so hurt, so angry...."
Nevertheless, in '79 Gilder tried once more to make the team—and failed once again. At this point Richard Gilder, her father, stepped in. Gilder is a Yale graduate, a non-rower and a New York stockbroker. In the language of Wall Street, he suggested to his upset daughter that perhaps the market was trying to tell her something. "For two summers in a row," says Richard Gilder, "she was not picked for the team, so I said maybe she should accept it like a man. She, of course, decided instead to triple her efforts. I think she said to herself, 'I'll show those guys,' meaning Nat Case and me."
Against her father's advice she tried out for the 1980 Olympic team, and she made it, only to have the Carter boycott bring her rowing career to a temporary halt. And both Gilders had had enough. Says Ginny, "I decided it was time to find a job, and my father agreed with me."
So in September 1980, Ginny moved to Boston, put serious competitive rowing behind her, and looked for work in the degree-glutted Boston job market. Again, Gilder's determination worked major miracles. By February 1981, with a B.A. in history and no experience in any field, much less in computers, she had talked her way into a job in the technical support group of Management Decision Systems, a software company near Boston. After two years at that job, she plunged again, this time into the company's microdevelopment group. "I took a course at MIT for technical grounding that was very hard, and I was terrified that I'd fall flat on my face," she says. Of course, she didn't.
The other miracle was that while Gilder was stretching her intellect to its limits professionally, she was also, with the blessing of her employer, turning her body into a world-class sculling machine. Gilder rose every working day at 5:45, was on the water of the Charles by 6:30, arrived at her physical therapist's office by eight and reported to her job by nine. On winter afternoons she worked until 6 p.m., but in spring she left at 3:30 p.m. and returned to the Charles for a second workout.
The delicate physical and mental balance maintained by an athlete peaking for a major event is easily upset. Gilder's problems began in April, when John Van Blom, the Olympic coach, traveled from California to Boston for a weekend of singles races among 12 Eastern-based rowers. Gilder won each of her timed "pieces" easily. One week later she pulled an intercostal muscle and had to take a week off. The next time she raced was a week later, again in Boston, but this time she finished fifth, and Carlie Geer won. "It really shook me up," Gilder says. Soon after that. Gilder flew to California to work out in a series of short races against the Western contingent and again she lost, several times. "I was very depressed when I got home," she says. "I got trigger-point injections to break up the intercostals, and the next day I raced I beat everybody in practice. I won six out of seven pieces, but my attitude was lousy, and the next day, a Friday, I destroyed myself."
Saturday, because of overtraining, Gilder fractured a rib and couldn't lift her arm. "On Sunday and Monday I worked out, but by Monday afternoon I couldn't even paddle," she says. "And this was one week before I was to go to Long Beach for the trials." For a few days she paddled and worked hard on a bike machine, but her confidence was slipping. "I always want to be untouchable and I wasn't. When I lost the first heat of the trials I was hysterical, almost out of control. I thought. 'I'm not even going to make the team and I don't care.' "
That night Gilder called home. "My father answered and I said, 'Waaggh! I'm a failure!' I think way too much. I think, 'Is my father going to love me, are my coaches going to talk to me, is this person going to marry me if I don't do what I've said I'm going to do?' But in a way it was a relief to refocus on why I row. Then it became a challenge again. The next day, before the repechage I hurt too much even to stretch. On the water I was almost crying. I wanted to tell them. I can't row.' But, I had a good race."
Having won the repechage, a second chance for first-race losers. Gilder advanced to the semis. Halfway into that 1,000-meter race, however, she caught a buoy, and she and her fragile peapod of a boat flipped. The race officials, for reasons of their own, decided to restart the race, and Gilder had a second reprieve, which she turned into a third-place finish, good enough to advance to the finals.
But then Gilder's luck ran out. Or maybe her phenomenal supply of determination was exhausted. When Gilder and the other finalists returned to the Long Beach Marine Stadium. Gilder was prepared for her new role as team player. She hugged the winner. She hugged her father. She hugged her teammates. "The people who beat me have a lot of respect for me and are excited at the prospect of rowing with me in the squad," she says. "It's fun to row on a team boat. It's a whole new challenge."